A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Updates from the Fronts of the Culture Wars in Egypt and Tunisia

Tunisia and Egypt, having thrown off long-ruling dictators and reshaped their political systems and elected new Parliaments, are (or at least some of the more vocal people are) continuing to devote a fair amount of time and energy to the really important issues. No, not the economy, or jobs, or poverty, but the really important issues like whether soccer is permitted in Islam, whether to ban bikinis, whether policemen can wear beards, whether to ban an MP from Parliament for something he said, and of course the eternal vigilance required to prevent widespread outbreaks of public nudity, so common in the Arab world.

Now, I try not to indulge the temptation (beloved of certain newspapers and many Arab secularists) of pouncing on every outrageous statement by some Salafi Islamist, what might be called the Crazy Sheikh/Crazy Fatwa of the week syndrome. Since Sunni Islam lacks a clerical hierarchy like that in Iranian Shi‘ism, almost anybody can grow a beard, call himself Sheikh and start issuing fatwas. (Say, I already have a beard ...) Usually no one pays attention except perhaps his immediate family: there are official bodies in most countries for issuing religious decisions. Al-Azhar in Egypt (and to some extent Zeitouna in Tunisia) have an authority based on antiquity, prestige, and custom, whereas most of the self-proclaimed Salafi spokesmen lack even a formal Islamic degree. Some have no followers, but the Daily Mail usually doesn't ask for their credentials if their statement is outrageous enough.

For example, late last year there was a report going around that I never quoted: a sheikh had supposedly ruled that women should not eat or cook with bananas or zucchini because the phallic shape of the fruit or vegetable might give them ideas. It was so outrageous that it was hard not to report it, but my alarm bells went off: the story not only did not identify the sheikh; it simply said he was in "a European country." So an unnamed sheikh, in some unidentified country in Europe (France? Denmark? Kosovo? Bosnia?) makes an utterly outlandish statement which gets quoted all over the place without any sourcing? That's why I stayed away from it.

But then,there are the statements made by Islamists whose opinions, whatever their religious credentials or lack thereof, are enhanced by being elected to the Egyptian or Tunisian Parliament. Or, like the frequently quoted Egyptian Salafi ‘Abd al-Mun‘em al-Shahat, defeated in his run for Parliament. (But that hasn't shut him up.) Besides being one of the loudest advocates for banning bikinis and alcohol and covering Pharaonic monuments in wax, Shahat has denounced the novels of Naguib Mahfouz as promoting sex and drugs, and after the Port Said disaster announced that professional soccer is contrary to Islam. (Good luck with that one. It's going to be hard to sell to the Qataris, Wahhabi though they may be in background, as they gear up to host the World Cup.)

Shahat's latest venture is particularly sinister. since he has said that Baha'is have no rights, but I'm not really posting about Shahat, who is a marginal figure, but about some of the more prominent moves by those with some official function or who can actually effect changes in policy. Nor are these incidents all in one direction: some show a backlash against the growing Islamist wave. I've previously posted about the controversies that might affect tourism (the "booze and bikinis" debate) (also here),
Photo From Bikya Masr
but the whole question of social practices and public mores is increasingly engaging Islamists and secularists in both Egypt and Tunisia. Tunisia, with its tradition of secularism, women's rights, and Westernization going back to the Bourguiba era, is seeing more and more culture-wars sort of incidents, though Egypt remains the front line.

This represents a gathering of the culture war skirmishes in both countries over the past couple of weeks. Controversies over hijab and niqab also continue to recur, but these are new:

1. Egypt: Should Policemen be Allowed to Grow Beards?

Not every item in this list is a case of Islamists pressing for new strictures: some relates to the opposite reaction of resistance to Islamist pressures. In Egypt, where for decades under Husni Mubarak when an Egyptian police officer thought "beard," the word that came to mind was "suspect," some policemen are agitating for the right to grow beards.  At least one policeman has been suspended.  And of course, there's now a Facebook group called "I Am a Bearded Police Officer."  (UPDATE: the actual Facebook page (in Arabic) is here.) The Interior Minister, however, is having none of it, and reportedly has threatened to try those who grow them. Some Salafi politicians have denounced the rule, but others have actually said they would respect the rules, feeling they don't need a fight with the police and the Interior Minister over a mainly symbolic issue. Most Egyptian Islamists have some experience of taking on the police and the Interior Ministry, much of it involving incarceration. There are other reports of backlash against Islamist pressures in more unofficial ways; a beard can still keep you from getting certain jobs, and reports like this one suggest that some elite restaurants are turning away women customers wearing hijab.

2. Egypt and Tunisia: Mixed Signals on Internet Filtering

In Egypt, a Salafi Al-Nour Party MP has called for a ban on pornographic sites on the Internet. Since there is little evidence that Egyptian servers are hosting such sites, this would mean filtering access to the Internet. As the article notes, there may be a real issue here:
In 2011, Egypt landed in the number five spot globally in searching for “sex” online, joined by Algeria and Morocco also in the top 10, according to Google trends. Arabic language is used second only to English as the language of search choice for adult content online.
Which may say something about the society, but it's also noted that a 2009 attempt to do the same led to the Ministry responding that it was up to the individual user. And of course, many countries that filter the Internet (China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc.) nobly announce they are blocking porn and then block a lot of sites using dirty words like "democracy" and "human rights" along the way. We'll see where this one goes. Of course, whether filtering pornography is the single greatest issue in Egypt today (as opposed to bearded policemen, the movie industry, women not wearing hijab, or even, say, the collapsed economy) is another matter.

In Tunisia, on the other hand, the wind may be blowing in a different direction. A ruling last year after the Revolution ordered the filtering of pornographic websites and was upheld by the Court of Appeals. But now that verdict has been quashed by the Court of Cassation, though instead of overturning it outright, the Court sent the case back to the Appeals Court.

3. Memo to Egyptian MPs: Watch Out for  Folksy Sayings, They Can Get You in Trouble
Meanwhile in Egypt, a young, liberal Member of the new Parliament, Ziad Eleimy, has gotten himself into some trouble over a folk saying he quoted. Eleimy, a member of the small Social Democratic Party, gave a speech in Port Said in which he was addressing the blame for the recent Port Said football massacre. Like many others, he blames not just the perpetrators but the absence of security forces and, by extension, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).  That may be unfair, but he's hardly the only one holding that opinion. He quoted an Egyptian folk saying which conveys the idea of blaming underlings while letting the real culprits go. Unfortunately the saying is, "we let the donkey get away while holding on to the saddle" (نترك الحمار ونمسك بالبردعة). Nice and folksy, the sort of thing politicians say, right?

Well, maybe not. Speaker Sa‘d al-Katatny and others immediately accused Eleimy of calling Field Marshal Tantawi a donkey. Soon Parliament was investigating him, "hundreds" of lawsuits were being filed, and while SCAF said it won't take legal action, Parliament has rejected Eleimy's explanation that he didn't mean to call Tantawi a donkey but had merely been quoting a well-known proverb. And of course, liberal demonstrators are rallying to his side.

He was also criticized for comments he made on a Salafi sheikh, but he has already apologized in person for that. 

We are seeing, however, as we have before, what the Internet has dubbed as the Streisand Effect: by making a fuss about something, you call far more attention to something that might otherwise have been overlooked entirely. He probably didn't mean to call Tantawi a donkey, but if you search for himar in Arabic script now,you'll find cartoons, comments, and YouTube videos that aren't so subtle.  Himar isn't even that strong an insult; it's the sort of thing Egyptians shout at each other every day in street disputes, and a little time on Twitter can find Egyptians calling the Field Marshal much worse (though they aren't Members of Parliament). [UPDATE: In addition to Al-Sha‘b yurid Isqat al-Mushir — "The People Want the Fall of the Field Marshal" — there is now, inevitably, Al-Sha‘b yurid Isqat al-Himar.]

4. Tunisia: Reprinting a Picture Can Land a Publisher in Jail, and Not for Infringing Copyright

The censorship issue usually leads to seizures of publications or even their closure; it is much rarer for it to lead to the imprisonment of the Publisher. But in usually liberal Tunisia, the latest of several controversies has produced exactly that result. The Publisher of Al-Tounissia, a post-revolutionary newspaper that began online but has now begun print publication, and two of his editors were arrested; the staffers were freed but Publisher Nasreddine Ben Said is still in prison and staging a hunger strike. [UPDATE: He was released today.] His crime? Reprinting a picture from a European magazine. The charge was not copyright infringement but offending public morals.

The picture he ran was taken from the cover of the March issue of the German edition of GQ magazine, and shows Tunisian-German soccer star Sami Khedira posing with his blonde German model girlfriend. Al-Tounissia's front page and the GQ cover are both reproduced at left. In fact, the Arabic headline reads, "Photos of Player Sami Khedira Cause a Stir in Spain." ("Player," indeed, but they mean soccer player: he plays for Real Madrid.) As you can see from both photos at left, he is wearing a tuxedo; she is wearing only his right hand. It's a suggestive, teasing cover fairly standard for a European fashion mag cover, but not so for a Tunisian newspaper, though European magazines with similar covers do circulate in Tunisia. As with some other recent controversies, calling this a "nude" cover (as some headlines have) may not be quite accurate, since her chest is concealed (apparently quite securely), but in some ways the positioning of the hand makes it even more suggestive.

But the issue, of course, is that the picture appeared at all, though some advertisements and foreign publications in Tunisia, not to mention satellite television from Europe, are far more daring. Nor was GQ claiming copyright infringement. The released Editors said they were reporting a news story about a Tunisian celebrity. I'm convinced it was purely the news value that motivated them, and that the fact that said Tunisian celebrity happened to be posing with his hand on the breasts of a naked blonde model had nothing to do with it. (Not that I've got any problems with that.)

Again if the newspaper had been seized or banned there would have been a minor kerfuffle among free speech advocates; it was the jailing of the Publisher that has provoked outrage. And as usual in these cases, the Streisand effect (see above) has also guaranteed the reproduction of the offending photo on websites and news outlets throughout the Arab world (not all showing the whole thing of course). I'm sure far more people have seen the photo (including you, dear reader) than if the prosecutor had looked the other way or just ordered the issue pulped.

On the positive side, though the Ministry of Justice is prosecuting the case, the Minister of Human Rights and Transitional Justice has openly criticized the decision to jail journalists rather than sanction the paper, and even the country's best-known Islamist, Rached Ghannouchi, founder of the Al-Nahda Party, has said he opposed the arrest. (He's not defending the picture, but criticizing jailing a journalist.)

I don't know if there is any single lesson to be derived from all this, except that the whole issue of what is and what is not permissible in the public sphere is being debated and that there are likely to be more such controversies.

1 comment:

David Mack said...

When Edouard Degas painted his famous "Le dejeuner sur les herbes" in the late 19th century it shocked Parisian society. Something about a fully dressed man and a nude woman that causes outrage. And this was a century after the political turmoil of the French revolution.