FaithWorld

Film champions liberalism in conservative Egypt

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The great Giza pyramids and the Sphinx on March 27, 2010/Amr Abdallah Dals

A new film exploring issues of sexual freedom, polygamy and individuality has drawn media praise in Egypt, but its liberal message remains on the margins in the country’s conservative society. The appearance of Rasayel El Bahr, or Messages from the Sea, in Egyptian theatres is the latest indication of an easing of censorship rules, which film critics say reflects government efforts to counter Islamism.

The film’s themes are striking in a country where the streets are dominated by the Islamic headscarf and where, analysts say, the state is battling against the rise of stricter versions of Islam emanating from Gulf states like Saudi Arabia.

In director Daoud Abdel Sayed’s story, Yehya, a young doctor who moves to coastal Alexandria and slowly shakes free of social norms, falls in love with Nora, who leads him to believe she is a prostitute. Viewers learn that Nora, as the second wife in a polygamous marriage, just sees herself this way. Polygamy is permitted in Egypt under Islamic sharia law.

Read the full story by Shaimaa Fayed here.

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Al-Azhar leader Sheikh Tantawi dies in Saudi Arabia

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Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi in Cairo September 16, 2006/Nasser Nuri

Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, who as the head of Egypt’s most prestigious seat of Islamic learning al-Azhar was Sunni Islam’s top authority, died of a heart attack on Wednesday on a visit to Saudi Arabia, religious officials at al-Azhar said. He was 81.

Mohamed Wasel, Tantawi’s deputy, will temporarily take charge of the Sunni Muslim institution until Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak appoints a new head. Wasel has been heading al-Azhar’s committee for inter-faith dialogue.

Al-Azhar, which runs schools, universities and other educational institutions across Egypt and sends scholars to teach in countries across the Muslim world, receives most of its funding from the state.

Muslim Brotherhood to Egypt: Don’t squeeze out moderates

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Mohamed Badie in an interview with Reuters in Cairo, 26 Jan/Asmaa Waguih

The new leader of the Muslim Brotherhood has said that  government efforts to squeeze Egypt’s biggest opposition group out of politics would only spur on “deviant” and potentially violent Islamic movements.  Mohamed Badie, 66, told Marwa Awad and Edmund Blair of the Reuters Cairo bureau the group would campaign in this year’s parliamentary election, but a state crackdown would likely prevent a repeat of its success in 2005 when it secured a fifth of the seats.

“The Muslim Brotherhood, which carries the banner of moderate Islam, must be given the chance to teach Egyptian society to benefit the nation and its people,” said Badie, picked as the group’s new leader this month.  “When we were prevented from playing the role of spreading moderate Islam, thorns sprouted in Egypt’s soil and so did terrorism,” he said, adding he rejected “deviant and ‘takfiri’ ideology”, referring to groups that declared people infidels.

Read the whole story here.

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Shooting at Coptic Christmas highlights Egypt’s sectarian tensions

Nagaa Hamady

Ramadan decorations and a Coptic Orthodox church cross in Nagaa Hamady, 9 Jan 2010/Asmaa Waguih

Church towers standing in the shadow of mosques symbolise how Christians in the southern town of Nagaa Hamady feel about their relationship with Egypt’s Muslim majority that turned violent this month.

The government said the shooting of six Christians on the eve of Coptic Christmas on Jan. 7 was an isolated case, using its stock phrase for the latest act of sectarian violence. Such killings are rare, but many Christians who make up some 10 percent of Egypt’s 78 million people feel they do not get equal treatment and complain the government is not doing more to quash sectarianism for fear of Islamist reprisals.

Q+A-The Muslim Brotherhood’s influence on Egyptian politics

badeea Mohamed Badeea at news conference in Cairo 16 Jan 2010/Asmaa Waguih

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the world’s oldest Islamist political group, has named a conservative as its new leader, suggesting that the country’s biggest opposition group may lower its political profile and focus on a social agenda.

Mohamed Badeea’s appointment on Saturday followed a heated debate between conservatives wary of stepping up political activities that have already triggered repression from the state and many from a younger generation seeking more political activism.

The Brotherhood, which seeks to introduce Islamic rule by democratic means, is officially banned but grudgingly tolerated by the state, and took about a fifth of the seats in parliament in 2005 by fielding candidates as independents.

Egypt Christian group seeks to change Muslim status

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Egyptian Copts pray in a Cairo church , 21 April 2006/Goran Tomasevic

Ayman Raafa, an Egyptian born a Christian, was nine months old when the father he never knew converted to Islam. Now 23, Raafa is fighting to get the Christian faith he professes recognised by the state and registered on his identity documents vital to daily life.

Raafa was raised a Christian but the state says children automatically become Muslim on a father’s conversion, a policy that places dozens of people in limbo in a society that does not — in practice — recognise conversion away from Islam.  He is one of a group of 40 facing the same identity conundrum and now filing a lawsuit to have their Christian faith recognised, touching a raw spot in relations between Muslims and 10 percent of Egypt’s 77 million people who are Christian.

“I graduated last year and I cannot get a job because I do not have a national ID,” Raafa said at his lawyer’s office, near a well-known Coptic Christian church and hospital in Cairo.

IAEA’s ElBaradei bows out with prayer of St. Francis

elbaradei (Photo: ElBaradei addresses IAEA board of governors, 27 Nov 2009/Herwig Prammer)

Mohamed ElBaradei, a Muslim from Egypt, has finished his 12-year term as director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) quoting one of Christianity’s most popular prayers. In a short meeting at IAEA headquarters in Vienna on Friday, the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize laureate said that “the moment of departure is an opportunity to reflect upon a journey of joy, challenges, pleasure and fulfilment.” At the end of his career at the IAEA, which began in 1984 as a legal adviser, the world was “finally returning to its senses. People are speaking of a world free of nuclear weapons, of one human family and of a world that lifts people out of poverty.”

He ended his final remarks to the Board of Governors by reading out a short version of the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi:

Lord make me an instrument of your peace:
Where there is hatred let me sow love
Where there is error let me sow truth
Where there is discord let me sow unity
Where there is despair let me sow hope
For it is in giving that we receive.

Amid the prayers, some haj pilgrims talk football

mecca-mosqueThe haj is supposed to be a spiritual highlight in a Muslim’s life, but everyday issues can sometimes intrude. In between prayers and visits to various sites, pilgrims often discuss all kinds of current issues. Among Algerians and Egyptians on the haj here this year, the buzz is about the public row sparked by a soccer game to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. Algeria won that match 1-0. (Photo: Haj pilgrims at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, 24 Nov 2009/Caren Firouz)

The football rivalry has caused considerable bad blood between the two countries. Egypt has recalled its ambassador from Algiers after the play-off, accusing Algerian fans of post-match thuggery at the game’s venue in Khartoum. Egypt had earlier complained when Algerian fans trashed the Algiers headquarters of Egypt-based Orascom Telecom’s Djezzy mobile subsidiary. Before that, Algeria was irked after Egyptian fans pelted the Algerian team’s bus with stones and some fans were hurt in scuffles on game-day in the first round of the qualifier in Cairo.

“We are brothers … This should have never happened and I blame the media in the two countries for instigating ill feelings among the most foolish of us,” said Khaled Salam Abdallah from Cairo.

Muslim creationism is back in the news, this time in Egypt

darwinm-portraitMuslim creationism is back in the news. There’s been a spate of articles in the U.S. and British press recently about the spread of this scripture-based challenge to Darwinian evolution among Muslims, mostly in the Middle East but also in Europe. The fact that some Muslims have embraced creationism, a trademark belief of some conservative American Protestants, is not new. Reuters first wrote about it in 2006 — “Creation vs. Darwin takes Muslim twist in Turkey” – and this blog has run several posts on the issue, including an interview with Islam’s most prominent creationist, Harun Yahya. What’s new is that these ideas seem to be spreading and academics who defend evolution are holding conferences to discuss the phenomenon. (Photo: Portrait of Charles Darwin, 12 Feb 2009/Gordon Jack)

There are too many recent articles about Islamic creationism out there now to discuss each one separately, so I’ll have to just link to them in the … New York TimesWashington PostBoston GlobeSlateGuardianNational Beliefnet … … Many of these articles highlight the role of Harun Yahya, the once secretive Istanbul preacher and publisher who has gone on a PR offensive in recent years and turned very media-friendly (as Steve Paulson describes in that Slate article). But as Michael Reiss, a London education professor and Anglican priest told the Guardian, “what the Turks believe today is what the Germans and British believe tomorrow. It is because of the mass movement of people between countries. These things can no longer be thought of as occurring in other countries.”

Harun Yahya, 21 May 2008/Osman Orsal (Photo: Harun Yahya, 21 May 2008/Osman Orsal)

Over the weekend, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria, Egypt hosted a conference on “Darwin’s Living Legacy: An International Conference on Evolution and Society” with the British Council. The simple fact of holding a conference on Darwin in the heart of the Middle East, where his theory of evolution is widely rejected, is already noteworthy. According to the Guardian‘s Riazat Butt, Nidhal Guessoum, professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah, told the conference that only three Muslim or Muslim-majority countries out of a possible 22 taught evolution. Another participant, astronomer Salman Hameed, who is professor of integrated science & humanities from Hampshire College in Massachusetts, wrote on his informative science-and-religion blog Irtiqa: “It is incredible that this conference is taking place in Egypt. I don’t know what will be the reaction here. Simply by its location, it may remove some of the stigma regarding evolution in the Muslim world, or it may end up generating a backlash. Frankly, I have no idea about the reaction.”

Saudi film festival cancelled in setback for reformers

saudi-film-festival1Saudi Arabia’s only film festival has been cancelled, dealing a blow to reformist hopes of an easing of clerical control over culture that had been raised by the low-key return of cinemas in December.  In a country where movie theatres had been banned for almost three decades, the annual Jeddah Film Festival — started in 2006 — presents aspiring Saudi film makers and actors with a rare opportunity to mingle with more experienced peers from other countries. (Photo: Jeddah Mayor Adel Fakieh speaks at Jeddah film festival, 18 July 2007/Susan Baaghil)

But the Jeddah governorate informed festival organisers late on Friday, just before its planned opening on Saturday,  that this year’s festival was cancelled “after it received instructions from official parties. We were not told why,” said Mamdouh Salem, one of its organisers.

Many religious conservatives in the kingdom believe films from more liberal Arab countries such as Egypt could violate religious taboos. Some also view cinema and acting, as a form of dissembling, as inconsistent with Islam.