After the People Cried for Change
Have the events of February 11, 2011, constituted a shock or a fulfilled dream for intellectuals? Were they ready for what happened that day? To a great degree, the pressures and impediments restricting their discourse have vanished, and the scene is ready to receive new blood. Unfortunately, however, what the Hosni Mubarak state had done over the previous three decades left intellectuals no sufficient power or energy to confidently move into the scene, and this rendered their faltering in the face of the multifarious “violent” discourses and movements quite understandable. Thus, the intellectuals find themselves exposed to a severe attack by groups that understood their fragility, and in turn followed up with successive accusations, reaching a level of criticism and detraction. In the end, the tone of degradation prevailed. Subsequently, the intellectuals only found refuge in attempts to organize small protest gatherings, which were totally ineffective. Moreover, the intellectuals’ dialectical discursive practices could not attract the attention of a populace that was fed up with a vague vocabulary and “arrogant” discourse. More attractive was the clear and simple right-wing discourse that was “defending” Islam, and the intellectual could not compete. Briefly, intellectuals were equally confused and shocked. They wanted to “purge” the cultural institutions (a term that at the end simply meant a change in leadership), they were threatened by radical Islamists, they were trying to carve their own space in the constituencies of decision making, and they were busy defending and presenting their views to the media. Unfortunately, it was only the final task that they could do successfully.
On the other side, the political scene was transforming rapidly, and the extreme fluidity never allowed intellectuals any time to reach a minimal degree of agreement on any of their urgent concerns. Whether to cooperate with cultural institutions, whether to agree on a single statement, whether to accept the transitional rule of the military, and whether to run for the elections as one bloc remained contested issues. Amid these hesitations and petty power conflicts, the Freedom and Justice Party (fjp), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, declared its program in which culture won a full section. It is impossible not to notice that religious preferentiality generally controls the party program, especially in the most controversial areas, like tourism, culture, and family, even if the discourse in form reflects the contrary.
In the beginning of the section addressing culture and art, the program clearly reflects the party’s vision as follows:
Culture relates to religion in an undeniable manner, and Egyptian culture is
formed in its totality on the basis of Islamic identity, without exclusion or negligence of cultures that contributed during a historical stage, and that “still does,” to the formation of the community, with its distinctive features, like the ancient Egyptian and Christian cultures. Islamic civilization has also constituted a framework for the unity of the nation that allows plurality and preserves internal diversity and multiplicity of creeds. Hence, there is no room for cultural conflict; but rather acculturation, interaction and blending of cultures.
The Egyptian culture, with its foregoing features, also represents an invincible fortification against the means of destructive intellectual invasion and the wiles of cunning assimilation by western cultures that corrupt, and reform not, and that contribute to the dilution of Arab and Egyptian national affiliation. Our culture, with its originality and flexibility, can extract from incoming cultures that which complies with it and contributes to the renaissance of the nation. It can also develop the legacy of predecessors through re-reading and modernizing it.6
This excerpt proposes religious preferentiality as a culture-delimiting framework. And though it firmly denies the existence of a “cultural conflict” at the local level, it confirms manifest hostility toward the global, which embodies the attributes of the invader who aims at diluting belongingness. Whatever comes from outside Islamic religious preferentiality is thus discarded, being representative of “western cultures that corrupt, and reform not.” In the words of Amin Maalouf, these are “deadly identities”7 (if fanatics of all kinds manage so easily to pass themselves off as defenders of identity, it is because the “tribal” concept of identity, which is still prevalent all over the world, facilitates such a distortion). This rejects acculturation and in the meantime endorses it in its discourse; such a principle basically undermines the concept of art.
The problematic issue is clearly manifested when different cultural and ideological discourses clash with religious discourse; even before a genuine ideological clash occurs, it seems as if there is one discourse advocating Islam and another opposing it. Polarization gradually emerged between a liberal discourse calling for openness toward others cultures and a conservative right-wing religious discourse calling for a cultural enclosure with the purpose of preserving identity. Following the logic of this dichotomy, the liberal discourse is charged with betrayal of the nation’s culture, while the religious discourse suggests that it seeks to preserve it. Such a problematic issue is not new, and these fixed classifications are not surprising, considering the populace’s relation to intellectuals, in particular, as well as to culture in general, prior to the January 25 revolution.
Upon considering the details of the Fjp’s cultural preferentiality, what is striking is that it presupposes the unity and homogeneity of Egyptian culture, as the cultures preceding “Islamic civilization” are acknowledged by way of accumulation and cross-fertilization, while diversity in cultural practice as a current fact is an unpropounded supposition. This imagined homogeneous culture is not only deadly for the talent, diversity, and richness expected from any culture, but also a suppressive instrument for all, especially when the discourse broaches “the means of destructive intellectual invasion and the wiles of cunning assimilation by western cultures that corrupt, and reform not.”
The problem with these criteria is that they are loose enough to allow branding whatever is dissimilar to such partisan politics as a destructive invasion. It is impossible, in a world that communicates from the Far East to the West through modern means, to determine the form of “invasion” or to indicate the “authentic” local. It is no longer possible to make such arbitrary separations, though it is possible to consciously integrate the local and the global in order to produce new artistic forms that preserve originality and engage with the global until it turns into resistant forms. This is manifested in most of the artistic forms that crystallized in Tah- rir Square during the massive (eighteen-day) sit-in and after. It was not an ideological conflict between a secular camp and a religious one, as was imagined and depicted by some (including the media, which intensifies the polarization), but rather was, and has always been, a conflict between the local and the global.
Such conflict has roots in all fields, though it primarily presents itself in the cultural field. In his famous book Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, Arjun Appadurai illustrates how multimedia projects recycle images in a way that creates an important role for the imagination.8 Here, imagination does not mean the adoption of myths or immersion in rituals detached from reality. Similarly, it is not the imagination that constitutes a mere reaction to the certainty of reality. Rather, it is the imagination that establishes new social projects and transforms the fixity of place into a momentum that drives large groups to improvise mechanisms of alliance and resistance. Therefore, when imagination acquires a collective nature, it becomes able to stimulate action. (How did the revolutions break out in the Arab region, for instance?) In other words, this imagination, which is derived from and based on images, builds up a joint community of visions, sentiments, actions, and objectives. Paradoxically enough, while non- Islamists (the term liberal is a misnomer) formed their own “imagined” community, Islamists did the same. Each camp adhered to a specific “imagined com- munity.”9 But while non-Islamists exhibited their convictions discursively, Islamists managed to recruit and convince the populace materially.
In this conflict, the idea of freedom of opinion and expression occupies a considerable space, though we must recognize that the controversy over it was never in the interest of the freethinker and intellectual. It can be recalled that the crisis over Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses has become a symbol for, and an indicator of, the conflict between Tehran and the West.10 Likewise, it cannot be forgotten that several crises were raised in the former parliament and its predecessor around movies, novels, and poems.11 Most importantly, one should never attribute this to religious trends alone, since censorship of creative works, and sometimes confiscation of them, receives the support of the press and the populace on the grounds of art’s connection to interest and morals. Moreover, if this raised controversies and arguments in the past, it has now turned into a partisan item, for in the section titled “Some aspects of the cultural life,” the Fjp’s program stresses the following:
The affirmative-emendatory statement is repeated, as the freedom of creativity is established; yet the creative act is a mirror for “the ethical, moral aspect.” As for authoritarian censorship, it would be replaced with self-censorship, which is harsher and more arduous that authoritarian censorship. Therefore, the objective is that the community embraces equality between the creative act and the moral act, and then reproduces these visions without any authoritarian institutional interference. Hence, the mechanisms of extending the domination of the religious discourse are manifested, being focused on exporting the idea that it is necessary for the creative work to have a worldly interest and moral grounds, in a community suffering economic crises. In short, all the Mubarak censorship returned, cloaked this time in a religious tone. This does not mean that nothing had changed; on the contrary, there was a radical change in the interplay of power relations and political actors, and in the position of intellectuals vis-a-vis the rule of the military—the last resort at the time.
While the conflict between intellectuals and the various Islamic factions lacked equity, the intellectuals, who had always been protected and patronized by the Mubarak regime, were not willing to accept the fact that the world they had always known was gone. True, the attack on intellectuals, their discourse and practices, their writings, and their trajectories was escalating, and, I would add, it was frightening since it involved attacks on the intellectuals’ personal safety. However, that situation required not only new strategies and practices, but also an autonomous vision that would allow the initiation of a “new” world. The lack of equity, along with the absence of the will to sacrifice, to confront, to lose, and, most importantly, to support the revolutionary discourse and practices of the rising generation, led intellectuals to seek protection in the bosom of the state that they have always known, and whose restraints they have long dreamed of dismantling.
By the beginning of 2012, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmad al-Tayeb, invited most of the cultural and political actors (non-Islamists) to draft a public freedoms document. Following the approval of all participants, the document was issued, and it included four key items: freedom of faith, freedom of scientific research, freedom of opinion and expression, and freedom of artistic creativity. In the beginning, the document stressed that attainment of these items requires “ceaseless effort where enlightened religious discourse would interweave with rational cultural discourse.”12 Thus, initially, the obstacle was clearly in the linking of the religious discourse to its cultural counterpart in a relation marked by rivalry, since the religious ranks high and assumes the role of trusteeship. Likewise, it is impossible to link both while maintaining the peculiarities and premises of each. This is because the religious departs from fixed preferentialities, while creativity seeks to plunge into other worlds that are completely different. Miraculously, all those who participated in drafting the document somehow forgot that it was the Al-Azhar institution that has always issued fatwas against works of art.
The entire course of the transitional phase has demonstrated the difficulty for the cultural community to reach an agreement on such objectives, as intellectuals never faced the “real” responsibility of attaining them. The defining moment comes when the question long avoided is raised: Which shall prevail, the religious or the cultural? Accordingly, what the document proposes has already received much public interest, though it stumbled at articulating artistic and creative exception. The document calls for freedom, yet it does so only to a certain extent, and for free thinking, yet within certain boundaries. It also encourages creativity, provided that it does not conflict with the ethics of the community in general.
Shortly thereafter, it became clear that all written documents do not offer genuine guarantees of creativity. It seems that this was not the concern of intellectuals. Their problem revolved around who was producing the discourse and setting the rules. There is not much difference between the Fjp’s rhetoric and that of Al-Azhar. The core is similar: art is secondary to society and public opinion, and the definition of culture is tied to other discourses. When the Egyptian Creativity Front organized a march in January 2012, no new discourse was heard. The front submitted recommendations that they drafted regarding freedom of creativity to parliament. It is noticeable that the fourth term of the document took Al-Azhar’s document into account as a common ground. Generally, the front received a quasi-consensus, which allowed it to make alliances that could counter persistent attacks on art and creativity.
Hence the “cultural” did not pursue full independence from religious institutions, as the Azharite legitimacy kept granting it a sense of security. Besides, the intellectuals did not want to face the hard-line religious groups without any “legitimate” cover, so they did not build up an independent preferentiality. The whole cultural situation was going back to square one. Yet, a new discourse was in the making. Then, at the threshold of the presidential elections, the Egyptian scene plunged into severe division between the rigid and conflicting binaries. In his discussion of German society in the 1970s in his book The Neoconservatives, Peter Steinfels notes that division—as a mechanism for dominance—was imposed by the right-wing discourse. “The struggle takes the form of exposing every manifestation of what could be considered an oppositionist mentality and tracing its ‘logic,’ so as to link it to various forms of extremism,”13 he states.