Building the New Egypt: Islamic Televangelists, Revolutionary Ethics and ‘Productive’ Citizenship

Abridged version from the AAA panel, “Revolution in the Middle East and North Africa: Anthropological Perspectives”

Appearing on state television after the fall of Mubarak for the first time in his career, the famous Egyptian Islamic televangelist Amr Khaled told the program host that he had seen God in Tahrir.  “I saw God in Tahrir,” he said. “When you entered Tahrir Square you immediately noticed a different spirit. It is as if God was with the people there – Muslim and Christian, young and old, men and women, the people and the army.”  For al-duah al-gudud – as the Islamic televangelists Amr Khaled, Mustafa Hosni and Moez Masoud are known in Arabic – and their followers, the revolution of January 25th is first and foremost an ethical revolution. They frame Tahrir Square as an exemplar of a “New Egypt,” a utopian space where free expression, social equality, gender parity, religious harmony and an overall sense of order and organization reigned for 18 days.

Al-duah al-gudud, or “the new preachers,” are arguably the most well-known Islamic public figures today in Egypt and beyond. Prior to the January 25th revolution, they were characterized as offering Muslim youth a “post-Islamist” religious discourse that was apolitical, with one academic observer calling it an “air-conditioned Islam” (Haenni 2005) far from the everyday realities of the vast majority of Egyptians struggling with poverty, social injustice and political disenfranchisement.

For the past 18 months, I have been conducting fieldwork with both producers and viewers of Islamic televangelist programming. Since the revolution, viewers have looked to televangelist discourses for cues about how to think about politics, religion, citizenship and national belonging during what all have experienced as a most volatile time. Akhlaaq, or ethics, emerges here as a key site for constructing normative notions of citizenship and civic participation in a way that privileges the idea of “productivity” (intaag) as essential to the constitution of the New Egypt. Within such discourse, the formation of a proper religious interiority becomes central to the project of national systemic reform. 

Since the fall of Mubarak, the revolutionary ethics signified by Tahrir have been subsumed by televangelists in Egypt within a broader religious narrative of personal redemption. For example, Moez Masoud’s first television show after the revolution – airing during Ramadan 2011 – was called “Thawra ala al-Nafs” (Revolution of the Self). The premise of the show is that while Egyptians were successful in overthrowing a corrupt system (nizam fasid khareegi) what was needed now was a revolution to change “internally” (min gowa). For Masoud, such self-change is mandated by a correct reading of Islam as “deen al-tahawul” or a religion of transformation. In the first episode, Masoud argues that ultimately Egyptians were not responsible for the success of the revolution. Rather, it was God who made them victorious over oppression, and that  to live up to this divine intervention, they now need to focus on overcoming their base selves.  As evidence, he cites the Qur’anic verse (13:11) “God does not change the condition of a people until they change it themselves.” This self-revolution focuses on cultivating certain khuluq, or ethical dispositions, among Muslim Egyptians as a way of fulfilling the promises of January 25th.  For the televangelists these ethics spring from a specifically Islamic referent, with the Prophet Muhammed and his Companions hailed as timeless moral exemplars. At the same time, being a good Muslim subject for televangelists goes beyond fulfilling the ritual obligations of the faith to encompass being a good citizen.

Crucially, the cultivation of this ethical disposition is tied to notions of what constitutes sincere inner belief and how to evaluate it. As Amr Khaled put it in an interview: “if you have faith in your heart but no ethics, that means your faith is not stable – faith without ethics is not real faith” (in Wasserman 2011). This understanding of “real faith” as ethical in nature was echoed in my conversations and interviews with followers of al-duah al-gudud, who would frequently cite the Prophetic saying “inama bu’uthit li-atamuma makaram al-akhlaq” (I have only been sent to perfect noble ethics) as evidence. Mona, a freshman at American University in Cairo who regularly attends seminars by al-duah al-gudud in Cairo, put it to me this way: “Ethics are paramount – you can find someone who prays all night but then gossips all day about her neighbor. What do her prayers mean then? Also, women who wear the scarf but are not religious give Islam a bad name. Women who don’t wear the veil but have good ethics are better than them. I see that religion is really tied to ethics.”

Followers of al-duah al-gudud among my interlocutors place great emphasis on “religion as ethics” (el-din akhlaaq). This emphasis distinguishes them, in their view, from followers of the Salafi trend that they say privileges ibada (ritual worship) over sulooq (ethical conduct). In their view, Salafists elide the constitutive relationship between ritual worship and ethical conduct, an elision that calls into question the sincerity (and socio-political utility) of the Salafi faith. One of my interlocutors, Hania, shows how this is so. Hania grew up in Shubra, a working-class neighborhood where Salafi preachers like Mohamed Hasaan enjoy a near monopoly on religious authority. Like Mona, Hania sees Salafism as inexorably leading to what she called a “superficial religiosity” (taddayun sat-hi) where what matters most is that one appears to be devout, regardless of whether or not one’s actual conduct is “truly” Islamic. For Hania, Salafism is a veritable obstacle to the ethical awakening necessary for national reform. As she put it: “Mubarak’s regime used the Salafis because they were serving their interests, although in a direct way because the Salafi shuyukh bihabtoo min el-‘azeema (destroy morale). They do this through saying “forget this world, it is just temporary.” Yes it is, but the Prophet said work for this world as if you will live forever and for the next as if you will die tomorrow. The Salafis just depress youth…they don’t give solutions for problems like al-duah al-gudud.”

Al-duah al-gudud also frame ritual-focused piety as potentially morally and politically dangerous.  Since the revolution, they have characterized Egypt’s difficult transitional period as an “azma akhlaaqia” or an ethical crisis. The solution, as Amr Khaled continually admonishes viewers on his post-revolutionary show “Bokra Ahla” (A Better Tomorrow), lies in correcting the ethics of the individual and harnessing such ethics for national reform. He argues that “faith for faith leads to extremism.” Sincere faith, he contends, can be defined as faith in the service of “national development”: “Faith that gives energy and hope to build in my opinion is the meaning of faith. But faith to pray, to wear the hijab, and to read the Quran, and then to come to a full stop, can lead after 10 years to extremism” (in Wasserman 2011).

Indeed, Amr Khaled’s name in post-revolutionary Egypt has become tightly associated with the call to “build Egypt” (yalla nibny masr), building on his pre-revolutionary Life-makers initiative of “development through faith” (al-tanmiya bi al-iman). Such participation is framed in almost exclusively economic terms.  Reviving the “wheel of production” (agalat el-intaag) has become a sort of national mantra, with work viewed as “the only solution.” Revolutionary Tahrir emerges within this narrative as utopian precisely because it was a site of production – economic, creative, organizational, political and so on. After the revolution, however, the on-going protests in Tahrir and worker strikes across the country are framed by media outlets and many ordinary Egyptians as the single biggest threat to the country’s future well-being because they supposedly hamper the stability on which economic productivity depends.

While the revolution started as a response to the neo-liberal policies pursued by the Mubarak regime in its later years (Armbrust 2011), the idea of individual economic productivity as the “solution” only makes sense through neo-liberalism’s own normative lens of what makes for good governance and what doesn’t (cf. Mikdashi 2011). Within this discursive universe, individual citizens are morally responsible for economically improving both their own lives and the lives of others through their own efforts, rather than through holding the nation-state accountable to its own developmentalist rhetoric. For example, in launching a major initiative aimed at bringing basic infrastructure to Cairo’s populous informal housing settlements – communities which were systematically neglected and often vilified as bastions of disease and immorality under Mubarak’s regime – Amr Khaled takes his viewers to task for failing to take responsibility for their fellow citizens, and asks them to donate their time and money to help these communities.

Within these and other initiatives launched by al-duah al-gudud, human and national development acquire their saliency within an ethical-religious frame.  Televangelists call on youth to “build Egypt” as a way to reclaim a lost Islamic cultural ethos of social responsibility, personal initiative and productive efficiency. In his television program “Bokra Ahla,” Amr Khaled frames the will to work as a religious obligation, continually admonishing his viewers “lazim nishtaghil (we have to work)…you have to produce something, so when you meet God, you can say that when my country needed me, I did something.” Far from being new, this call articulates with the televangelical stress over the past decade on Muslim youth as agents of societal change (taghyeer igtimia’ii) and positive energy (taqaa mugeeba), characteristics enjoined, according to Islamic televangelists, by an Islam “correctly understood.” 

Most commentators on the recent parliamentary elections in Egypt have framed the Muslim Brotherhood on the one hand and increasingly politicized Salafi religious actors on the other as metonyms for the projected role of Islam in a post-revolutionary public sphere. The conceptions of ethics put forward by al-duah al-gudud, however, are also refashioning politics and the practices of citizenship.  Indeed, for the many Egyptian youths who choose to watch their programs, follow them on Facebook and Twitter, attend their gatherings and make sense of their teachings within their everyday lives, Islamic televangelists are providing a compelling ethical frame for how to build a New Egypt in increasingly uncertain times.

WORKS CITED

Armbrust, Walter. 2011. “A Revolution Against Neo-Liberalism” Jadalliya, Feb. 23

Haenni, Patrick. 2005. L’islam de marche: l’autre revolution conservatrice. Paris: Le Seuil

Mikdashi, Maya. 2011. “Neoliberalism’s Forked Tongue”Jadalliya, May 17

Wasserman, Ingrid. 2011. “We haven’t moved yet” Al-Ahram Weekly Online, July 7-13