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Opium or coffee? Islam and its relevance in hard times Is religion numbing Egyptians into acquiescence amid a number of merciless austerity measures?

Karl Marx hated organized and institutionalized religion. Of all his economic and political thoughts, his words equating religion with opium are some of the most notorious: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” He believed that religion has certain practical uses, much like a recreational, mind-numbing substance; that it has the potential to reduce the immediate suffering of those who are sick or injured, providing them with more pleasant illusions. But he also observed that it reduces their energy and willingness to confront the oppressive, heartless and soulless reality that capitalism forces people into.

 It feels like everyone in Egypt has been put through a social and psychological grinder ever since the Egyptian government began to enact the IMF’s loan policies. Catastrophic inflation rates reached as high as 30 percent in July 2017, another wave of price hikes in electricity, fuel, gas and water are affecting nearly all other services, and there was a recent 300 percent increase in metro ticket prices. More than a quarter of Egyptians barely hover above the poverty line, and another quarter is quickly sinking into destitution. Given this, what role does and can religion play in people’s lives?

In a country with a conservative religious culture, and for a people who call themselves “naturally religious,” religion cannot be the mind-numbing narcotic that Marx imagined. It is too entwined in the social fabric and the historic national identity to have any such effect. If religion were indeed a drug, Egyptians would have developed a tolerance to its mechanism of action a long time ago. Neither can it be an agent for anchoring self-blame and personal salvation, or purely restricted to charity. After all, people can’t survive on prayer alone. It also cannot be used as a tool to blame the masses for these dire conditions, much to the dismay of the ruling elite.

Surely, it would take a much stronger concoction of narcotics than religion alone to deny the impact of the IMF’s infamous prescription and our state’s economic policies?

Take, for example, the June 23 episode from famous preacher Khaled al-Gindy’s show “Laalahom Yafqahoon” (Perhaps They Understand), in which he addressed the current economic situation in Egypt in a segment titled, “We can eradicate inflation through this way only” — note the “only.” Gindy comments, “Our supplications from God must be creative… because God does not intervene to change wordly norms for the benefit of people who are lazy, slumbery, sluggish, and worthless…  There is no eradication of inflation possible except by producing, struggling, the existence of a financial surplus, the availability of resources, and by stopping the population explosion.” In his long, verbose monologue, in which he also called Egyptians “aimless” and insinuated that they are lazy, there is no mention whatsoever of the role of government policies in the current economic quagmire, of the impact of the devaluation of the pound, the absence of any substantial social benefits to mitigate for the woes of elevating subsidies, or the disappearance and deterioration of public services and staggering inflation. None of this.

This kind of discourse has become all too common during Friday sermons in Egypt, a weekly ritual that in my experience has prompted eye-rolling and the burying of heads in hands in response to ever harsh and defeatist pre-scripted sermons, the topics of which are clearly dictated by state institutions. In order to counter public outcry, these sermons often twist fact and fiction and use religious rhetoric to criticize the perceived deterioration of public morality, sinful behavior, greed, and so on, and they usually absolve the government from all blame.

To demand patience is one thing. Egyptians know that they will have to continue to suffer; state propaganda has been drilling it into their ears for some time. But to blame citizens for their deteriorating living conditions takes an act of deep moral depravity.

Asceticism, turning one’s back on worldly temptations, indulgence and possessions; patience in the face of the blows of fate and suffering; open-handedness and charity are all religious values that are worthy of discussion and adoption in good and bad times alike. However, so are self-criticism, bravery, speaking truth to power, fairness and siding with the underdog.

It would take more than a few misguided sermons to overlook the fact that the government’s current measures have taken their toll on everyone across the socio-economic spectrum. Everyone I personally know has made drastic lifestyle changes, from cutting their already generally low-protein family food budgets, to changing the type of shampoo they use, or their lack of ability to upgrade their car.

Given these circumstances, how will the religious leadership attend to their religious constituencies? There are reports that any opposition to the state’s economic policies is being censored or constrained. Several articles criticizing price hikes and the government’s unflinching and merciless lifting of subsidies have been censored or banned. For example, renowned author Ammar Ali Hasan’s recent piece, “Prices on fire and a crumbling middle class in a state that neither protects nor has mercy,” which is prefaced with a note on an alleged ban in Egyptian print publications against articles that address the impact of the recent hike in fuel prices on ordinary citizens. Quranic reciter Hamdy Abdel Meguid was also suspended from the Quran Radio Station for his supplications “against the unjust ones” at dawn prayers. With whom then can people raise their grievances?

Even if contemporary Muslim scholars choose to continue to carry on their uncritical pre-nation state orthodox position of obeying those in office for the sake of a superficial sense of stability, this does not mean that the alternative should be silence in the face of injustice or inhumane austerity. This would be nothing short of whitewashing the economic and political failures of the current regime.

Using religious discourse to manipulate people into believing that inflation and economic woes are God’s punishment for our mistakes, and not the failed miscalculations of economic policies and bowing to the relentlessly neoliberal agenda of the IMF, is simply nonsensical and unethical. The last thing people need is to double-down on their suffering.

With its theological, legal, and spiritual contents, Islam is said to have a strong sense of both social and political justice that defines the core of its jurisprudential and ethical system; as seen in the academic works of Michael Cook, Noah Feldman and George Makdisi. Islamic institutional and scholarly accomplishments are often credited with being relatively independent from political power in the pre-modern world, with the absence of nostalgia for the “golden age.”  This was particularly the case with Islamic civil society institutions, the endowment system, and educational establishments. This permitted religious leaders, judges and ulama to represent the public and side with them on many occasions.

It is not historically uncommon for religious leaders since the dawn of Islam to side with the people and use their religious scholarship and discourse to awaken their potential and support their aspirations. From the stance taken by Hasan al-Basri or Imam Abu Hanifa against the Ummayads, Sufyan al-Thawri’s brave position against the injustice of his Abbasid ruler, the “Sultan of the ulama” Izz al-Din Ibn Abd al-Salam’s outspoken bravery against the oppression of the Mamluks, to Imam al-Dardir, who led the masses in 1786 against a staggering spike in taxes; not to mention the role of many ulama against European colonialism, or even Al-Azhar’s support for the 1919 revolution. There are many sobering examples of religious institutions and individuals supporting ordinary people throughout history.

One major distinction between pre-modern Islam and its contemporary iterations, especially those stemming from state-sponsored institutions and many Islamist movements, is that they are all painfully statist. They seek to interpret and validate their social relevance through the omnipresence of the state and its ever increasing role in people’s private and public lives. Under a statist Islam, nationalism and patriotism become religious themes, and thus it is the mission of religious actors to defend and interpret events and the world for their stakeholders in a way that is favorable to the state.

Criticizing the people seems to be en vogue for Egypt’s religious leadership at present. While it may be true that the social and economic woes society is experiencing are many — from substance abuse, depression and suicide, to domestic violence and the deterioration of public health and freedoms — these are all surely partially symptomatic of, or exacerbated by, the current economic turmoil people are facing.

In comparison to the above substance-related metaphor of opium, coffee, a drink known for its stimulating effect, was discovered by Muslim mystics in the highlands of Yemen. Even though it later became a popular drink associated with social gatherings and a daily ritual in most Arab cultures, coffee was used by Sufis to help them stay up late to worship and to concentrate on their invocations and acts of devotion. There are many poems that associate the caffeinated, brain-fueling, psychoactive drink with religious inspiration and motivation.

Under the current circumstances, and given the potential consequences, it is understandable that some religious voices choose to refrain from overtly criticizing the government. But, whether it is coffee or “opium” that they choose to offer the masses, Islamic religious leadership in Egypt has a choice to make. Even if they cannot be an agent working for the benefit of their constituencies and wider society, in times like these, they must refrain from blaming the victim. Otherwise, they run the risk of being addicted to their own brand of narcotic, a religion that only they partake in. Composed silence, wrong as it may be, is still much better than complacency and victim blaming.

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Tarek Ghanem