Archive for April, 2013

Since there seems to be a lot of interest in the English media in Bassem Youssef, I figured I would jump on that train and provide a translation of a recent column he wrote in Al-Shorouk. In it, he responds to those who attempt to silence opposition by invoking God’s law, something Youssef sees as a concerted political strategy.

Youssef is, of course, not opposed to Islam or “Sharia.” He is, as this article makes clear, opposed to anyone claiming a monopoly on religious truth exercising power. He believes that a separation between religion and the state is better for the spiritual health of Egyptians because people will not be turned off to religion because of compulsion. He has gone on record claiming that “a terrible wave of atheism and secularism” spread in Europe as a result of religious oppression, and doesn’t want to see the same thing happen to Egypt.

See translation notes at the end.

Also be sure to catch Dr. Bassem Youssef on the Daily Show again this Wednesday evening!

How do you confront religious blackmail?

Bassem Youssef
Al-Shorouk April 9th, 2013

The original article can be read here.

In America until the 18th century, if there was a rumor that a woman or a young girl was a witch or a sorceress the entire village would hunt her down and put her on trial. The witch had to pass the holy test before the court that would prove whether or not she was guilty: they would tie a heavy rock to her and then throw in in the river. If she floated on the surface, there was no doubt she was a witch who used her black magic powers to save herself. In that case, the accusation is proven and the village would burn her for sorcery. If she drowned, which is to be expected of course, the people of the village realized that they made a mistake and would pray for the messiah to accept her and to forgive their sins and hers.

This is the method that anyone who has anointed himself the guardian of the people’s religion has adopted throughout history. Spanish Catholics adopted it during the inquisition and the church in Europe implemented it with scholars and their political rivals. Even the Americans did it in the 50s – albeit through ideological terrorism, not religious – during the vicious attack of McCarthyism when the charge of being a communist was a sword hanging over the necks of American intellectuals and celebrities.

The best way to win any intellectual, social, and even economic battle is to put your adversary in the column of heretics, unbelievers, and enemies of God’s religion (or the communist traitors hostile to the beloved homeland such as in America). By doing so, you don’t need to present any real solutions as part of your plan and you need not expend any effort to prove your theories. In the court of public opinion, they’re an unbeliever, a heretic, and a belittler of religions. Even if they’re right, no one will listen to them.

This method is not far off from our own Islamic history. When the Kharijites appeared and declared every muslim a non-muslim (takfir), including Imam Ali, they did it with God’s book. They committed massacres and atrocities all while claiming to be the custodians of God’s book.

And despite the fact that their approach was as far outside the bounds of what is right, of religion, and even of correct politics as it could be, it didn’t matter as long as they wrapped themselves in the banner of religion and repeated Quranic verses, even as they tried to one-up Ali himself. It is related that after Ali delivered a sermon to a group of people during the Great Upheaval (al-fitna al-kubra), one of the Kharijites called out “God is the Greatest!” to which Ali replied: “A word of truth that serves a lie.” And the Kharijites were among those who forced Ali to accept the scheme of arbitration by God’s book after it was raised on spears.

Maybe you think that what I’m saying is just memories from time immemorial. But, my friend, we are subject to this religious blackmail on a daily basis.

After the revolution and the emergence of a great many who spoke in the name of the Islamic project, it was them who silenced their opponents in disagreements with expressions such as “What have you seen of God to make you hate his Sharia?” or “How are you opposed to Sharia? How do you oppose God’s law?” Many young people wavered before these accusations, as they are, at the same time, accusations of sorcery: either drowning or burning. No young person would dare deny Sharia with the threat of excommunication (takfir) and “departure from the Islamic community” (al-khuruj min al-milla) looming, and with the possibility of being called an obscene liberal unbelieving secularist. If he accepts the labels, his opposition to the Muslim Brothers and the Salafis is meaningless.

But, my young friend, you are not forced to accept these choices because the Salafis do not have a monopoly on Sharia and the Muslim Brothers are not its guardians. You must realize deep inside yourself that these questions that come in the form of accusations must be turned around and repeated to those who ask them in the first place.

Ask those who rant about Sharia about their media that is filled with pathologies, lies, and slander. Ask them about their Sheikhs’ sermons that are filled with hatred, racism, and insults. Ask them about their tendency to align themselves with every wrong political position after the revolution and how they have made themselves out to be lions now after having been like house cats under Mubarak. They did not commit themselves to death for the sake of Sharia until after having trampled on the bodies of the youth whom they belittled for their demonstrating, their religion, and their nationalism.

What do you mean Sharia when we see the disagreements among the religious currents such a degree that some of them are excommunicating others and accusing them of lying, disbelief, and corruption?

What Sharia? What model of the Islamic project do you want to implement? What do you want to add to the law besides what restricts and constricts? According to them Sharia revolves around outlawing alcohol (khamr) and implementing the hudud, as if we see people in Egypt going around committing adultery, being promiscuous, and getting drunk for all to see in the light of day.

Why don’t the Islamists who have arrived in power and their sponsors among Islamic countries implement the Zakat Al-Rekaaz, which is a 20% tax on natural resources extracted from the land such as minerals and petroleum to be distributed to the poor? It would be enough to eliminate poverty in all Muslim countries. But that isn’t important. Concentrating on what a woman is wearing, on alcohol, and the hudud is, without a doubt, much more important.

Then they come with their smugness and their filth and their breaking of promises and they want to talk about Sharia.

My young friend don’t let anyone blackmail you with Quranic verses that they take out of context to try and make you feel that their Islam is better than yours. Don’t give them the opportunity to put you in front of verses such as “And whoever does not judge by what Allah has revealed – then it is those who are the disbelievers” or “it is those who are the wrongdoers” or “it is those who are the defiantly disobedient.”

They are the ones who have not ruled by what God has revealed and they are the ones who have not set an example to be emulated in discussion, dialogue, or morals. Straight up: we cannot trust these people to implement a sharia that they don’t understand and don’t live by.

Remember that the most famous who ranted about these verses was Zayd bin Hasan Al-Ta’i, who gave sermons to the Kharijites in his house, after which they went out to commit murder, torture, and to excommunicate other Muslims.

When one of them comes to you and tries to put you in a tight spot by saying “what have you seen of God’s law to make you hate it?” say to him: “Unfortunately, I have seen you and your morals that have no relationship to God’s law. We don’t hate God and are unable to hate God, we just cannot stand you.”

Some translation notes:

1: The story about the trial by water Youssef mentions is probably apocryphal. I’m pretty sure they used ropes to pull sinkers from the water before they died. Also I don’t remember anything about rocks. Any witch-hunt experts know?

2: The Great Upheaval (al-fitna al-kubra) refers to a period of internecine fighting among competing claims to the Islamic caliphate after the assassination of the third Caliph, Uthman.

3: The Qurans on spears incident refers to a fight between Ali’s forces and those supporting his rival Muawiya. Basically these guys were losing so they put Qurans on their spears to force Ali to accept arbitration instead of killing them all, a trick that weakened Ali’s position and eventually led to a falling out between him and the Kharijites (correct me if I’m really wrong on this, I’m not anearly Islamic history buff).

4: Hudud refers to the particularly nasty punishments for the most egregious crimes in Islam such as blasphemy, adultery, and theft. The punishments for these crimes, the hudud, include capital punishment and amputation among other deterrents.


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The following article appeared in Al-Shorouk on April 8th, 2013 – (apologies for being a bit late on it). In it, Ahmed El-Sawy addresses what many perceive to be growing tensions between members Egypt’s Christian minority and Muslims, a trend that many claim is exacerbated by Islamists in power who deliberately fan the coals of sectarian tension for electoral gains. The title refers to Al-Khusus, a town north of Cairo where sectarian clashes earlier this month left several Muslims and Christians dead before spreading to Cairo.

The crux of El-Sawy’s argument is that Christians have suffered from collective punishment as a result of the errors/crimes/mistakes of individuals, a betrayal of the concept of citizenship and equality before the law. The article struck me because of El-Sawy’s equal indictment of the Islamists in power and the society as a whole from which they draw support.

Regarding Al-Khusus

Ahmed El-Sawy
Al-Shorouk April 8th, 2013

The original Arabic article can be read here.

It’s enough for you to be a Christian in Egypt to know that you do not have the luxury of making a mistake. If your fate happens to lead you to err, you do not have the right to be punished and to carry the burden on your own without your family, your sect, and anyone who might just be passing by also bearing the responsibility.

It’s enough for you to be a Christian in Egypt. Don’t challenge the vegetable seller in the market, even if he sells you his goods at double the price, because challenging him will require a fight. If someone gets injured the issue won’t be that one citizen got into a fight with another citizen – there are government bodies whose responsibility it is to decide the matter according to the law. Rather, it could be that you, your family, and everyone from your millet* will pay the price of your recklessness. Your house will be burned and your neighbor’s house too, even though he didn’t fight, was not present, and doesn’t know a thing about the reason for the quarrel, but who is only a Christian like you.

It’s enough for you to be a grocer in Dakahlia whose fight with a neighbor over a bottle of water ends in a fatal blow, or an ironer in Dahshur fighting over a shirt, or a teenager in Beni Suef or Asyut harassing a young woman to bring damnation to your family and every Christian living in your village. You’re the accused, the murderer, the one at fault. Yet you will not pay the price of your mistake alone because you are a Christian and your family, neighbors, and all your co-religionists in your region must also be punished.

The state is absent and deliberately ignoring the law. It was absent before the revolution and was absent during the transitional period. It is still absent and even more weak and fragile in the era of the elected president who swore to protect the people, all the people

However, the problem is not entirely the state. The truth which you have been ignoring is that you live in a society burdened by tension and discrimination that is unembarrassed to kill over identity even as it carries a book that proclaims: “No bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another.”** A society that is not embarrassed to practice collective punishment against others of a different religion, and not because they are all in error.

With the rise of the religious tide in authority, the ruling elite has not attempted to sooth the tension, even just to improve its image domestically and internationally. Instead, it has stoked it in its electoral battles and in the speeches that its prominent figures make about the Christians who demonstrate here and there, as if it were not their right to demonstrate.

This is a new test for a society whose duty is to guarantee for Christians the right to make mistakes in order to begin to reclaim their citizenship and to free themselves from the complex of being in the minority. It must also guarantee that the guilty be held accountable and punished justly and on his own in order to deter looting, stealing, burning, and the killing of innocents under the false and misleading guise of religious triumphalism.

Translation notes:

*: The term millet refers to non-muslim religious minorities living in Muslim countries. Here, it implies a sort of second class status that Christians are forced to accept in a society increasingly governed by Sharia.

**:  Surat Az-Zumar verse 7. The quote is from the Sahih International translation of the Quran.

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