Cairo Journal (Part I)

Making sense of the struggle for the heart and mind of Islam.

By + More

Photo Gallery: Egypt's Grand Mufti, Ali Gomaa
As readers of this blog may know, I traveled to Cairo recently to interview Sheik Ali Gomaa, the grand mufti of Egypt, for a story that appears in the March 17 issue of U.S. News.

A scholar and jurist who studied and taught for many years at Cairo's venerable Al-Azhar University, Gomaa since 2003 has been head of the Dar al-Ifta (the house of fatwas), a government office charged with rendering nonbinding religious legal opinions on virtually any question that might arise in a Muslim's life. As grand mufti, Gomaa ranks second only to the Sheik of Al-Azhar in Egypt's official religious establishment, and he also has considerable influence in the wider Sunni Muslim world. I went specifically to learn more about his traditionalist approach to Islam and particularly Islamic sharia law, an approach that he claims provides the best antidote to the simplistic, puritanical versions of Islam that are the seedbed of radical and often violent Islamic extremism.

I wanted not only to hear what he had to say but to learn what his supporters and critics think about the effect of his work in Egypt and beyond. I also wanted to get some sense of the context of his work: the economic, social, and political factors that are shaping the lives of Egyptians and often driving them into the arms of the militants and extremists.

As chance would have it, the day before I set off, a long and well-reported story appeared in the New York Times under the dramatically worded headline, "Dreams Stifled, Egypt's Young Turn to Islamic Fervor." The drift of the story was straightforward: In Egypt, and throughout much of the Middle East, self-serving authoritarian regimes and ailing economies are leaving many of the rising generation of young adults without jobs or at least sufficiently well-paying ones that would allow them to buy homes, marry, and get on with the business of leading productive lives. Frustrated economically and even sexually, young Arab adults are, according to the story, increasingly turning to Islam for solace, meaning, and even a sense of individual and collective identity, particularly since the older sources of identity—Arabism, socialism, and nationalism—have all been largely discredited. In Egypt, this flowering of devotion expresses itself most obviously in the huge upsurge of people who are attending mosques for daily prayers and in the number of women wearing the hijab, or head scarf.

Seeing this drift toward greater religious zeal, the article continued, Middle Eastern governments are trying to divert it away from extremist and often highly political expressions of the faith, including organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood (which in Egypt has a small, barely tolerated presence in the national legislature as well as in local politics). Leaders who once downplayed religion are now positioning themselves as guardians of the faith, making religious pronouncements, putting religious figures on state television, and pouring money into mosques, religious schools, and various Muslim foundations. In Egypt, specifically, both Al-Azhar University and the network of secondary schools that feeds into it have expanded hugely in recent decades, and both educate young Muslims in a pious, traditional but moderate version of Islam.

So is the kind of Islam that the grand mufti represents—this traditionalist Islam, whose centuries-old methodologies of jurisprudence allow him to produce fatwas that seem the very soul of moderation and realism (allowing women to hold political office, for example, or permitting Muslim financial institutions to charge interest)—tainted, at least to some extent, by its association with regimes that are making everyday life so difficult and so unpromising for most of their citizens? Is the mufti, however well meaning and broad-minded, perceived as a lackey of President Hosni Mubarak, a leader whose hold on the instruments of the state is so total that his son's eventual rise to the presidency is thought to be as certain as a dynastic succession? And if his teaching and example are contaminated by official association, what is the likelihood that they will have broad appeal in what is often called the Muslim street?

Such questions were on my mind when I arrived in Cairo on a chilly February evening. Driving from the airport, my taxi passed first through an upscale satellite town where many of Egypt's upper officialdom live in well-appointed homes and apartments along with the new rich who have made their fortunes in the recently denationalized industries and other sectors of the economy. Soon on a stretch of elevated highway, the car seemed to skim above endlessly extending tracts of concrete buildings. Home to the vast and less-fortunate majority of Cairo's 20 million inhabitants, these rows of nearly identical buildings, featureless except for the satellite antennae that bristle from roofs and porches, were interrupted only by commercial signs, the minarets of the ubiquitous neighborhood mosques, and the occasional spire of a Coptic church.

Allahu akhbar! God, I think, is great. But religion is puzzling and becoming even more so.