Passion for Islam: Shaping the Modern Middle East: The Egyptian Experience

Article excerpt

Caryle Murphy. Passion For Islam: Shaping the Modern Middle East: The Egyptian Experience. New York: Scribner, 2002. Hardcover. ISBN 0- 7432-3578-9. Price: US$ 27.00.

This is a post 9/11 impressionistic work by an American journalist with years of experience covering the Middle East at the Cairo desk of The Washington Post. The aim is to explain the issue of religious terrorism in the Middle East by focusing on Egypt. Passion for Islam gazes into the complex personal, political, cultural and intellectual dimensions involved in creating a "combustible environment" (p. 7) in the country. According to the author, common Egyptians are struggling to live with dignity in the face of widespread corruption and nepotism, tremendous economic inequality, and brutal state repression. These stark realities form the backdrop for Murphy to gauge the various "choices" guided by the Passion for Islam; ranging from the violent to the democratically-committed reinterpretations of Islamic mores and tradition. Non-violent Islamic responses often fail to register in the West due to a pervasive and misguided identification of Islam with violence. This misunderstanding arises out of a lack of historical contextualization on the part of Westerners, and their failure to understand the relevance of religion in Egyptian culture; these are precisely the deficiencies the book aims to address. The issue of "religious terrorism emanating from the Middle East has to be understood-not excused" (p. 7); and to reach that understanding, Passion for Islam attempts to reassess "Radical Islam" in the context of three broad historical forces of (1) revivalism, (2) authoritarianism, and (3) the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. According to Murphy, these historical forces provide the much needed framework to understand not only religious terrorism, but also to situate Islam as a living faith in today's world.

Passion of Islam is divided into fourteen chapters out of which fully six are dedicated to "Political Islam," and a chapter each for "Pious Islam," "Cultural Islam," and "Faith and Modernity." The last section "People of the Book" contains two chapters, with one focusing on religious minorities in Egypt and the other on the volatile issue of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The introduction spans two chapters with a single chapter in the final section titled "The Path Ahead." In tracing the Egyptian trajectory, Murphy writes that religion has always been at the heart of Egyptian life, and that this identification with Islam has recently become stronger and more robust leading to what the author calls "a grassroots groundswell" (p. 7). Visible display of this religiosity can be seen in the following trends: "Ramadan observance" (p. 26), the "evergrowing number of women who have chosen to wear the veil" (p. 28) and "expanding charity networks." The despair felt by common people living in the pervasive corruption of everyday Egyptian life and bleak economic conditions has resulted in a yearning by Egyptians to seek solace in religion, giving them a sense of empowerment in a way that other ideologies have failed to do. Furthermore, this "Pious Islam" (p. 27) has received an injection of the harsh and inflexible strain of Wahhabi conservatism through the influx of migrant workers and Saudi money. And finally, the brief romance with Nasserism came to a screeching halt after defeat at the hands of Israel in the 1967 war, a defeat that struck in the very core of Arab honour, setting off "years of anguished soul searching" (p. 31) and adding to the sense of urgency. In this backdrop of pessimism Egyptians are in increasing numbers turning towards Islam.

"Political Islam" is an expression of the population of the desire for a return to an Islamic order in society. In search for a new paradigm, MüVammad 'Abduh's perception of the need for original thinking in Islam was overshadowed by the more conservative ideas of Hassan Al Banna [Hasan al-Banna] (d. 1368/1949) and Sayyid QüTb (d. …


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