A Fresh Perspective

by Steve on August 29, 2006

In the September issue of National Geographic magazine there is an excellent interview with Alaa Al Aswany, an Egyptian author and dentist. His novel The Yacoubian Building has been the best-selling novel in the middle east for two years running. As a Muslim living in Cairo and educated in the U.S. he has a rather unique perspective on the current world conflict.

When asked about the foundation of the current fanaticism he answered:

Poor areas, because the poor are desperate. The current regime here is dealing with them in an inhuman way, arresting and torturing them. Religion is being used as a cover for social unrest, a way to empower these people who are not empowered. In Egypt, there is an Islam for the rich and an Islam for the poor. And these two Islams have their own mosques, their own sheikhs. The rich use religion to ensure the status quo. They don’t want any change. But poor people do want change, because they are now deprived of so much.

He’s referring to Egypt but the very same words could have been used to describe Iraq under Saddam.

On the Saudis:

Over the past 25 years, about a quarter of the Egyptian population has gone to Saudi Arabia at some point to work. Those workers were often uneducated Egyptians, and the Saudis were rich. The Egyptians were influenced by the Saudi interpretation of Islam and brought it back with them when they returned to Egypt. That interpretation—Wahhabism—is very strict and concerned mostly with form, from wearing the veil to enforced prayer five times a day. It is an aggressive, intolerant approach that institutionalizes Islam as a state religion rather than allowing people to interpret it in their own individual ways. The Saudis have spent millions to export Sunni Wahhabism throughout the Middle East, in part because many Arabs in the Gulf States are Shiite. The Saudi princes fear the spread of the Iranian Shiite brand of Islam, which is more revolutionary and allows for more individual rights. Throughout much of Islamic history, Sunni governance has been in the hands of sheikhs who were in league with governments. The Shiites were usually shut out of power, so they had time to think and come up with a new, more humanist interpretation. I’m not comparing Iranian human rights to those in England, but in relation to Saudi Arabia, Iran has more respect for individual political rights and the people’s right to know what’s happening. And I must remind you that the American administration has been the most powerful supporter of the medieval Saudi regime because of Saudi oil. To support them is like having a tiger in your house.

Tiger indeed. I’ve written previously regarding our “friends” the Saudis.

Go read the rest of the interview. It’s aptly titled “Voice of Reason.”

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