Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The War of Words in Egypt

It is well-known how the usage of certain words can change a message completely, how a text which appears to be objective or neutral can implicitly hold a very biased tone revealed in the choice of words the author makes. Speaking about ‘terrorists’ is not like speaking about ‘freedom fighters’, ‘resistance’ for instance, but both are often used to describe the same group of people and help reveal the position of the author on the subject at hand. ‘Protesters’, ‘activists’ or ‘thugs’ and ‘rioters’? Clearly those who are being protested against would prefer the latter two descriptions, thereby already discrediting protestors without having to add any pejorative adjectives to those words. Similarly, a worrying trend is noticeable in Egypt where ‘opposition’ is now for instance sometimes interchangeably used with ‘islamophobia’.

Political terms of which the meaning has been twisted in the past year and a half and which have often been used derogatively include ‘secular’, ‘liberal’, ‘communist’ and ‘anarchist’. Ridiculous definitions, unrealistic descriptions and dramatic exaggerations have actually led to people shying away from some of those words. This is how a less frightening alternative for ‘secular’ has been found in ‘civil’. A word normally used to refer to non-military, has thus come to also mean non-theocratic, because ‘secular’ had come to mean atheistic, immoral and anti-religious which doesn’t really help its cause in ultra-religious Egypt.

A word devised to refer to remnants of the old regime, ‘felool’, has been used not only to describe actual members of the former National Democratic Party, especially those who were high up and truly influenced policy or even benefitted from it, but for any and everyone who was against the revolution or even pro revolution, just not in accordance with the opinion of some ‘revolutionaries’. This brings us to ‘revolutionaries’: anybody who joined in protests against the former regime was referred to as such, regardless of how different their interpretation of ‘bread, freedom and social justice’ was. These concepts are considered to represent the revolution’s main demands. And so it came to be that people who differed completely in political ideology were all called ‘revolutionaries’, when what united them in essence was their opposition to the ancien régime.

Another term which was often used derogatively was ‘couch party’ (‘hezb el kanaba’) meant to refer to all who weren’t actively involved in the revolution, or people who were not sure what they believed, the ‘silent majority’ who stood on the side lines watching, commenting but never acting. The ‘couch party’ would often be reprehended for not doing enough, for not joining in with every protest or sit-in that had been organized regardless of its goals.

These were the main concepts that have been going around in mainstream Egyptian media for quite a while. You are branded and put into a category regardless of the nuances of your position. If you don’t agree with the leading opinion of ‘revolutionaries’, then you’re either ‘couch party’ or ‘felool’. If you absolutely oppose Islamism (the ideology and/or the groups proclaiming it), mostly represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Da’awa Salafiya and the Jama’a Islamiya, then you could be just a ‘revolutionary’, but increasingly you’ll find yourself in the ‘felool’ or ‘islamophobia’ camps. The two camps I want to focus on in this piece.

Ever since the dawn of the revolution, people who weren’t immediately supportive of the protests were often insulted for supposedly either being ‘felool’, masochists who enjoyed oppression, cowardly slaves, selfish ignorant fools… and the list goes on. Reality is more complicated and nuanced of course and this kind of focus on ‘revolutionary purity’ has only hurt the revolution, in my eyes.

The reason many opposed the revolution or were at least sceptic of it, often had nothing to do with support for the former regime, but was driven by (a rational?) fear of the unknown. Alienating and insulting a segment of the population for their reluctance to join in right away was not the correct attitude as it seemed to confirm what many had been thinking: a worse regime could be put into place, one where dissent wouldn’t be tolerated and where their opinions wouldn’t be accepted if they differed from the norm. 

Strong scepticism and reluctance to take risks (I refer to a famous saying in which it is claimed a known evil is to be favoured above the unknown) have been the attitude of many Egyptians. Anyone who saw the state of Egyptian public discourse in the recent past, can only draw grim conclusions about the near future. However it's important to point out none of that justifies ignoring the former regime’s countless transgressions and its corrupt nature, the point is that there are rational explanations to why people, supposed ‘felool’ or ‘couch party’ members, aren’t very optimistic about the revolution and remain wary of its consequences without necessarily supporting the former regime.

The beauty of this revolution lay in its ability to create unity in diversity. Much has been written about the nature of the protests & how the participants differed in religion, political ideology, lifestyle and financial circumstances. But the diversity part means that once the common enemy falls, the unifying force, the group will disintegrate. It is also that diversity which came to light clearly at the end of the 18 days between January 25 and  February 11 which is proving to be  hard to handle for many in post-revolutionary Egypt.

In that context, the growing trend of using ‘islamophobe’ to refer to those who oppose the Egyptian islamists and/or their ideology is something we should carefully consider. Not only does this intend to make a political disagreement seem like a religious one, it also taps into the cultural baggage that term holds in a completely different context.

The Egyptians that oppose the mainstream islamists (and mostly the Muslim Brotherhood and the Da’awa Salafiya, both with their respective political parties) differ in political ideologies: some are liberals, some socialists, from left to right and from secular to islamist (yes, some people do adhere to a kind of political Islam, but don’t believe the current political actors to represent their idea or interpretation of it), from atheists to practicing Muslims, Christians and other. 

What Islamism means, in the form advocated for by the Muslim Brotherhood and many Salafis, implies a big government and a big role for religious institutions in policy making. Far from slogans and vague rhetoric, it boils down to government possessing competences that allow it to determine certain aspects of everyday life and to limit certain freedoms under the guise of (an interpretation) religion in a way that many, including practicing Muslims of course, find unacceptable.

When one strips down the ideology from the cloak of religion, one will discover why opposing it isn’t necessarily done out of a hatred for Islam or Muslims, as the term ‘islamophobe’ implies. Islamism remains a political ideology like any other and its proponents are political actors like all others, opposing them shouldn’t lead to ad hominem attacks pointed at one’s faith and religious zeal. The danger in using this term repeatedly to defame opposition to islamists is thus great and clears the way even more for a perilous practice that has already been going on which tends to silence opposition to the now leading political parties in parliament.

In this delicate time in Egypt’s history, it’s important to consider the implications of what we say and how it could set a trend that would greatly harm Egypt in its quest to become an open, tolerant and free country, not only politically, but also, and most importantly, socially and culturally.

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