By Nesreen Salem
The social policies of the new, “revolutionary”, fundamentally Islamist government are unabashedly cliche. But that is of no surprise, for across time and geography societies which have brought down a failing dictatorial regime have universally opted to next elect a conservative one, because let’s face it; freedom is a scary prospect to those who have been caged for so long. And in order to fight against a former oppressive regime, they must first fight against themselves, even to the point of massacring each other.
Egypt is currently in the process of recreating itself – decolonising, detoxing, if you will. Only a fool would imagine that this course of action could recreate a long lost past, and sadly of those fools there are many. But by its very nature, decolonising is a violent process and violent is what it is promising to be so far.
Clearly, those who oppose the sit-in at the Ministry of Culture and have screeched anti-ballet and Marxist slogans have no idea how to define culture.
So what is culture? It is simply a society’s DNA – the genetic inheritance of our ancestors and the translation of our human experience that records how we have and continue to evolve. Culture is encoded into every aspect of our lives, from symbols and music to dance and food, to language, clothes and gender roles. Granted, not everything coded in our cultural code deserves to be praised; in fact, there’s much to be critiqued, but that’s the direct product of the correlation between the political progress of a society and the quality of its culture.
Because culture is the key to the evolution of a society, engineering change largely involves changing its culture through means of education, books, censorship (or its reduction), theatre, newspapers and every platform used for expression. To engineer change, a government will attempt to control how much, or indeed how little, of the outside world that society is allowed to perceive and interact with. It polices what constitutes standards and values – in other words, how society perceives, and is perceived by, the outside world. Such extreme political meddling in a society’s consciousness has in the past cultivated paranoid societies that distrusted medicine because it came from the outside world, instead opting for less effective local folk remedies and superstitions (even exorcism).
As human beings, we are ambivalent about change. We fear and crave it in equal measure. In broad terms, change is welcome in societies as long as this change does not undermine its plurality. The Muslim Brotherhood’s policies are conservative, prejudiced and restrict freedom of expression in all its forms, verbal, visual and physical. Their appointment of the new minister of culture is a step towards a radical reconditioning of the Egyptian consciousness. Setting his questionable curriculum vitae and disturbing anti-Semitic statements aside, one wonders under what merits and criteria this was man given such a pivotal role in what is arguably the second most important ministry in any given country (the first being education, another tragic story for another article). The sacking of the manager of the Cairo Opera House and others who expressed their annoyance at his employment reveals a character whose determination is to limit the Egyptian experience of culture to one that adheres to specific rules of what is taboo and what is not, and what is worthy of knowing and what is not. The concept of diversity is lost in translation, deliberately.
It is unsurprising that the Muslim Brotherhood government planned and executed a shift in the leadership of the ministry to better represent and execute its aims and policies. Ballet? Dancing? Singing? But they do not make a country progress! Wrong. Tourists do not visit Egypt to admire our technology or ogle at our skyscrapers. They come from all over the world to intoxicate their senses in an enormously rich and diverse culture of historical and mythical value: from Coptic to Islamic, Pharaonic to Greek and Sufi. Egyptian culture had, has and will continue to have it all.
It is ironic that the Arabic words for scientist “a’lem” and dancers “a’walem” are so phonetically similar that a twist of the tongue could render a scientist a dancer and vice versa. It is also ironic, much to the chagrin of the fundamentalist Muslims, that one of the meanings of the word “a’lem” is “one world”, and “a’walem”, “many worlds”. Though admittedly superficial, I do think this beautifully depicts the difference between how a society perceives its relationship with the sciences and the arts.
The fact is, the Islamisation of Egypt is not a new concept to Egyptians. We have had it in varying shades of grey over the past 1400 years. We were a Shi’a country for centuries, a fact that is hard to remember when observing the anti-Shi’a sentiments broadcast by our political and religious leaders today. The Muslim Brotherhood brand of Islamisation is a stale one that has been reincarnated many times over the years, one that has already been tried and tested and has failed to sustain itself against the forces of change. People are generally receptive to change, however they will reject a change that is imposed upon them. An attempt to control the degree and direction of change will inevitably be futile. Protectionist policies in the day and age of digital freedom is an illusion. Censorship in the time of ebooks is a fantasy. It is far more meaningful to open wide the gates of culture and embrace its waves than swim against them. Cultivating generations of absolute slaves in a world of absolute freedom will only create a country that is open to and would eagerly welcome re-colonialism. The people fighting for the Ministry of Culture today know their enemy by the scars on their skin and by their chains; it is irrefutable evidence of the failure to enslave them. Therefore any attempts to change mainstream culture are bound to fail.
You may not agree with Karl Marx, but you have the right to learn about him. You may not appreciate ballet, but you do not have the right to stop others from enjoying it. You may adore the Prophet Muhammad to the point of worship but that does not mean that those who adore him less should be chastised for it.
The Muslim Brotherhood and all other right wing parties would do well to understand these words by Jean-Paul Sartre: “We only become what we are by the radical deep-seated refusal of that which others have made of us.” Attempts at modifying mainstream culture to align it with Islamist conservative policies will only result in the birth of new, radical, revolutionary forms of art that will not only challenge such ultraorthodox policies but will also replace them in record time, thus widening the gap, yet again, between the government and the people. This is only more the case when this modification becomes a form of fraud and theft – a robbery of the people’s past, present and future.
These famous immortal words of Dr Farag Fouda will ring truer and louder forever more:
“They will scream against singing, and the people shall sing.
They will scream against music, and the people shall play.
They will scream against drama, and the people shall insist on watching.
They will scream against ideas and thinkers, and the people shall read.
They will scream against modern science, and the children shall learn.
They will scream and they will scream and fill the world with their screams and their bombs shall blow and their bullets pierce and in the end they will be the victims of their own endeavours. And they will pay dearly when others reject and eject them.”
Let it be clear that a government does not own a society’s culture. Society owns the government and the culture of that society determines the type of government it chooses to rule over its people. It is the natural order that, even when meddled with, always finds a way back. When a change is forced upon society, people will reject it and the government that is imposing it, which is what we are increasingly witnessing today.
Today the Muslim Brotherhood is the name of a political party. We should take care that, as the Egyptian people carry their culture forward, in 2050 it does not become the name of a mental disorder.
Nesreen Salem is a doctoral student at university of Essex and an Education & Creative Writing Specialist.