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Egyptian Televangelists: Build a New Egypt Through an Ethical Revolution

February 8, 2012

Televangelists like Moez Masoud are calling for Egyptians to rebuild Egypt by rebuilding themselves.

In Chapter Four of Connected In Cairo I write about cosmopolitan Egyptian students at a private international school searching for akhlaq, or ethics as they try to make sense of their lives. Later in the same chapter, I describe how some students find an ethical cosmopolitanism in Islam, especially through the calls to social action of Islamic televangelist Amr Khaled.

Yasmine Moll extends these same two themes into an account of contemporary efforts to make sense of the Egyptian revolution in a fascinating essay titled “Building the New Egypt: Islamic Televangelists, Revolutionary Ethics, and ‘Productive’ Citizenship.”

Moll, a graduate student at New York University, has been conducting fieldwork with both producers and viewers of Islamic televangelist programming for 18 months, so she has a keen sense of how attitudes toward the al-duah al-gudud, or “the new preachers” and their programs have changed.

She writes

Prior to the January 25th revolution, [were characterized as offering Muslim youth a “post-Islamist” religious discourse that was apolitical, with one academic observer calling it an “air-conditioned Islam” (Haenni 2005) far from the everyday realities of the vast majority of Egyptians struggling with poverty, social injustice and political disenfranchisement.

Indeed, much of the disappointment I heard from my friends and hosts was their insistence on individual or small group efforts to help the poor through alms, and distribution of clothes and blankets and such, failed to engage any of the political and economic conditions that created and sustained widespread poverty, unemployment and inadequate distribution of wealth. However,

Since the revolution, viewers have looked to televangelist discourses for cues about how to think about politics, religion, citizenship and national belonging during what all have experienced as a most volatile time.

She describes one recent program:

Since the fall of Mubarak, the revolutionary ethics signified by Tahrir have been subsumed by televangelists in Egypt within a broader religious narrative of personal redemption. For example, Moez Masoud’s first television show after the revolution – airing during Ramadan 2011 – was called “Thawra ala al-Nafs” (Revolution of the Self). The premise of the show is that while Egyptians were successful in overthrowing a corrupt system (nizam fasid khareegi) what was needed now was a revolution to change “internally” (min gowa). For Masoud, such self-change is mandated by a correct reading of Islam as “deen al-tahawul” or a religion of transformation. In the first episode, Masoud argues that ultimately Egyptians were not responsible for the success of the revolution. Rather, it was God who made them victorious over oppression, and that  to live up to this divine intervention, they now need to focus on overcoming their base selves.  As evidence, he cites the Qur’anic verse (13:11) “God does not change the condition of a people until they change it themselves.”

She explains that those who follow the call of “the new preachers”reject salafism as superficial, focusing on the perfection of external disciplines of faith rather than internal conversion and ethical discipline.

Like my secular, analytical description of Tahrir Square during the 18 Days as a period of antistructure and communitas, she says the preachers “frame Tahrir Square as an exemplar of a ‘New Egypt,’ a utopian space where free expression, social equality, gender parity, religious harmony and an overall sense of order and organization reigned for 18 days”

It is always exciting–and validating–to find an account whose description and analysis so neatly dovetail with my own, but adds to and expands my knowledge and understanding. I’m looking forward to reading more by Yasmine Moll.

Moll is also the producer of a documentary called Fashioning Faith and another called The Women of Tahrir.

The essay is one of several great pieces collected and edited by Julia Elyachar and Jessica Winegar and published as a “Hot Spot” (a collection of essays by anthropologists around a common topical theme of current interest) by the journal Cultural Anthropology. I urge you to read the entire article here.

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