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Post  Admin on Sun Sep 20, 2009 1:42 pm

Ramadan brings out Egypt’s split personality GMANews.TV – Sunday, September 20

CAIRO — The holy month of Ramadan has brought out Egypt’s raging
case of cultural schizophrenia, twisting Egyptians into knots over
whether their society is secular, Muslim or a muddled mix.

Two furious debates have been raging through the season in the Arab
world’s most populous nation. On one hand, rumors that police arrested
Egyptians violating the daily Ramadan fast raised dire warnings from
secularists that a Taliban-like rule by Islamic law is taking over.

On the other, Ramadan TV talk shows on state-sponsored television
featuring racily dressed female hosts discussing intimate sex secrets
with celebrities have sparked outrage from conservatives, denouncing
what they call the decadence that is sweeping the nation.

So is Egypt being taken over by sinners or saints? Egyptians have
always been a boisterous combination — priding themselves on their
piety, while determined to have a good time.

Ramadan, the final day of which is Saturday in most of the Islamic
world, shows the contradictions. Egyptians widely adhere to the
dawn-to-dusk fast, in which the faithful abstain from food, drink,
smoking and sex from dawn until dusk. After sunset, while some pray
into the night, many Egyptians party with large meals and a heavy dose
of TV entertainment produced specially for the month.

But the confusion comes from the government as well. It has often
promoted strict Islamic principles in an attempt to co-opt
conservatives and undercut extremists whom the state has been battling
for decades. But it also increasingly dominated by businessmen who this
year are more heavily than ever promoting Western-style secular culture.

There is no explicit law in Egypt to punish those not abiding by the
fast, nor are there religious police to enforce Islamic rules as in
Saudi Arabia. Many restaurants still serve during the day, and coffee
shops can be seen with their doors cracked open, patrons hidden inside
sipping tea or smoking water pipes.

But independent newspapers reported this month that police arrested more than 150 people for openly violating the fast.

Most of the reports have been unconfirmed. But Ahmed, a 27-year old
fruit vendor, told The Associated Press he and 15 other people were
arrested in a market in the southern town of Aswan on Sept. 5, for
smoking in public.
“I was slapped, kicked around,” Ahmed said, refusing to give his
last name fearing further police harassment.

“They asked me why I am
not fasting … They insulted me and used foul language.”
Ahmed said he was kept in the police station for nearly six hours, then let go. “Now I am fasting, I swear,” he said.

Police officials refused to confirm if Ahmed and others were
arrested for not fasting, saying only they were rounded up for

The reports sparked criticism from Egyptian human rights activists,
who called the crackdown unconstitutional. Activists said it appeared
some police were acting individually to enforce the fast, a sign of
increasing conservatism in the Interior Ministry. Some critics argued
that adherence to the fast is traditionally a matter between each
individual Muslim and God.

The Interior Ministry didn’t deny or confirm the reports, but a
ministry spokesman was quoted in the press last week insisting the
security forces have a right to crack down on violators of the fast.

Bilal Fadl, a popular satirical columnist, said the ministry is
mimicking “big sister Saudi Arabia,” adding, “can we be so demanding
from the sheiks in the Interior Ministry and ask them to postpone their
campaign to defend (Islam) … and start with implementing religious laws
that fight corruption?”

An Egyptian blogger who goes by the pseudonym “Kalb Baladi” (Stray
Dog) warned, “once we start going down the slippery slope of religious
fascism, Egypt will become another Afghanistan in no time.”

But the campaign appeared to have backers among the public. One
woman who called into a popular talk show, Al-Qahira Al-Yom (Cairo
Today), said fast-breakers were “looking for trouble” and should be
Television talk shows and soap operas produced especially for Ramadan have sparked their own debates.

State television and private channels owned by businessmen close to
the government flooded the airwaves with new programs that liberally
discussed taboo subjects like extramarital relationships, polygamy,
divorce and sex education. Most featured stylish female hosts and often
veered into titillation.
Ramadan is supposed to be a time of piety and religious reflection.
Open talk of sex on TV is frowned upon throughout the year — but it’s
outright shocking during the holy month, when Muslims believe Islam’s
holy book the Quran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.

Gehad Auda, a political analyst and member of the ruling party, said
the government was intentionally trying to challenge religious
extremists by opening the doors to more daring topics on TV.

“There is a new television logic, not only with images, but also
through dialogue, without fear by breaking taboos surrounding many
issues” to raise social awareness, Auda said.

In one espoused of a talk show called “The Daring One,” the host — a
famous female film director with a penchant for short skirts — kept
pressing her actress guest about what she and her boyfriend liked to do
when they’re alone.

On the same show, another actress confessed she once had an abortion
— which is illegal in Egypt and strictly forbidden by Islamic law. A
male guest admitted to extramarital affairs.

The barrage of provocative shows has unleashed heavy criticism.
“We should boycott all this absurdity and obscenity and read the
Quran,” Mahmoud Ashour, an official with al-Azhar, the highest
institution of Sunni learning in the Muslim world, told a gathering.

Columnist Ahmed Gamal Badawi wrote in the liberal opposition daily
Al-Wafd that the government policy to “besiege” Islamists with
“obscenity” would backfire and only add “millions to their ranks.”

Wael Abdel Fattah, a producer of one of the new talk shows but also
a government critic, said the conflicting messages of arresting
fast-breakers while challenging religious sensitivities just show the
state’s determination to impose its power on all sides.

The state “is now dressing up in fashion, wearing a suit and tie,
talking elegantly, showing pretty pictures but it is still very much in
control … it all fits the traditional tools of oppression,” he said. –

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