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The Rise of Religiosity in Egypt
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I have a friend who grew up in Egypt who is now a postdoc in America. He sent me this article about the rise of (at least the outward appearance) of piety in Egyptian society.

As Egyptians increasingly emphasize Islam as the cornerstone of identity, there has been a growing emphasis on public displays of piety.

For women, that has rapidly translated into the nearly universal adoption of the hijab, a scarf fitted over the hair and ears and wrapped around the neck. For men, it is more and more popular to have a zebibah.

The zebibah, Arabic for raisin, is a dark circle of callused skin, or in some cases a protruding bump, between the hairline and the eyebrows. It emerges on the spot where worshipers press their foreheads into the ground during their daily prayers.

My friend just got back from Egypt. It had been a few years since he'd been back home, and he noticed a definite difference in the number of women wearing hijabs.

Whether this is a real increase in religious fervor in Egypt (one of the more moderate Arab countries), or just an increase in the fashionability of appearing to be pious, it's not a good sign.

The article speculates on some of the possible causes:

There are many reasons for the Islamic revival that has swept Egypt and the Middle East, from the rise of satellite television, which offers 24 hours of religious programming, to economies that offer little hope of improving people’s lives, to the resentment of Western meddling in the Middle East.

But there is also peer pressure, a powerful force in a society where conformity and tradition are aspired to and rewarded.

It's pretty ironic if satellite TV is a cause for increased religiosity. You'd think increased exposure to the world at large, and both the good and bad ideas of Western culture, would play a moderating role on a strongly religious society. But if all they're watching is 24-hour religious programming, I can see how this would be reinforcing. I don't know how satellite TV works in most Arab countries. It could be that they don't even have access to certain kinds of programming.

The economic situation is probably a big factor. And it's unfortunately a negative feedback loop. Religious dogmatism keeps cultures from advancing ideologically and technologically. Conservative Islam stifles innovation and scientific thought. Views regarding the role of women in society, and the condemnation of homosexuals (except in Iran...there are no homosexuals there!) keeps those segments of the population from making positive contributions to society in business and politics. So the massive religiosity keeps the society from succeeding economically in a 21st century world, and that economic stultification just leads to greater religiosity. It's one of them vicious cycles.

I'm no sociologist, but my guess is that the economy, and not so much satellite TV or American intervention in the Middle East, is the largest influence in this trend. And it doesn't bode well for anyone. If this is a general trend in the Middle East, an increase in religious conservatism, rather than the sorely-needed reformation to religious moderation, then the relationship between predominantly Islamic countries and those with liberal, democratic ideals is only going to get worse in the future.

I still support the decision to topple Hussein. There was plenty of justification, regardless of what the "official" reasons were. A relatively stable, democratic Iraq could serve as a model for other Middle Eastern countries to envy. I honestly don't think that if we hadn't invaded Iraq, and acceded to all of bin Laden's demands (withdrawing all American presence from the Middle East, severing ties with Israel, etc.) that al Qaeda and company would just pack up and call it quits.

It will be interesting to see what the policies of the next American administration will be, especially if the Democrats are in the White House. My guess is that they won't be all that qualitatively different from the current one's, but maybe the worldwide PR will be better.

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