Egypt’s Partisan God

Snow in Cairo, and for the first time in well over a hundred years. But rather than raising discussions on global climate change, Facebook comments and casual conversations are rife with references to God’s wrath, or benevolence, depending on which side of the political fence you stood.

Last March the country was hit by a swarm of locusts. I remember riding the metro listening to a group of people blaming this on the President and his Muslim Brotherhood who provoked God by their ungodly behavior.  A few seats away, a saintly looking old man was trying to convince everyone that the grasshoppers were in fact heaven-sent by the grace of God for Egyptians to feed on them amidst the food shortage. Had not the holy Prophet himself allowed their consumption, and were they not a main staple of our pious brethren in the Gulf?

In October, the national football team took a heavy beating at the world Cup qualifier. It was instantly proclaimed that the loss was God’s unequivocal sign of outrage with the ouster of the “legitimate” President.

Whether it is a flood, an earthquake, a collision, or a slippery banana peel, be sure that God will inevitably be summoned in the conversation. And in politics, God will always be on the side of whoever’s doing the talking.

For the God of Egypt is a political God past compare. He has an opinion on all issues of policy, governance, economics and culture, and though He allows Egyptians to choose their course freely, he apparently decrees his judgment ex post facto by some miraculous sign. Signs of course remain in the eye of the beholder, for as we’ve seen, there are an infinite number of ways one can interpret snow or locusts.

Historically, politicized Muslims claimed God to their side ever since the days of the fourth caliph. What was essentially a political rift became a protracted religious feud among Sunnis, Shiites, Khawarij, and their other numerous offshoots. But it is not fair to accuse Muslims alone of politicizing religion. All major world religions, and I suppose most of the minor ones, have been used as a rallying banner by some politician or the other throughout the course of history and to this very day. It is not easy for example to overlook the vitriolic politico-religious ramblings of the likes of Jerry Falwell, Narendra Modi, or Joseph Lieberman.

But Egypt’s polity does have this overarching, prominent trait of excommunicating dissenters and reading too much of “God’s vengeful hand” into each and every occurrence. It probably doesn’t help that Egyptians were the victims of the ten plagues that befell them during the time of Moses. This experience was probably passed down from generation to generation, and was ultimately entrenched into the collective mentality of Egyptians; that they live in a land overly scrutinized and sanctioned by a God whose revenge comes fast and with great fanfare. It did not occur to Egyptians though to remember that the ten plagues “passed-over” the Jews and specifically inflicted their oppressors. The “plagues” of the past few years however did not pass over anyone in the land of Egypt. Shouldn’t that entail that God hates all Egyptians equally, regardless of where they stand on the political spectrum?

What kind of God do Egyptians believe in; He who chooses to support the cads of the military or the cretins of the Brotherhood; He who read the Constitution of 2012 and the current draft and then firmly decided that one was better than the other? Can there be a more banal God than He?

This recourse to religion to explain events is not, unfortunately, the plight of the commoner alone. It is systematically used by the state and its institutions as well. It is not uncommon to see some pundit being invited on national television to stress the importance of viewing this or that as Godly redemption or damnation. The Egyptian Army itself is one of the strongest agents of religious socialization in the country. The political turmoil in Egypt is often described as a conflict between the forces of Religion and Secularism, when in fact the simplest attempt to analyze the discourse of the Army, it’s spokespersons, it’s leaders, and its political proponents, will reveal the great deal of religiosity that infuses their pronouncements and positions. The use and abuse of scripture and other religious references was always an attribute shared by both the state and non-state actors, and as signs could always have varying interpretations, so can scripture, which ineluctably depends on parables, similes, and gross generalizations to push the point through.

I’d recently dug into an old chapter on Spinoza, one of the most devout and learn’d of Jewish scholars (which was probably why he was excommunicated by Jewish scholars). In his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus he opined that scripture never explains things by secondary causes, but only narrates them in the style that has the power to move men, especially uneducated men, in a style that appeals to their devotion, and their relation with the metaphysical. Scripture’s object thus is not to invoke scientific research or logical reasoning, but it is merely used to attract masses and lay hold of their imagination, and of their innate tendency towards submission.

In this same vein of Holy Scripture, politicians use scripture to augment devotion, and devotion can only be continued by invoking scripture, which is probably why we’re witnessing a depletion of reference to science or to the temporal notions of cause and effect when discussing politics, economics, the climate, or anything else that is essentially temporal and worldly.

God makes easier the lives of politicians, and continued references to him enhance their strategic communication skills. Politicians need to deliver a God to the people, and what sort of God would he be if he never took sides, and never casted a vote?

I leave you with this Bob Dylan Classic.

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