Egyptian identity, like so many others made up of several layers, begins in Ancient Egypt, a civilization that flourished for nearly thirty centuries. Further layers derive from the Coptic Age, when Egypt in its entirety was an Eastern Christian society. Then there are countless layers from the Islamic and Arabic-speaking Egypt. There are still more layers deriving from modern Egypt, the founder of which, Mohamed Ali, ruled from 1805 to 1848, and whose kingdom continued for over a century after his death.
Finally, there are the many layers produced by Egypt’s geographical location as a Mediterranean society, more specifically, as an Eastern Mediterranean country with its opulent diverseness from trade.
This complex construct, which formed over millennia the rich and multi-layered Egyptian identity – a product of fruitful interaction and cross-fertilization among different civilizations and cultures – is today in grave peril, facing as it does systematic and deliberate attempts to destroy its very essence as represented in the many layers that make up its variegated character.
It is these layers that distinguish Egyptian society from various surrounding societies which seem to have a less-developed civilizational and cultural formation as a result of their one-dimensional composition.
The trend of political Islam is exulting as it stands poised to take over the reins of power in Egypt. However, the domination by this trend over the country’s political and cultural landscape poses a real danger to the multi-layered nature of the Egyptian people.
Because of the grip the conservative schools of thought have acquired over the minds of most Muslims today — with the rampant spread of the ideas of ibn-Hanbal and his disciples, ibn-Taymiyah, ibn Qaiym Al-Juzeya and all the Salafi schools – the spread of a cultural wave that is opposed to the non-Islamic dimensions of the Egyptian identity is a likely – and exceedingly dangerous – development. We are already hearing ominous mutterings about the ungodliness of “pagan” relics of Ancient Egypt, and threats to destroy the pyramids and other splendors of one of the most glorious civilizations in history.
We are also likely to see the spread of values opposed to the Other — whatever form “otherness” may take — representing yet another very dangerous threat to Egyptian diversity.
There is also the serious fear that the Islamic trend will redesign educational programs to promote the Islamic and Arab dimension at the expense of the other layers that make up the luxuriance that is Egypt.
This possibility is far from remote in the context of a legislative assembly dominated by a single trend. The mindset of the Islamic lawmakers who preside over the education committee is certainly opposed to religious or cultural diversity. There is no doubt that this trend will focus on magnifying the importance of the Islamic and Arab dimension while downgrading all the other dimensions that make up the richness of Egyptian identity. This is all that can be expected from a theocratic Parliament claiming a divine commission.
Unfortunately the trend to foster a one-dimensional identity actually began some years back as Islamic religious thinking came to permeate the minds of those responsible for the all-important sector of education in our society. Nowhere is the success of this trend more apparent than in the way the Arabic language and the Arabic literature curricula have evolved over the last few years. Instead of presenting literary masterpieces by such luminaries as Ahmed Lotfy el-Sayed, Taha Hussein, Abbas el-Aqqad, Abdul Qader el-Mazny, Salama Moussa, Tewfik el-Hakim, Naguib Mahfouz, Youssef Idris, Nizar Qabbani, Badr Shaker el-Sayab, Mikhael Na’ema an others, Arabic language and literature courses are now virtually indistinguishable from religious courses.
The well-known Lebanese author and intellectual, Amin Maalouf, rightly describes any one-dimensional identity as “destructive.” For in this day and age, a monolithic identity that attributes itself to a single source is bound to clash with the values of pluralism, diversity, analytic thinking, critical questioning, and acceptance of the Other, not to mention the recognition that the various civilizations and cultures have all contributed to the higher ideal of a common humanity.
There are those who claim that the Islamization of Egyptian society reflects “the will of the people.” But history teaches us that the will of the people is not always beneficial. Eight decades ago, the will of the German people brought Adolf Hitler to power, plunging mankind into genocidal wars and massacres that claimed more than fifty million lives. This example allows us to criticize the current cultural wave sweeping over Egypt – one that threatens to sweep away the non-Islamic components of Egyptian identity and to transform us into a society with a one-dimensional identity, like the desert societies that surround us. Even if the present state of affairs came about by “the will of the people,” we would do well to remember that, as Voltaire said: Even if repeated by a thousand people, a mistake is still a mistake.