Mention the word “communism” and take a quick look at the variety of reactions it triggers and try to see if any of them is in any way positive. Bear in mind that I am not talking about the United States, the birthplace of the Red Scare and the hotbed of all they-are-out-to-destroy-us theories; nor am I talking about any of the Eastern Bloc countries that were repressed, impoverished, and turned into vassal states because of Communism. I am talking about Egypt, a country whose only link with communism was a strategic alliance with the Soviet Union in the 1960s and which wasn’t manifested in a lot more than scholarships to Moscow universities and a medal of honor Khrushchev awarded to Nasser, besides a couple of political parties that never really got the chance to make the difference they aspired to.
In Egypt, communism means a variety of things, almost none of which are related to the ideology itself and hardly any of which is based on a reading of any of the texts in the canon. Strangely enough, communism is one of the terms that usually elicit a negative reaction among all sorts of Egyptians, even if for different reasons. Communism is what deprives you of all sorts of private property, nationalizes whatever business you might have, and forces you to live in a permanent state of austerity, when you get basic foodstuffs in rations and dream of imported chocolate for the rest of your life. Communism is an iron-grip regime that suppresses basic freedoms, kills dissenters, starves the bourgeoisie, and makes brainwashing propaganda its national priority.
Worst of all, communism is the eradication of religion and the “opium” blasphemy. These impressions and other similar ones that focus on the economic, political, and religious drawbacks of communism have one thing in common: they all focus on communism as practiced and not communism as preached. True, some of the setbacks of communist regimes can trace their origins to the Manifesto or Das Capital, the expropriation of privately-owned property being the most typical example, yet a closer look at the circumstances in which those regimes failed reveals the main culprit to be a set of violations that are common to any autocracy regardless of which ideology it ascribes to rather than a little booklet that is utterly overlooked the moment the dictator’s power becomes at stake. See how striking the similarities are between Stalin’s Soviet Union and Pinochet’s Chile and you will see where I am coming from.
In the midst of Gulag horror stories, gasoline coupons, and state atheism, nobody is willing to pay attention to the main principles upon which communism was originally based, so nothing is said about social justice, labor rights, or a classless society, and while everyone is obsessed with Mao Zedong and Nicolae Ceausescu, hardly anyone thinks of Che Guevara or Leon Trotsky. Can you actually blame them? Would you be able to overlook decades of atrocities for one freedom fighter or a couple of reasonable books?
Apply this to all the “-ism”s in the world and you will save yourself the hassle of criticizing the theory because you hate the application or feeling forced to like the application because you revere the theory. I don’t see why Salafism should be an exception!
If you contemplate how much fuss is made these days over a school of thought that dates back to the 9th century B.C., it would be quite easy to realize what Salafism means for Egyptians, and it would be much easier for its ardent advocates to give us all a break and to stop dragging the entire population into futile arguments that turn each critic into an enemy of Islam. “Do you know what Salafism means? It is the return to the ethics of the prophet and his companions? Do you really reject that?” That is how you are placed in a situation where any attack on Salafism or Salafis would be instantaneously translated into an attack on the religion and its prophet and all the first Muslims referred to as the “Salaf.” With all due respect to all that and to the fact that everyone is entitled to believe in whatever he or she chooses, that is not the point here at all, and dwelling on terminology regardless of facts on the ground is both a waste of time and a sign of insanity.
Let us take a quick look at what Salafism and clerics calling themselves Salafi currently represent for Egyptians who might have not heard any of those terms before the revolution and the majority of whom have no idea who, for example, Ibn Hanbal is and will not be bothered to learn about that at the moment. The ancient Egyptian civilization is “rotten” and all its monuments are idols that should either be destroyed or at least covered with a “thick layer of wax.” Rehearsals were already under way in Alexandria with the “indecent” statue of the Greek god Zeus and the four mermaids wrapped in fabric and ropes during a conference held by one of the Salafi parties. A sign placed on the cover read: “Egyptian women are dedicated to their husbands and the nation.” This last bit remains a mystery, but I believe the party wanted to make sure we all know the bare-breasted muses are not Egyptian! Christians are “heathen,” literature and cinema are “trash,” tourism is the “industry of decadence” … and the list goes on forever.
Women should wear the veil and it is the mission of the head of state to force them to do so, and a woman who does not comply should leave Islam and declare herself atheist. There was no mention of her options after doing so, but we all guessed it would be either being stoned to death or burning at the stake--which is a Christian practice.
Women are not to eat bananas, cucumbers, or any “penis-like” fruits and vegetables because this is bound to turn them on and the only exception is if the offending foods are cut into little pieces that destroy their original shape. No mention so far of other non-edible objects like broomsticks or rolling pins, but one assumes a list of all things forbidden to such lustful creatures will come out shortly. Women are not to wear high heels because the sound they produce announces their advent and therefore turns on all the men in the vicinity. They are, however, allowed to use this licentious type of footwear at home and specifically for their husbands. Women were born to cook and change diapers and this leaves no time for work. This message was delivered live when a group of Salafis attacked a women’s protest and yelled, “Go back to the kitchen.” Men and women should not be allowed to mingle in public and should be separated in workplaces … and the list is too shocking to contemplate!
Going through all statements made by men who cite Salafism as their main reference is almost impossible, but let me finish with one little incident. A few days ago a Salafi cleric gave a lecture to thousands of students at Cairo University, the place I have always taken pride in belonging to. “I am so happy to finally be at the place that was originally established to undermine the laws of God.” That is how he started and that is how he described the most respectable national educational institution in Egypt. I have no idea what he meant by saying that and I am not interested in investigating his claims.
I am similarly not willing to focus now on exploring the principles of Salafism and how different they really are from what we are hearing now. I don’t think East Germans thought of reading Marx before pulling down the Berlin Wall and flocking to their Western twin and I don’t think I or any other Egyptian who cares for seeing this country come to life again is going to dedicate any time or effort to study the discrepancy between theory and practice as far as Salafism in Egypt in concerned. Maybe after we are out of this deadlock we can sit back and talk over coffee about the pros and cons of Salafism and to what extent those who espoused it did it justice, as I am sure the Poles have been doing throughout the past few years. Right now, we don’t have this luxury, and until we do the essence of Salafism will have to be sidelined and only the way things are Salafized will get the full attention of every true Egyptian.
(Sonia Farid teaches English Literature at Cairo University. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)