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No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam

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No God but God

No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam, by Geneive Abdo

The rise of political Islam in the Middle East has generated a great deal of concern and fear — not only in West, but also among Muslims themselves. Many are worried that this will become a regression to medieval theocracies, but what if there are alternatives? Perhaps a strong, self-conscious, and overtly political Islamic system doesn’t have to be a repressive theocratic system?


Title: No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam
Author: Geneive Abdo
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN: 0195157931

•  Reveals much diversity in the expression of religious beliefs in Egypt

•  Some forms of Islam, like Sufi Islam, not addressed
•  Pious Muslims who support separating politics & religion not addressed

•  Examination of the development of political Islam in Egypt
•  Describes what people believe and how they are putting their beliefs into practice
•  Argues that political Islam need not be a theocratic, fundamentalist Islam


Book Review

At least, that’s what Geneive Abdo suggests and she describes how that may end up being the case in Egypt in her book No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam. A correspondent in Iran for The Guardian and The Economist who has done reporting all over the Middle East, Abdo spent several years interviewing hundreds of Islamists throughout Egypt and investigating both the steps they have taken as well as government reactions. Abdo has found that alongside the militant extremists there has been a quiet revolution going on behind the scenes and largely unnoticed, at least to Westerners.

All over Egypt people have been adopting Islamic traditions and organizations have been adopting Islamic principles. From the slums to college campuses, from homes to government offices, there has been a resurgence in the desire to apply Islam to everyday life, work, family, and more.

For decades Egyptians have had very social and political systems imposed upon them by autocratic governments supported either by the Soviet Union or the United States. Some programs might have had a chance of success, but in the end none of the promises were really fulfilled. The presence of huge numbers of well-educated engineers and other professionals with no jobs or careers is an especially harsh reminder of that. It’s no wonder that the Islamic movements, extremist and moderate, have been made up primarily of the professional classes rather than the poorest in society.

Particularly important is the activity of women. Rather than resisting the growth of political Islam, many are instead at the forefront. This includes many educated and established women, some of whom have left prosperous careers to devote themselves to Islam.

    “The appeal of popular Islam among educated, privileged women...poses an insidious threat to the regime and a seemingly overwhelming intellectual challenge to secularists at home and abroad. The elite’s attraction to religion goes straight to the heart of the struggle between Islam and modernity and the effort by today’s Islamists to forge a workable compromise between the two, this time within the highly charged world of male-female relations. ...For decades the role of women in Muslim society has provided one of the primary battlegrounds in the cultural war between East and West, between the colonized and the colonizers.”

These people are devout adherents to Islam and their efforts closely match those made by conservative, evangelical Christians in the United States. If one group can be considered extremist theocrats, then the other must be as well — though in reality it would be a mistake to generalize about either group as a whole. While extremists exist in both groups, many more are not at all interested in violent revolution or oppressing nonbelievers; they do, however, want all of society to be structured according to the demands of their religious beliefs.

No God but God

No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam, by Geneive Abdo

For secularists and nonbelievers, this will probably justify calling them extremists in some sense — certainly in America, where religious freedom and the separation of church and state are the norm. In Egypt, however, that isn’t the case. Right now the alternative isn’t between Islamism and church/state separation, but between Islamism and a corrupt secular government. People’s decision to opt for the former can hardly be considered surprising.

Although Westerners have learned to be suspicious of Islamic movements, in the context of societies like Egypt they are in fact more democratic and more free than the alternatives. Their proposed solutions to society’s problems — always Islamic solutions, of course — also promise to be more effective. Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood have long done more to provide social services and aid to people than the government itself.

The situation in Middle Eastern nations is far more complex than most media outlets tend to portray. There are multiple sides to every story and multiple options for every problem. Abdo’s book reveals some of the perspectives often lost in the sound bites, making it an important read for anyone trying to better understand what is going on in the region.

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