December 29, 2004

From Cairo to Mount Sinai, Part Six: The Power of the Prophet's Word

Read Part Five.

The Bedu are much harder to crack. Their entire world has changed so completely over the past thirty years, and yet so much about it remains a mystery, cut off from the casual observer and inexplicable to Westerners. In only three decades they have gone from nomadic tent-dwellers and peasants to townsmen, from relying on trade in specialist goods to relying on income from tourism, from being cut off from the rest of the world almost totally to playing host to visitors from every corner of the globe. The disruption to their traditional way of life has been complete, yet most of them would raise little objection. The modern amenities that can ameliorate the harsh conditions of desert life have understandably been met with enthusiasm by the Bedu.

And yet, old ways persist. There are the few who for whatever reason did not make the transition at all, unbelievably hardy mountain shepherds who come to town only twice a year for provisions. A young Bedu friend pointed one of them out to me one day and commented, ‘I haven’t seen him for years. But men like him are rarer and rarer.’ Those are the exceptions. For the average Bedu, the hangovers from the past are less extreme: their pride in their home country (very few of them make the move to Cairo, unlike most other rural Egyptians), the intimacy they have with their camels, and the way they still seem almost mystically attuned to the desert. Their tribalism is less fierce these days, but it is still present; and in general they feel a great pride in practicing an Islam so close, or so they say, to the Islam of the Prophet, including what they believe was Islam’s original tolerance. This is indicated by the firman guaranteeing the monastery protection from Muslim armies, dictated by the Prophet himself, which among other things stipulates that a Christian woman married to a Muslim should be left to practice her religion in peace. How do Saudi Arabia’s puritanical Wahabis respond to that, I wonder? As it happens, the last Bedu woman to receive Christian communion died in the eighteenth century, a testament to the power of the Prophet’s word.

Pride in religion is another thing the monks and the Bedu have in common, and it acts for them like a powerful balm with which to soothe whatever wounds modernity has inflicted on their pious souls and minds. This is especially true of the monks, who are both more modern and more overtly religious than their Muslim neighbors. But it gives a stick to the Bedu as well, to shake at the nebulous powers that are changing their world – but only when it suits them. In the West, we have given a name to this kind of religious pride: fundamentalism; and it is what in the end most sharply separates us from them who have not been modernized (or not fully so), for it is at to the heart of our different worldviews.

If it is a question of different levels of cultural, psychological, or even spiritual development, as most Westerners believe (if only subconsciously), then who occupies the higher rung on that ladder is not so easy to determine. We secularists – and even the religious among us are secularized in as much as our attitude to authority and deference to the rational favor the individual and not the divine, whatever that means – we value intellectual curiosity, objectivity and broad-mindedness on every level, and to a certain extent we achieve them, which is no bad thing. It is impossible to ignore, however, how much the fundamentalists are in possession of what we used to call virtue, things like honor and dignity, courage, sobriety, and an all-embracing faith; and, in the case of the Bedu at least, how they are markedly free of the psychological complexes which everywhere plague Western man: anxiety, guilt, depression, despair.

Still, the longer I stayed with them, the more difficult I found their fundamentalism, especially as they frequently used it to justify to themselves the ways much of their tradition is being allowed to slip away, in the name of a special dispensation or even of progress, as if being a right-believing member of a divinely favored group were the primary criterion of salvation, and excused the many compromises which, though small, ultimately impoverish a religion for good. Compromises are perhaps inevitable, for ‘offences must needs come’, but they shouldn’t be reveled in, let alone rationalized away. As with the ‘Down with Bush!’ sloganeers in Cairo (and maybe in America too), all quick ideological escape routes smack of hypocrisy, and condemn their adherents to become what they think they are most vehemently rejecting.

Part Seven: He Himself a Bloodless Sacrifice

Posted by djsmall at December 29, 2004 07:13 PM