Arab Muslim society has changed radically

Nov 01, 2011 12:00 AM

by Hissa Hilal

It was about 20 years ago when I began to notice a certain air of haughtiness in the attitude of many observant Arab Muslims. Some men with beards and women in niqab started giving everybody the “I'm-better-than-you” look.
At the time I was a teenager, but I still remember my brother telling me: "Bearded men are looking down at us. When we greet them, they don't return the greeting. And they are careful to make us feel that they are the real thing, that they are the ones who really know Allah, that the rest of us ordinary Muslims, whose religious commitment does not show in the way we look, are missing something."

I said to my brother: "Never mind that the true Muslim is by definition humble, tolerant and compassionate with all other people; never mind that Prophet Mohammed famously said that giving people a smile is like giving charity; and never mind that Islam teaches us that blessed is he who greets the others first."
Between the mid-1980s and the early 1990s, this air of superiority emanating from observant Muslims was, by my personal assessment, worth a yellow warning. From the early 1990s until the turn of the century, it rose to an orange alarm. In 2001, I believe it became a red alert.

Around this time, religious haughtiness and a sense of self-righteousness and overachievement started to spread across the Arab world among multahoun (bearded men) and munaqqabat (women in niqab). Many preachers were giving lectures reinforcing the belief among this particular category of Muslims that they were "the wholesome, untainted, God-chosen elite".
Black niqab, black socks and black gloves spread throughout the Arab world like a dark tidal wave. Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, Algeria, Palestine, Sudan, Somalia and, of course, the Gulf states and Yemen -- none was spared.

And this form of "religious distinction" was not channelled by attire alone. There was a crucial linguistic dimension to it. Hard-line clerics adopted an antiquated language straight from ancient Islamic books, capitalising on its awe-inspiring overtones and perceived righteousness to conquer the masses.
Through that domineering language, they launched insidious verbal assaults against public figures who disagreed with their points of view, so that others would not dare even to think.

Eventually, preaching became a moneymaker. And looking religious proved to be good for business. From pharmacies to electronics shops, Salafi-looking managers were doing well. In gynaecology clinics, Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi women doctors would suggest Sharia-compliant healing invocations before writing up the prescription.
I always wondered where they got the money to study medicine, engineering and information technology at expensive schools, while many others were unable to afford the same.

Indeed, Arab Muslim society has changed radically. Repression, external and self-imposed, has turned Arab societies into communities like rolled-up hedgehogs, with nothing to show but spikes.
There was a time when Arab society was more innocent and less complicated in the way it approached the question of gender mixing in public places, for instance. Women were everywhere, in the fields, in the souq and in the majlis. People were more spontaneous; they would appeal to their common sense when going about their life affairs. Now there seems to be a fatwa on everything.

So you have new generations of combative Muslims and self-proclaimed religious authorities -- Sunnis and Shiites -- who are fond of disseminating religious fear-mongering and "fear judgement day" rhetoric. Some of them have somehow become prescient; they know who is going to hell and who is going to heaven, and they can help you with indulgences if you need them.
And when I say even to my mother or sister that certain common practices in Muslim culture have nothing to do with true Islam, they advise me to pray for Allah's forgiveness for what I just said.

I fear a dark period is looming ahead, one filled with sectarian and religious strife. Fanaticism is not yet finished spawning its own devotees. What's more, literature and culture, which have the potential to fill an emotional vacuum and offset extremism, are under siege.
Intellectuals, poets and thinkers are constantly under attack. They are boycotted by the media and public event organisers, while the crackdown on book fairs and the harassment of publishers are common practices.

And then you hear him, the extremist cleric, accuse Arab artists of being "the spoilers of the Earth". Of course, yours truly is one of them; I am referred to as the "secular" or the "liberal" or, even better, the "rogue" munaqqaba (niqab-wearing woman).
So in my case it's worse: I'm a woman, and for an extremist there is no greater sin than a woman's embrace of literature and poetry.

Hissa Hilal is a poet based in Riyadh and the author of Enlightenment and Divorce and Annulment: A Study of Women in Tribal Society Through Poetry. This article was translated from Arabic by Achraf El Bahi.

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