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Egypt, Islam and Democracy
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Geneive Abdo

      . . . journalist. Ms. Abdo is the author of No God, But God - Egypt and the Triumph of Islam. She has been a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, a Guggenheim Fellow and a Fellow at the Program for Near Eastern Studies at Princeton.  Ms. Abdo has spent most of the last decade in the Middle East, principally in Cairo. She has been a correspondent for The Guardian, The Economist and The Dallas Morning News.  She covered the fall of the Soviet Union for Reuters news agency.

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 A new version of democracy is struggling to be born, according to American reporter Geneive Abdo. It’s happening in Egypt.  And it is theocratic. Ms. Abdo has long observed moderate Egyptian “Islamists” (neither militants nor extremists) trying to find ways to modernize Islam while creating an entirely new kind of democracy which has never before existed -- a theocracy that is also democratic. Her extensive interviews and interactions were with people whose voices, she says, simply are not heard in the West.

Ms. Abdo has been a Middle East, Western and Central Asian correspondent for The Guardian, The Economist, The Dallas Morning News and the Reuters news agency and lived in Egypt. She found herself troubled by discrepancies she saw between what she considers Egypt’s reality and what she calls myths generated in the West to support government policies. So she wrote No God But God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam.

The democracy Egyptians want is an Egyptian one, says Ms. Abdo. And she acknowledges that theocratic democracy includes a lot of qualifiers. It has to be compatible with a thriving religion that is very much part of people’s lives, a religion that includes politics. Yes, Islamists want freedom, but they oppose freedoms which violate religious principles. Their justice and the judicial system they seek would be based on the Sharia Islamic Law. Free expression is important and desirable, but it should not undermine religion. Then factor in Islamic feminism and an important role for education. Many of these concepts are jarring to Westerners who, Ms. Abdo contends, want new democracies to be in lockstep with Western definitions both of what a democracy is and what a state should be.

The universal assumptions of democracy most Westerners take for granted -- a hunger for basic human rights; a fair and equitable judicial system; due process; free elections -- drive Islamists, Ms. Abdo says. She is in awe of the prices many of have paid and continue to pay, including long stretches in prison where she reports torture is routine.

It was Egypt’s energy and creativity that first captivated Ms. Abdo. Egyptians, she says, are uniquely adept at embracing life as it comes, able to combine their aspirations with a joy in living in the present moment. If the Islamists in Egypt are allowed more control of their own destiny, Ms. Abdo believes the result will be a better country for Egyptians. It might not be better for Western governments, she acknowledges, but it could allow for the most basic democratic experience of all -- a system that allows for self-expression. And she believes it is older democracies’ responsibility to let the Egyptians try.

[This Program was recorded November 2, 2001 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, US.]

Conversation 1

Geneive Abdo compares differences in how Egypt appears from within and from the West, for Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. Ms. Abdo describes what she believes is a profound cultural divide between Americans and Egyptians.


Conversation 2

Ms. Abdo describes the range of skills that enabled her to overcome major obstacles to being a female Western reporter in the Middle East. She summarizes what she sees as the enormity of the importance of the rise of Islam and Islamic movement in the 20th and 21st centuries.  She expresses concern that America is 30 years late in paying attention. She uses Egypt’s vibrant film industry as an example of many ways that Egypt is and has been pivotal to the Middle East for centuries. She describes the mass migrations that have created Greater Cairo and compares it to Turkey’s population shifts then enumerates important ways Middle Eastern countries are interconnected. She considers how a relaxed philosophy about life has helped Egyptians adapt.


Conversation 3

Difference between being philosophically and religiously Islamic are explored. Ms. Abdo compares how geography has affected Iran and Egypt. She uses Egypt’s government as an example of false Western ideas about Egypt, She describes what she considers Western myths about Egypt. Explaining why she refrains from using the term “fundamentalist,” Ms. Abdo summarizes what she believes today’s Islamists want in their lives, for Egypt and future governments. She distinguishes between the kind of democracy she believes Egyptians want and commonly understood Western-style democracy.  She begins to outline the basic freedoms moderate Islamists are seeking.


Conversation 4

Ms. Abdo continues with fundamental freedoms Egyptian Islamists seek. She uses politics to describe today’s transformation of Egyptian society. She assures us that the Islamists she is describing want to be modern, but also to be able to pick which aspects of Western culture are in harmony with their beliefs. She elaborates. Sensitive issues around freedom of expression are addressed. Democratic universals are considered. Ms. Abdo talks about the results of cultural socialization. She describes the democratic longings of many moderate Islamists.


Conversation 5

The role of women is explored. Ms. Adbo describes Islamist feminists. She speaks of women who consider the veil their source of freedom and challenges Western stereotypes.  Egyptian women’s power is described in religious terms. Deep differences are noted between Middle Eastern and Western ideas about women Education, she reports, is seen by Islamist moderates as doubly important for women who are responsible for raising children and advancing the culture. She offers examples, summarizing the role of family in the Middle East. Ms. Abdo honors the courage of people she encountered who are paying dearly as they strive for rights most Westerners take for granted.


Conversation 6

Egypt has much to teach the West, Ms. Abdo believes, and gives examples. She argues for the importance of allowing Egypt to be in charge of its own destiny.  She calls for patience as Egypt experiments with what she describes as a new phenomenon -- a theocracy that is democratic.



Ms. Abdo and her husband were splendidly accommodating when we met at their Cambridge apartment to record this program. We thank them both.

Oxford University Press publicist Susan Fensten was essential in making this Show possible and we are grateful to her.

Related Links:

Ms. Abdo's book, No God But God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam, is published by Oxford University Press.

In his book, No god but God, Reza Aslan examines what he thinks may be an Islamic Reformation.

Reza Aslan has also written a book title No god, But God. His subtitle is The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam. An important part of his perspective is that Islam, like Christianity at a similar point in its evolution, is now undergoing a reformation of sorts.

Former ambassador Peter Galbraith has written extensively about the conflicts among various sects of Islam, particularly those exacerbated by the American invasion of Iraq.

In her level-headed, fact-based style, Sandra Mackey continues to observe and write about the Middle East.

Richard Ben Cramer asserts that what most of us think we know about the Middle East is just plain wrong and that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands are corrupting Israel. Sandra Mackey says that one on the most challenging problems is the rise of fundamentalism among all of the partipants ... Jews, Muslims, AND Christians.

As Mr. Cramer suggests, some of our problems in the Middle East are traceable to failures of our news media to adequately cover the region and the politics that affect it. Bonnie Anderson is a former CNN correspondent and author of Newsflash: Journalism, Infotainment, and the Bottom-Line Business of Broadcast News. Tom Johnson is the former president of CNN. In a 50 year career, Haynes Johnson has been a reporter, editor, columnist, television commentator and author. David Halberstam is a Pulitizer Prize winning journalist and author.

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