CAIRO — The holy month of Ramadan has brought out Egypt’s cultural split personality, twisting Egyptians into knots over whether their society is secular, Muslim or a muddled mix.
Two furious debates have been raging through the season in the Arab world’s most populous nation. On one hand, rumors that police arrested Egyptians who were violating the daily Ramadan fast raised dire warnings from secularists that a Taliban-like rule by Islamic law is taking over.
On the other, Ramadan TV talk shows on state-sponsored television featuring racily dressed female hosts discussing intimate sex secrets with celebrities have sparked outrage from conservatives, denouncing what they call the decadence that is sweeping the nation.
So is Egypt being taken over by sinners or saints? Egyptians have always been a boisterous combination — priding themselves on their piety while remaining determined to have a good time.
Ramadan, the final day of which was last Saturday in most of the Islamic world, shows the contradictions. Egyptians widely adhere to the fast, in which the faithful abstain from food, drink, smoking and sex from dawn until dusk. After sunset, while some pray into the night, many Egyptians party with large meals and a heavy dose of TV entertainment produced specially for the month.
But the confusion comes from the government as well. It has often promoted strict Islamic principles in an attempt to co-opt conservatives and undercut extremists whom the state has been battling for decades. But it is also increasingly dominated by businessmen who are promoting Western-style secular culture more heavily than ever this year.
There is no explicit law in Egypt to punish those not abiding by the fast, nor are there religious police to enforce Islamic rules as in Saudi Arabia. Many restaurants still serve during the day, and coffee shops can be seen with their doors cracked open, patrons hidden inside sipping tea or smoking water pipes.
But independent newspapers reported this month that police arrested more than 150 people for openly violating the fast.
Most of the reports have been unconfirmed. But Ahmed, a 27-year-old fruit vendor, told The Associated Press he and 15 other people were arrested in a market in the southern town of Aswan on Sept. 5, for smoking in public.
“I was slapped, kicked around,” Ahmed said, refusing to give his last name for fear of further police harassment. “They asked me why I am not fasting … They insulted me and used foul language.”
Ahmed said he was kept in the police station for nearly six hours, then let go.
“Now I am fasting, I swear,” he said.
Police officials refused to confirm if Ahmed and others were arrested for not fasting, saying only they were rounded up for investigation.
The reports sparked criticism from Egyptian human rights activists, who called the crackdown unconstitutional. Activists said it appeared some police were acting individually to enforce the fast, a sign of increasing conservatism in the Interior Ministry. Some critics argued that adherence to the fast is traditionally a matter between each individual Muslim and God.
The Interior Ministry didn’t deny or confirm the reports, but a ministry spokesman was quoted in the press earlier this month insisting the security forces have a right to crack down on violators of the fast.
Bilal Fadl, a popular satirical columnist, said the ministry is mimicking “big sister Saudi Arabia,” adding, “can we be so demanding from the sheiks in the Interior Ministry and ask them to postpone their campaign to defend [Islam] … and start with implementing religious laws that fight corruption?”
An Egyptian blogger who goes by the pseudonym “Kalb Baladi” (Stray Dog) warned, “once we start going down the slippery slope of religious fascism, Egypt will become another Afghanistan in no time.”
But the campaign appeared to have backers among the public. One woman who called into a popular talk show, Al-Qahira Al-Yom (Cairo Today), said fast-breakers were “looking for trouble” and should be jailed.
Television talk shows and soap operas produced especially for Ramadan have sparked their own debates.
State television and private channels owned by businessmen close to the government flooded the airwaves with new programs that liberally discussed taboo subjects like extramarital relationships, polygamy, divorce and sex education. Most featured stylish female hosts and often veered into titillation.
Ramadan is supposed to be a time of piety and religious reflection. Open talk of sex on TV is frowned upon throughout the year — but it’s outright shocking during the holy month, when Muslims believe Islam’s holy book, the Quran, was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.
Gehad Auda, a political analyst and member of the ruling party, said the government was intentionally trying to challenge religious extremists by opening the doors to more daring topics on TV.
“There is a new television logic, not only with images, but also through dialogue … [of] breaking taboos surrounding many issues” to raise social awareness, Auda said.
In one episode of a talk show called “The Daring One,” the host — a famous female film director with a penchant for short skirts — kept pressing her actress guest about what she and her boyfriend liked to do when they’re alone.
On the same show, another actress confessed she once had an abortion — which is illegal in Egypt and strictly forbidden by Islamic law. A male guest admitted to extramarital affairs.
The barrage of provocative shows has unleashed heavy criticism.
“We should boycott all this absurdity and obscenity and read the Quran,” Mahmoud Ashour, an official with al-Azhar, the highest institution of Sunni learning in the Muslim world, told a gathering.
Columnist Ahmed Gamal Badawi wrote in the liberal opposition daily Al-Wafd that the government policy to “besiege” Islamists with “obscenity” would backfire and only add “millions to their ranks.”
Wael Abdel Fattah, a producer of one of the new talk shows but also a government critic, said the conflicting messages of arresting fast-breakers while challenging religious sensitivities just show the state’s determination to impose its power on all sides.
The state “is now dressing up in fashion, wearing a suit and tie, talking elegantly, showing pretty pictures but it is still very much in control … it all fits the traditional tools of oppression,” he said.
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