By late morning on a Friday, the streets of the Hada'ek al-Zaytoun neighborhood are already clogged with vendors, women in full veils and men in white robes and traditional beards. They come, every Friday, for weekly prayers at the al-Aziz Billah mosque, which has a reputation for attracting old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone sheiks whose preaching and rhetoric push the limits of the Egyptian government's strict control of religious expression. Conservative Muslims -- angry at a fallen world, contemptuous of their own government's secular leanings and convinced that behind much of what is wrong with Egypt is a failure to stand up to the United States and its client, Israel -- flock to the streets outside this thoroughly unprepossessing mosque. Undeterred by the blistering summer sun, they lay out prayer mats on the dusty ground, and wait for the hour of 1 o'clock.
When it arrives, the high, plaintive chant of the azan, the call to prayer, ascends in semitones through the air. Metal grates slam shut on storefronts. Latecomers rush to find a spot within earshot of the loudspeakers that will carry Sheik Abu-Amar Masry's words to the hundreds of faithful gathered outside the small mosque. Carved out of a dull, brutally square apartment house, the interior of the mosque can only hold a few dozen at most.
Al-Aziz Billah is not one of Cairo's great historic mosques with minarets and a dome and hundreds of lanterns dangling in a cool, cavernous space. It is almost literally a hole in the wall, in a neighborhood that was one of Cairo's finest -- a place of villas and gardens for the wealthy. But that neighborhood is long gone, and now Hada'ek al-Zaytoun (the name means garden of olives) is overcrowded, poor and falling apart. Ugly high-rises have been shoehorned in among the old villas, most of which are crumbling. Cats haunt the forgotten gardens, and scamper over what were once fountains.
Masry begins by evoking a world of peril. The day of judgment can come at any time. Few are ready. Few are sufficiently without shame that they would dare invite the Prophet into their homes. The arc of his speech, which flows in increasingly rapid and urgent tones for an hour, with only one short pause, is a long crescendo. From the certainty of death and imminent judgment, the sermon, as it is translated by an interpreter, grows in force and scope, taking in more particulars of this world, moving from the abstractions of sin and death to the failure of contemporary Muslims to lead their lives with the purity of the first generation of Islam. When he reaches the traditional prayers for the defenders of Islam, Masry cites the victims of Iraq, Palestine and Chechnya, a commonplace troika of anger in this part of the world.
He refers to America and Israel only glancingly before concluding, but he has, like so many other people in this society, been talking about them the entire time. There is a code, in these prayers, that allows preachers to reach their audience without speaking in particulars.
There is no doubt, for example, that when he mentions the cities of Ad and Thamud, he is talking about the United States. Like the Biblical Sodom and Gomorrah, Ad and Thamud were renowned in the Koran for their wickedness, though their particular sin seems to have been arrogance. Ad, a city famous for the strength of its people, was destroyed by a storm that raged for eight days; Thamud was swallowed up in an earthquake. Masry uses Ad and Thamud to stand for the hollow achievements of America. The catastrophic fate of these ancient people comforts those who wish to see America, "the second Ad," brought to account.
Masry's prayers were pallid compared to what can often be heard at al-Aziz Billah. A week before, according to a street vendor selling cassette tapes of previous prayers, the renowned sheik Muhammad Hassaan gave a far more blistering sermon. Sale of these tapes is a brisk business. Hassaan's sermon, called "Crisis of a Nation," is preceded by a slickly packaged introduction, using excerpts from the text, punctuated by a low, ominous voice repeating the title as a refrain. Masry's sermon is a passionate denunciation of the humiliations suffered by the Arab people -- betrayed by their rulers, shamed by defeat, martyred in their homelands by colonialist powers, and especially Israel. Rape is a binding metaphor, a crime of control, humiliation and despoliation that is both a literal problem in a corrupt, increasingly Westernized world and an encompassing vision of what it means to be an Arab.
His speech reaches a harrowing climax with an allusion to an image -- of uncertain authenticity but supposedly from Abu Ghraib and widely known from the Internet -- of an Iraqi woman apparently being raped by American soldiers. That brings the sheik (and his listeners) to the point of tears.
"Ah-rab! Ah-rab!" cries Hassaan, prolonging the word into harrowing, searing and tremulous screams. It is a call to battle, a demand to stand up from the dust and confront America and the West. It is the sound of no compromise.
Power and Persecution
Although they speak directly to only a minority within a society like Egypt, voices like Hassaan's and Masry's have come to represent, for many Americans, the mind of an entire region. From the outside, their language sounds like incitement. To Egyptian ears, where the rhetoric of anger at the United States and Israel is all but universal, the fact that there is no explicit provocation against the Egyptian government means that these sermons fall within the accepted parameters of religious discourse. Even so, the status of religious fundamentalists -- the men who preach, the people who listen, and the political activists who seek religious rule -- is both perilous and powerful in this heavily-policed state on the Nile.
Those suspected of belonging to active Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Gamaa Islamiya (the radicals whose spiritual leader was implicated in the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993), are subject to periodic harassment, arrest and persecution by the government. They argue -- and there is wide acceptance of this belief -- that the root of this persecution is pressure from the United States and Israel, which force a craven secular government to suppress political movements threatening to the West.
The sense that the government is indiscriminate in its abuse of fundamentalists, rounding up not just the politically active but anyone who even "looks" like they might belong to Islamist groups, strengthens the feelings of persecution among many conservatives.
"This feeling of persecution really increased after September 11th," says Diaa Rashwan, who studies comparative politics at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "Before 9/11 you would hear it from Islamist groups, the Muslim Brotherhood, but not from the majority [of Muslims]. After September 11, because of this very heavy and I think stupid pressure from the Bush administration, it helps to increase such feelings -- of persecution, humiliation."
Though they may be relatively few in number, the rhetoric of the most incendiary believers has a reach well beyond neighborhoods like Hada'ek al-Zaytoun. Hatred of America, which cuts across all social and class divisions, is a significant point of contact between the fundamentalists and the rest of Egyptian society. A new religious conservatism, thriving among young members of the middle- and upper-middle classes, is as much about forging an Egyptian identity through resistance to Western encroachments as it is about religion. The wind in the sails of this new conservatism is blowing out of places like Hada'ek al-Zaytoun.
Stretching out toward the great pyramids, sprawling Giza is another area where prosperity has been stymied. Fundamentalist religious life is flourishing. Hassan Howainy is a professor of philosophy at the ancient al-Azhar University in Cairo -- for centuries a center of Islamic learning. He lives off Faisal Street, in Giza, infamous for the Egyptian government's seizure there of fundamentalists during its periodic crackdowns. Howainy, who is blind, sits in a red plastic lawn chair, rocking back and forth as he speaks. He is graying, and lives in a small apartment surrounded by books, some of which are read to him by former students. By local standards, Howainy is considered a moderate.
"Ad and Thamud went against the laws of God, and God took revenge upon them," he says. "We see a lot of signs of how God takes revenge on people who violate his laws, who go far away from religion. What's going on in America -- forest fires, floods, hurricanes, this kind of destruction -- and the diseases, like AIDS, caused by abnormal ways: We consider all of these as signs of the revenge of God."
He speaks as if these things were obvious and only a mind traduced by atheism and Western corruption could fail to see the meaning of Ad and Thamud. As a professor at al-Azhar, Howainy is part of an ancient and venerated religious establishment. But while his language echoes ideas heard from Christian fundamentalists in this country (Jerry Falwell blamed 9/11 on "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians," among others), Howainy has little patience with the particular fundamentalism heard at mosques like al-Aziz Billah.
"They do not understand the core of Islam," he says. "They are the ones that export terrorists because of their strictness and their limited moral understanding. It is a school of thought that suits a mind that is simple, Bedouin-like." He claims that Egyptians completely refuse to embrace this thinking; he minimizes both the fundamentalist threat and their feelings of persecution.
Stability is a word that Howainy uses frequently, and it is the destabilizing influence of the al-Aziz Billah brand of fundamentalists that is his primary concern. They presume to make judgments about what is and is not religiously proper, about who is and isn't a good Muslim. It's not that one shouldn't make these kinds of judgments, he feels. Rather, these are judgments best left to established institutions like al-Azhar (which is essentially state-run). He points to his own lack of a beard and laughs that this would make him, in some people's eyes, an unbeliever. Howainy is not a secularist. He supports an Egypt ruled by sharia law, the traditional Islamic code that regulates matters both spiritual and practical. The best route to stability for Egypt is a sharia-based democratic society, he says, with religious thought developed under the university's tutelage. In fact, democracy within the limits of religious law is the best route to stability not just for Egypt, but for the rest of the world, he says. It would be a wise choice for America, he believes.
Listening to Howainy gives one the sense that America is not a particular place one might find on the map, but merely a collection of pathologies: mental illness, homosexuality, atheism, materialism. It is, like Ad and Thamud, a mythical incarnation of arrogance. But while Howainy is vague about where he gets his news of America ("We know these things," he says), he is not ignorant of America. Far from it. He is up-to-date about social issues, including gay marriage. He has devoted his life to understanding America through the ideas of its philosophers, especially the late 19th-century "pragmatists" such as Charles Sanders Peirce, James Dewey and William James, who sought a grand synthesis between the scientific method, spiritual and social life, and human happiness. Like many people in this country, he knows a great deal about America, but in a very particular way.
"Being religious, according to William James, depends on personal benefit," he says. "We don't have this belief." The pragmatists' focus on the material -- on the efficiency and effectiveness of ideas and social structures -- led them and America astray, Howainy believes. He connects this lack of pure, spiritual commitment to God to a general, pervasive malaise within America that explains all its actions in the world: It is a land of power and personal satisfaction which destroys the soul, and leads the country to grasp for oil and land in the Muslim world. It is a philosophy that will destroy the United States, just as godlessness destroyed the Soviet Union.
Knowing America, knowing its flaws, weaknesses and contradictions, is for him almost a theological exercise, a way of clarifying Muslim values and defeating, if only rhetorically, American claims to idealism. Again and again, while America is castigated for its policies, for its unconditional support for Israel during the second intifada, and its interventionist foreign policy that began with 9/11 and the attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan, it is the sin of Ad and Thamud -- arrogance -- that is uppermost in the general indictment.
Decline and Fall
The discourse on arrogance is apocalyptic.
Ad and Thamud were utterly destroyed. The Soviet Union, which suppressed Islamic life in its Central Asian republics, can no longer be found on any map. The United States is all-powerful, which is no defense against divine judgment. When the subject is arrogance, the language here takes on an absolutist tone. Almost everyone agrees that America's last claim to be any force for good in the world ended with the Bush administration's decision to attack Iraq.
The attack on Iraq is described, in sermons at al-Aziz Billah, and by moderate figures as well, as a complete annihilation of the Iraqi people. "History is collapsing and a nation has fallen," says the fundamentalist sheik Hassaan. The image of Iraq is not one of suffering, violence and instability, as presented by the news networks. Rather, Iraq is gone; its culture demolished; an entire society has been lost. Things keep disappearing from the mental map of this region: Ad and Thamud, Iraq. Even the old America -- once seen as a benign and neutral presence, a balance to the old European colonial power -- is described as having disappeared.
But arrogance is not the only sin. Hypocrisy is a close second, and hypocrisy is a curious sort of sin, in which one's claims to be something are measured against one's actions. With the sin of hypocrisy, there is a small rhetorical opening to a view of America not entirely contemptuous; to accuse America of hypocrisy is to at least acknowledge that it has professed ideals that are not exclusively a matter of power, ambition, and pride.
Listen, for instance, to Muhammad Tosson, vice president of the Lawyers Syndicate, a group that has criticized the Egyptian government for its policy of detaining political and religious opponents. Or to the man sitting next to him in a crowded first-floor office in downtown Cairo, another lawyer who identifies himself only as a member of Gamaa Islamiya. Both men cross the line that the sheiks at al-Aziz Billah only skirt. They criticize America, Israel and their own government, and for that, both have been arrested. Both see America as directly responsible for the detention, torture and death of Muslims in Egypt. Both return again and again to American hypocrisy as a central theme, perhaps even more important than all the other, more tangible crimes of America.
"America has completely destroyed human rights," says Tosson, through an interpreter. "We have so many detainees here, with no trials. The U.S. knows about this. The U.S. prefers that it happens because the detainees are cases of Islamic detention. They know very well that we have detainees under torture. The Egyptian government is doing this to satisfy the U.S."
Tosson identifies himself as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group with long roots in Egyptian political life and a group that, though officially banned, enjoys an uneasy truce with the government and functions as a behind-the-scenes opposition party. The man from Gamaa Islamiya ("The Islamic Group") subscribes to a more radical fringe, and is more radical in his rhetoric. He wears a threadbare green suit with sandals; his beard is unkempt. Asked the difference between the Muslim Brotherhood and Gamaa Islamiya, he laughs a mirthless little laugh and then holds his hands as if cradling a rifle and pulls an imaginary trigger.
"Attacking America is justice," he says. "To defend my nation, I would go and kill if attacked. The Islamic nation and the Arab nation are one, in all countries."
He describes his own encounters with the Egyptian authorities -- a series of arrests since 1988 that he says included torture, hours of electric shock, chairs placed on top of him, kicking and beating, hours of questioning. Some of the specifics defy credulity, but he insists the long litany -- 10 hours of electric shock, 17 hours of hanging on a door, beaten for five hours, then five more hours of electric shock -- is all true. Although it's impossible to confirm his particular story, human rights organizations have accused Egypt of all of these practices.
"I would be the first to carry a gun," he says. But he has not, he says, yet carried a gun. And though he may be one of the angriest men in Egypt, he sees an easy solution: Yankee go home.
"We don't want anything from America but one thing: Just leave us alone," he says. "Have peace with us. Don't take our lands. Don't give aid to dictators who put this pressure on us."
With "don't take our lands," he reiterates the widely held belief that America covets direct control over the region, for its oil and to further the aims of Israel. But as he says all this, and as he demands from a reporter some response to a barrage of questions -- Why does America always support Israel and never the Palestinians? Why does America support human rights at home, but never abroad? Why are Muslim prisoners, at places like Abu Ghraib, treated like animals? -- it's hard not to hear a note of betrayal in his voice. He may be willing, perhaps, to carry a gun against America. But the America of high ideals, it seems, has gone missing from his map, and for a moment he seems more hurt than angry.