Thursday, October 29, 2009

Niqab and the Boundaries of Debate

The worst thing about the current debate over niqab (face veil) is that it gives the impression of a "healthy" and "free" society that openly discusses all contending views of its most pressing problems.

This is an illusion. Neither is Niqab a pressing problem in today's poverty-stricken, underdeveloped Egypt, nor is the arena of debate open to all issues. Mental coercion has narrowed down the list of acceptable discussions.

Setting the boundaries of legitimate thought and expression is crucial for the wellbeing of any society. The wider the margins accepted, the more the liberty the society enjoys. These margins are not necessarily dictated by overt state control, as in the case of Third World dictatorships; sometimes, subtle mechanisms and indirect propaganda techniques delineate the framework of permissible thought.

That’s the case in established democracies, allegedly the beacons of freedom in today's world. In the United States, for example, ideas that are taken for granted, such as that capitalism is the superior arrangement of economic activity and that democracy is the best form of governance, are rarely disputed.

The mass media play a crucial role in this "thought control" process. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman describe the effect of the mass media in the US as "brainwashing under freedom." Their function is to "train the minds of the people to a virtuous attachment" to their government and to the prevailing economic and social order. As such, the so-called "free market of ideas" is in essence guided; ideas that could jeopardize the privileges of the rich and powerful in a highly unequal society are abandoned.

Only in such an illiberal milieu could infamous ideas such as Fukuyama's "end of history" be entertained and cherished. Fukuyama's theory vowed that the triumph of capitalism and liberal democracy is irreversible. In his conception, both constituted the "end point of mankind's ideological evolution" and "the final form of human government." A weak and flawed argument, an insightful scholar like Fukuyama took only a few years to repent for. Clearly, the strict - albeit invisible and implicit - intellectual boundaries that delineate permissible thought produce ideas that perpetuate the status quo; thinking outside the box is discouraged, and possibly chastised.

In Egypt, the space for thought and expression has been tightening at alarming rates, with the mind of Egyptian society tilting towards the right. The heated discussion over whether Niqab is religiously obligatory or not makes any contentions that the Hijab (headscarf) is not obligatory (a debatable issue among theologians) seem awkward and intolerable, and thus excludes it from public debate. Under this suffocating censorship, no one would dare - like Ismael Adham did in the 1930s - write a book entitled Why Am I Atheist?

Censorship went hand in hand with the scarification of unsacred parties and issues. For instance, any explicit or implicit critique of the military establishment (or, say, its performance in the 1973 War against Israel) is today inadmissible. The number of sacred cows has been increasing.

Prolonged practice is the most effective means of indoctrination. After long periods of time of exposure to the same ideas, censorship of other ideas becomes voluntary. In Egypt, Islamists are not currently in power, but they need not worry much. That introspection is inhibited by intimidation and dissent is discouraged denotes that the doctrine of rigid Islamists has already been under way. History tells us that the control of power is often preceded by the control of ideas.

Already under a secular regime, novels have been banned by a "liberal" minister on the grounds they are blasphemous, various intellectuals were convicted by courts of being apostates and citizens were arrested for eating during the fasting hours of Ramadan.

Creativity and imagination recede when the mind is constrained by so many restrictions. Scrutiny and inquiry are substituted by stereotypic answers to all questions of life and destiny.

The withering away of the critical evaluation of ideas, thoughts and beliefs is giving way for the triviality and fundamentality of extremist minds. So at a time when the advanced world has been exploring the applications of Nanotechnology, investigating the secrets of the big bang and decoding the map of the human genome, our minds have been preoccupied with discussing the possibility of marriage between man and jinn, figuring out the mandatory length and width of the piece of cloth covering women's bodies and preaching about the benefits of drinking Prophet Mohamed's urine.

Pity the nation that was once the hub of thought and knowledge in the region.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on October 29, 2009.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'd say, this is absolutely true! I don't know why, but we have developed over the years a very dangerous habit of shadowing the "Elephant Size" problems of our nation by trivial debatable issues usually related to Islam, as if the behaviors and attitudes recently developed in our society are truly reflecting the true meaning of the religion!