Islam may be one of the world's most important religions, but in the West, at least, it has an image problem. Hizbullah in Lebanon, Hamas in the West Bank, fundamentalist violence in Indonesia, the "mullocracy" of Iran, all are seen as representative of the rage that is Islam. That, in fact, was the main thrust of a Feb. 19 piece in NEWSWEEK on Osama bin Laden and the new wave of Islamic terrorist groups.
Yet these groups no more represent Islam than the Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas, represented Christianity or the Aum Shinrikyo represented Japanese spirituality. Islam is a religion held dear by nearly a billion people, and it shouldn't surprise us that there are more than a handful of extremists. But on a recent trip to Egypt, I found little evidence of them. Yes, a few marginal cells of violent radicals still exist, despite the draconian efforts of Hosni Mubarak's secret police. But for tens of millions of Egyptians, Islam is an oasis of calm.
Egypt's population is fast approaching 70 million, and with a growth rate just under 2 percent annually, overpopulation is a very real problem. Cairo has one of the highest population densities on the planet, and the rest of Egypt's minimal amount of arable land is quickly becoming saturated with people and unchecked growth. The government subsidizes food and housing, which is a small blessing, but jobs are scarce, early mortality looms and the international economy seems to be passing Egypt by.
In this dreary context, Islam is a balm and a salve. The hour-and-a-half drive from Cairo to the industrial port city of Suez is dusty and ugly, festooned with debris and billboards. But it is at least broken up by the names of God lining the median. In Islam, God is said to have 99 names, which include "The Compassionate" and "The Merciful," and they are posted, every 100 yards, all the way from Cairo to Suez. My driver was quick to point this out, and we spent the better part of the ride listing the names and negotiating the fare. I had met him early that morning, and he had been 10 minutes late because of prayer, which he performed in the hotel's coat room with several of the bellhops.
I took a bus from Suez to the canal city of Ismailia. The bus was an old, creaky box stuffed full of people. But for the first half hour, there was a preternatural calm as everyone sat quietly and listened to a tape of a mellifluous Quran reciter, as pure and simple as Gregorian chant. At every juncture, Islam in Egypt defies our stereotypes. The al-Azhar mosque and university in central Cairo is one of the most conservative bastions of Islam in Egypt. Recently the sheik of al-Azhar condemned the writings of a number of authors, and the government has not stood in the way of several of these being brought to trial. The sheik of al-Azhar, like all clerics in Egypt, is a government employee and receives a stipend from the state. But inside the mosque itself, you would never guess that this is a center of Islamic intolerance. The sheiks are friendly, and if you speak a little Arabic, they will happily talk about the architecture, renovations and history of the place. They are not interested in proselytizing, and when I told them I was from America, they smiled and said simply, "You are welcome."
For most Egyptians, Islam is intensely personal. Like many American Protestants, Muslims tend to emphasize the relationship between each individual and God, without intermediaries. In a world of sprawling prefab concrete housing projects, with high unemployment, an indifferent and occasionally brutal government, Islam is part of the warp and woof that maintains community and gives people some sense that life has meaning.
There are those who would say that all this proves is that Islam is an opiate for the masses, but who are we to say? Islam may not solve the more intractable problems, and in soothing the dislocations it may even make some things worse. But then again, if you go to the Citadel in Cairo on a Friday, as I did, you can stand, perched above the city with the mosque of Muhammad Ali at your back, and you can peek above the torrential smog that envelops the city of 12 million people, and you can just make out the Pyramids in the distance. You can listen, not to the sound of cars or factories, but to the call to prayer, sounded throughout the city, reminding all listeners of God's compassion and mercy. It is a haunting symphony, and juxtaposed with the devastation of overpopulation and stagnant growth, it allows you to close your eyes and feel, at least for a few moments, that all is well with the world.