I will not dwell long on the new Egyptian Minister’s decision to allow veiled broadcasters to read the news on Egyptian television, for this is a logical and perfectly normal decree in tune with the spirit of democracy that has engulfed Egypt with the breeze of the Arab Spring. However, I do wish to examine the era when such broadcasters were banned, a decision which the Mubarak regime, along with a number of private and public Arab stations, persisted with.
The problem is that in such situations, neither the regime nor its theorists realized that all bans or restrictions on the status of religion only have a fractional impact in the way in which they intended; and it is not an exaggeration to say that such restrictions are often extremely counterproductive. They are accompanied by a public sense of defiance, and a desire to engage in what has been forbidden. Decades of repression and conflict against the status of religion in the former Soviet Union only served to ignite enthusiasm for it, and hence now in the countries of Eastern Europe, when compared to the West, there is a greater degree of freedom for open religious expression. This was strengthened after religion was set free from the scourge of communism, a scourge that only left a path leading to the abyss, especially in the fields of education and the media.
In the Egyptian experience, as well as in Tunisia, there was another problem when it came to restricting the status of religion. There was a failure to convince the masses that the hijab, in all its shape and forms, and likewise some complex Islamic Sunnahs, were the source of the authorities’ chagrin, rather than the spread of political Islam. Ben Ali’s regime in Tunisia went to great lengths [to combat political Islam] as did Bourguiba’s before that, but we cannot forget the mentor that first taught these regimes such exclusionary practices, the Turkish military government. These regimes broadcasted dull and ignorant propaganda, branding the hijab as “sectarian clothing”, but this policy produced negative results. There was a strong desire to challenge and revive what the regime had tried to combat and restrict, and furthermore a more dangerous sentiment arose, whereby segments of young people became convinced that the regime’s war was being waged on religion as a whole, rather than on political Islam groups. This polluted atmosphere was a fertile environment to foster advocates of Takfir ideology. Unfortunately in this case, the politician tried to drag the ordinary religious man into a conflict with political Islam groups using the wrong tools, like when the former Sheikh of al-Azhar, during his tour of one of the learning institutes, asked a veiled student “what is this thing you are wearing?” Such behavior is the most effective way to promote what has been forbidden, and it sent the wrong message to enthusiastic young people, who now thought that their regime was actually in a state of war against religion as a whole.
Then we witnessed a stunning and surprising change after decades of systematic restrictions on religion. In Turkey, where the regime had struggled fiercely with the veil, the era of military dominance and the exclusionists came to a close when they saw – through their own shortsightedness – the wives of the President and the Prime Minister attending official military events in full hijab. We can say the same thing about Egypt and Tunisia, of course taking into account the different experiences of those countries.
The Egyptian and Tunisian regimes acted more royally than the King when they tried to convince their Western allies that they were an impregnable dam preventing the Islamists from coming to power. However, they committed a fatal mistake when they used prohibited “ideological weapons” in their political battle against the Islamists, and restricted Islamic manifestations such as the hijab. These weapons were employed to the extent that in Egypt, for example, veiled women were banned from working as television broadcasters, even though the vast majority of Egyptian women wore the hijab. These weapons brought the wrath of the street upon the regimes, and this ultimately secured their downfall, rather than the threat of their Western allies abandoning them. This is the most important observation we can make from the Arab Spring uprisings.
Of course, these regimes have now fallen and there is no use in continuing to preach to them nowadays. What is important is to inform both the public and private sectors in the rest of the Arab countries, and urge them to reconsider some of their media policies that do not suggest an attack on political Islam groups, but rather on the inherent status of religion. The uncontrolled media suppression of religious values is no less dangerous than political repression when it comes to creating an environment of extremism and militancy, and it can even increase the popularity of political Islam groups.