Social influence

Where the influence of the Islamic revival is undoubtedly still strong - and is possibly still on the rise - is in the day to day lives of the people. Feeling themselves under pressure, governments have taken steps to appease Islamist sentiment. In some countries the numbers of religious programmes on the television have been increased and "prayer breaks" introduced - to remind people that it is time to pray, more than to let the faithful pray without missing parts of their favourite programmes. Huge numbers of new mosques have been built. Presidents and prime ministers have begun peppering their speeches with verses from the Koran. The religious content in schools’ curricula has been expanded.

A form of Islamic cant or "political correctness" has emerged. There are people who have started stressing, unnecessarily, how often they pray or how important Islam is in their lives. A few men, whose households had previously led fairly Westernised, secular lives, have started to see that their wives are veiled in public. Some have taken to muttering the words "Peace be upon Him" every time they mention the name of the Prophet and putting PBUH after his name when they write it. The people who have adopted these habits, it goes without saying, are not so much those who are trying to live better lives, but those whose first instinct is to conform to the fashion.

There is a different group of people who are sincerely interested in Islamic tradition - who are reacting against the imported social (as well as political) attitudes of the 1950s and 1960s - and who at the same time are trying to live in a proper moral fashion. These people are not very different from the more honest and dedicated followers of the other major religions. They are reassessing the spiritual value of their lives, spending more time with their families (nuclear or extended), observing Islamic rituals, such as fasting, going on the Pilgrimage and paying the charitable tax, Zakat, because they find they are a good discipline. They are also discussing how they can be governed better, through marrying together the principles of Islam, which enjoins consultation of the people by a strong ruler, Western democracy and individual human rights. Some of these sorts of people wear Western dress or, if they live in the Arabian Peninsula, the secular style of traditional dress. Others have taken to growing beards and dressing in the traditional Islamic style, which means wearing shortened robes and a head dress without the heavy black band, the agal, which helps hold it in place. Whereas the followers of the politically correct Islamist tradition wear this uniform because it is the fashion, or because they want to make a political statement, the more sincere revivalists wear it because they feel it imposes a discipline on themselves - reminds them that they have to try to behave, as well as dress, in the way recommended by the Prophet. An important point for Westerners is to remember that overtly Islamic dress in the Middle East may represent a range of different political, social and moral attitudes.

Seeing the social change that has happened and realising the obstacles that lie in the way of their coming to power (discussed in the next section of this report) some of the leaders of the Islamist movements are now encouraging their followers to work through the schools, the media and charities, instead of challenging the governments. Hassan Turabi, the leader of the NIF in Sudan, gave this message directly to his audience in a speech in Gaza in 1995. All Islamist parties, when they are able to exert any direct influence on governments, or enter ruling coalitions with other parties, have as their first request that one of their members be given the Ministry of Education. Their hope is that gradually the political centre ground will be shifted in an Islamic direction, and that a generation from now all elements of Middle Eastern societies will be more Islamic.

Again, the currents of opinion and influence are not all flowing in one direction. There are some members of society, mainly among the middle classes, who have become annoyed by the way in which the "Islamically correct" tenor of society impinges on their lives. It is forcing women to dress more conservatively, teaching children intolerance and encouraging them to question their parents’ behaviour at home, stopping people feeling relaxed if they go out in mixed groups to dine. Some who object to this are beginning to react quite assertively. When confronted by unsolicited advice from Islamist zealots they are replying that they are good Muslims, know the Koran, pray (whether they do this five times a day or not), try to be fair and generous to their fellow men, and do not need to be lectured on matters of outward appearance. These sorts of reactions are sometimes found among quite young people of the "Islamist generation", in their twenties and thirties. They are more common among members of Nasser’s generation, who are now in their fifties and sixties.

There is also a deeper current of change that will be noticed by anyone who has travelled regularly in the Middle East for the last 20 or 30 years. It is that regardless of the Islamist fashion, society in the region is becoming steadily more modern and better educated. At the same time as there are some members of the middle classes who are embracing Islam because they are rejecting imported philosophies, and members of the very poor who are turning to Islamist groups because they seem to offer hope of jobs, there are millions of families who are becoming more involved with the modern world and whose children have a less unquestioning faith than their parents. These are particularly families who live in small towns and villages. Their lives are being changed by television, and particularly the advent of foreign satellite television, by members travelling abroad to work, and by a slow improvement in their standards of living.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | April 1999

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