Tuesday, December 16, 2014

How Christians Helped Create The Muslim Brotherhood

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Square

Two years after they began, the Egyptian revolutionary uprisings of early 2011 would have been an easy, ripe subject for a documentary film; the riveting images of crowds running and tear gas and fists raised, demands made and met, a dictator of three decades crumbling before the empowered masses.

On the other hand, the politics of Egypt’s last several years would provide a vexing topic; the numerous competing protagonists, the bureaucratic complexity, the subtle historical influences of every twist and turn, the moral compromises made by every participant.

The Oscar-nominated film ‘The Square,’ which premiered at Sundance a year ago and on Netflix last month, basks in a celebration of the secular-minded activists who became the dominant voice of the 2011 uprisings. Chief among them is Ahmed Hassan, a wiry, boyish speechmaker who exults in his movement’s triumphs and despairs when things turn sour. Filmmaker Jehane Noujaim, who partially grew up in Egypt, lingers on his impassioned pleas. “When we were united we brought down the dictator,” he tells a crowd at Tahrir Square at one point. “How do we succeed now? By uniting once again.”

As a chronicle of political enthusiasm, ‘The Square’ succeeds gorgeously. But it falls prey to much of the tunnel vision that marked the activists’ own transition from stardom to irrelevance. The activists tried to speak for a highly religious public, failing to understand the appeal of the Muslim Brotherhood and more fundamentalist Islamists like the Salafi movement. By not engaging with these groups, they paved the way for the military elite, also a primarily secular group, to divide and conquer. Noujaim herself identifies strongly with the secular, and mostly wealthy revolutionary protagonists — like her, they speak English and identify with American cultural norms — and it’s tempting to see the film’s blind spots as her own discomforts with the religious realities of her country.

Read the rest at The Revealer

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Performing Piety

Mickey Rooney, Chris Tucker, Kirk Cameron, Bob Dylan, Mr. T. This list of celebrities, which you don’t see very often, represents some of the bigger names who reinvented themselves as born-again Christians. Of the group, only Cameron really left the mainstream entertainment business to star in Christian films like Left Behind and Fireproof. Many others made the transition with less fanfare. Mr. T mostly speaks at small community churches. Chris Tucker has said almost nothing publicly.
But together these celebrities show us something else. They represent a slow and broad turn towards evangelical Christianity that permeated American popular culture throughout the second half of the twentieth century.  Their born-again narrative tapped into a broader cultural movement that by the 2000s had already found a place in American political life, in Jimmy Carter, the Moral Majority, and years later in George W. Bush’s oft-professed faith. Born-again politicians and born-again entertainers create a context for one another, and allow non-famous Americans to see their own decisions to join a church and have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as part of the mainstream.
That dynamic has been easier to understand since I began exploring it in the context of Egypt, a country that also saw a huge swing towards public religiosity at the same time that Islam found a voice — albeit a constantly repressed one — in the country’s political life. The US had Jimmy Carter, who talked about being born again only to lose an election to Ronald Reagan’s merger of the far right with evangelical Christianity. Egypt had Anwar Sadat, who bolstered his image as a pious Muslim just as he crushed radical Islamists. Carter lost a second term to his co-religionists. Sadat was assassinated by his.
Danish anthropologist Karin van Nieuwkerk, explores these dynamics of religion and public life in her new book, Performing Piety. A study of celebrities who publicly renounced “sinful” lifestyles as dancers, singers, and actresses, the book looks at how they reinvented their public images as beacons of worship, 
preaching, and charity.