One of the most widely circulated newspapers in the world, Egypt’s Al Ahram, recently ran a fake picture depicting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak walking in front of U.S. President Barack Obama and a pack of other Mideast leaders. In fact, based on the original photo, Mubarak, the octogenarian, appeared trailing last.

Why the outlandish deception by an internationally recognized newspaper founded in 1875? Al Ahram editor Ossama al-Saraya defended the fraudulent photo by referring to it as an “expressionist photo … a brief, live and true expression of the prominent stance of President Mubarak in the Palestinian issue, his unique role in leading it before Washington.” All well and good, but beyond the euphemisms and rationalizations, the fact remains: by portraying something that was not true, the state-run Al Ahram intentionally tried to deceive the people.

On the one hand, as Wael Khalil, the Egyptian blogger who first called attention to the altered photo, pointed out, this anecdote is a snapshot of the routine deception the Egyptian government foists on the people: “They lie to us all the time. Instead of addressing the real issues, they just Photoshop it.” On a deeper level, this incident reveals that, contrary to common belief, the fundamental problem facing the reformation of the Islamic world is not merely doctrinal; it is cultural.

Consider: even though sharia law promotes various troubling doctrines — the subjugation of non-Muslims and women, animosity to the non-Muslim world, even the use of deception, as in the case of the Mubarak picture — the one hope has been that only “radical” Muslims follow these mandates. And this is true, consciously speaking. Unconsciously, however, sharia’s teachings have become deeply imbedded in Muslim culture, permeating the worldview of all people born or bred in the Islamic world, regardless of whether they are “moderate” or “radical,” indeed, regardless of whether they are Muslim at all.

Marshall Hodgson coined the term “Islamicate” to describe this phenomenon, which refers “not directly to the religion, Islam, itself, but to the social and cultural complex historically associated with Islam and the Muslims, both among Muslims themselves and even when found among non-Muslims” (The Venture of Islam, vol. 1, p.59).  Daniel Pipes agrees: “Shar‘i regulations were also at the heart of many Islamicate patterns. …  [T]he Muslim approach to politics derives from the invariant premises of the religion and from fundamental themes established more than a millennium ago” (In the Path of God, pgs. 91-93).