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).
In other words, if Muslim culture is more tenacious and consequential than Muslim doctrine, still, the former has strong roots in the latter. Thus, while radical Muslims consciously seek to uphold the letter of the law, moderates unconsciously adhere to its cultural, social, and political manifestations.
In this context, then, Egypt’s Al Ahram’s Photoshop deception is not surprising. Because Muhammad, and by extension, sharia, permit deceit, or taqiyya, it was only natural for deception to find its way into the socio-political culture of Islam. So, whereas the radical Osama bin Laden consciously tries to implement Muhammad’s injunction that “war is deceit,” secularist Hosni Mubarak and his regime, including at Al Ahram, have been unconsciously molded by it. More to the point, aside from the Western media and opposition groups to Mubarak, the so-called “Arab Street” is hardly scandalized by this event, seeing it as natural and only to be expected — not so much because the Mubarak regime is particularly deceptive, but rather because the use of deceit to stay in power is consistent to the Islamicate mindset.
Lest one still doubt that aspects of a religion can become casually embedded in the social fabric of a civilization, one need look no further than to Christianity, which continues to exhibit a strong, albeit unconscious, influence on the secular West, including upon those who most disavow it. After all, tolerance, human rights, a desire for peace, being the “nice guy”— indeed, all of those concepts most championed by today’s liberal secularist, did not develop out of a vacuum, but rather out of a 2,000-year-old Christian heritage that preached what was then absurd and today aberrant, but which nonetheless jibes so well with the West’s secular mindset. Surely not a coincidence.
In short, the teachings of a religion can subtly color the worldview of its non-observant posterity. This is especially so for Muslims: for if Western secularists, who disclaim Christianity, are still influenced by its teachings, how much more Muslims who openly avow Islam? Not only Photoshop deceit, then, but any number of “Islamicate” aspects — from a tribal sense of loyalty to fellow Muslims to disgust for household pets, especially dogs, because Muhammad said so — remain part of the average Muslim’s intellectual framework.
Let it be known, then, that well meaning, moderate Muslims have yet another obstacle to tackle in their quest to reform the Islamic world. After they manage to revise some of Islam’s intolerant teachings and archaic traditions — a feat difficult enough — they must then figure out how to eradicate the fourteen-hundred year old epistemology borne of them.