( Mermaid Statue in Alexandria – before vandalism)
When Salafi Nour Party M.P. Gamal Hamed called for the abolition of ballet performances in Egypt, describing it as “immoral” and a form of “nude art,” many were shocked and questioned his logic and sense of priority. Surely Egypt has more pressing problems than the debate of the appropriateness of ballet. However, Hamid is not alone; President Morsi has previously expressed how he was troubled by “naked restaurants,” like Hooters in the U.S. Furthermore, for Islamists, nudity is not just limited to people, but also extends to objects; the Mermaid statue in Alexandria, constructed by my uncle Fathi Mahmoud, depicting a Greek God in the form of a bull hugging a beautiful mermaid as symbol of Mediterranean Alexandria, and its Greek heritage, is one example of an artwork considered by Islamists as absurd nudity, prompting some Egyptian Salafis to temporarily cover it during their election campaign in 201. Later, this year, it was vandalized by “unknown assailants.”
The question of nudity and why it bothers Islamists more than water shortage, hunger, poverty, and rape, is crucial to understanding the mindset of many Islamists and how they view the outside world.
Most Islamists view nudity along a scale rather than as a dichotomous concept. Within the minds of most Islamists, nudity can be mild, moderate, severe, and ultimate. “Severe” can be equated to what Westerners describe as being topless, while “ultimate” is complete exposure of the human body. Mild and moderate are more grey areas, depending on the local culture and traditions, but for strict puritans, any exposure of flesh, particularly female’s flesh apart from the face and hands, is considerednudity.
Is it just conservatism?
Although the above classification sums up the views of most Islamists, it does not explain the oversensitivity, shock, and outrage that surface when others disagree or adopt a different way of life. Conservatism and a strict dress code is not an exclusive Islamic phenomenon, as other religions and cultures share at least some aspects of it, but Islamism’s interlocked approach to a dress code runs deeper than conservatism and exposure.
There are four crucial elements of Islamism that are directly linked to their perception of morality, which also explain their overreaction to nudity.
First, there is the right of the society to protect its “values.” This overrides the rights of individuals and their freedom of choice. If conservatism for non-Muslims is a matter concerning individuals, for the Islamists, it is a matter for the state, as it perceives society as needing to be nurtured and conservatism to be protected.
Second, moral code and dress code are closely linked or even synonymous. According to some Islamists, the dress code reflects your moral values. For example, a women wearing tight jeans, or—heaven forbid—a swimsuit, cannot be honest or trustworthy.
Third, Islamists believe that morality is essential in rebuilding the “Ummah” within their nation state, a fundamental belief that is usually overlooked by observers. For political Islam, regaining Islamic morality within society is essential for both their empowerment and victory. Therefore, to them, fighting nudity and the western-style dress code is crucial. This stance stems from their over-simplistic and often romanticized understanding of the early Islamic period, in which they believed that the main reason behind the quick success of the early Islamic empire was the strict moral code of its leaders. As such, Islamists consider morality to be the goal that can help empower their members and enhance its image and connectivity with people at a grass-roots level. A campaign by Sheiks and scholars could easily have the dual purpose of preaching morality and grooming political candidates—a very effective form of activism.
Fourth, Islamists spin the prophet’s sayings (Hadith) to cover up their deep disdain for many aspects of western culture, such as ballets, artwork, and sculptures. For example, the prophet’s view that sculptors will be treated harshly on Judgment Day was only expressed when Mecca was a haven for idolatry, which is clearly not the case now. In other words, Islamists failed to see that the prophet’s remarks were conditional upon past circumstances and were not intended to be on absolute terms.
Understanding these fundamental elements of Islamism explains how fighting nudity is the fleece that Islamists wear to sanction their desire for domination. It is a key to explaining subtle attitudes like despising Western magazines because of their revealing fashions, cowardly acts like the vandalism of the Mermaid statue, and more blunt decisions like firing the head of the Opera House among other figures under the pretext of fighting corruption and injecting “new blood.”
Islamists have no option but to hype their unease with nudity and elevate it to the level of an extreme crime in order to justify their quest for empowerment. Such flexing of the moral code deliberately fogs the distinction between sleazy human behaviors with artistic expression as in ballet or sculpturing. It is part of their “cultural revolution” to purge what they perceive as bad western influence on the society.
The Egyptian Ministry of Culture has become the new frontier in the on-going battle to preserve Egypt’s diverse cultural heritage against the assault of Islamist missionaries seeking to reset Egyptian culture to a neo-medieval mode. I have no doubt that my late uncle, if he were still alive, would have joined the on-going sit-in by Egyptian artists and intellectual protesting against this brutal assault, not because he was pro-decadence, but because he viewed art as a tool that transcend nudity, and elevate our senses away from cheap sexual interpretations.