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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Fair & Square: Ethar Kamal El Katatney broods over my brooding over Moez Masoud

Having made my point with regards to my encounter with Moez Masoud and having defended my right to be different or to simply be .... I think it is only fair to share with you ... my very same readers the counter argument of my pervious post: Marwa Rakha broods over Moez Masoud. Written by Ethar El Katatney on her blog

Mass media is a wonderful thing. It gives everyone, qualified or not, the opportunity to air their concerns and worries to the world, whether it's their opinion regarding the Egyptian bread crisis or simply what they had for breakfast this morning.

But as a journalist, I know the importance of measuring my words, knowing the message I'm sending out to my readers, and thinking about the added value of what I've written. And if I'm writing an op-ed, I have to make sure it doesn't turn into pointless, biased, ranting, especially if I'm arguing for a case and trying to prove a point.

I bought The Poison Tree last week, and although I found the author, Marwa Rakha, slightly oversensitive and slightly exaggerative for my taste, I thought it was a good solid read with some perceptive insights into Egyptian society. And yesterday, I stumbled upon the author's rant about Moez Masoud—a young religious scholar—in Campus Magazine.

First off, let me say that I've known Moez for over a year, and I've worked with him for a large part of that year. So obviously, I'm going to be slightly biased. But since I've known him for a lot longer than Marwa has, I'm also more qualified to speak about his character, and I called him up after I read the piece to get his side of the story.

Brief summation of the incident that Marwa says brought her "shame and disgrace": She's one of a group of people in a show where Moez is the guest speaker. The wardrobe people give her an outfit to wear, which is unsuitable to wear in the presence of a religious figure. She's asked to change by a member of her own editorial team, who apparently wasn't very diplomatic. She gets upset. Seeing how upset she is, Moez takes her aside and apologizes even though neither of the two things that upset her were his fault, whether it was the religious standards being upheld or the insensitive way her team member dealt with it.

Now, I can't deny that this is an embarrassing incident. But a couple of points need to be borne in mind before we decide if the reaction is worth “a wave of numbness […] followed by a heat flush and an urge to cry […] anger and indignation." Firstly, and I know this first-hand, Moez discusses in advance with those in charge of any show the dress code of the episode he is about to appear on. He does this specifically so as to stay true to his message and what he believes in and also so as not to embarrass anyone when it is time to start filming. Secondly, the insensitive manner in which Marwa was approached was not of Moez's doing and in fact had nothing to do with him: again, it was solely the responsibility of her team member.

The issue of there being a dress code should really be a non-issue. Almost all TV shows have dress codes—whether the audience has to wear suits, jeans, or even swimsuits for that matter. You cannot violate the dress code, it's just not done.

Well, all religions dictate that women must be modestly covered in some way. Look at Mary's outfit in any nativity scene. She is wearing a scarf on her head and long, loose fitting clothes. Think this is all hype? Skim through to 1 Corinthians 11:5 in the New Testament and you will find this passage: “And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head - it is just as though her head were shaved.” Orthodox Jewish women have to cover their hair with the tichel, a piece of fabric. And similarly, Muslim women have to wear loose clothes and cover their skin and hair. Some people may disagree with this, but let's not digress and just assume that it is a universal, Abrahamic matter for (at least) certain religious figures to believe that modesty in attire goes hand-in-hand with spirituality.

So when people share the stage with a religious figure who is about to discuss religious matters, they cover themselves to a certain degree out of respect for the topic, regardless of where they are. This respect is not simply afforded the speaker for his/her status but more importantly it is associated with the message s/he is about to deliver. It's clear then that modesty is a requirement where religious discourse is concerned and any religious speaker would have requested it.

Now, back to Moez. As young and charismatic and handsome as all the articles being written about him seem to begin by saying, he is still a religious figure. He's studied religion, he preaches religion, and he's trying so damn hard to make religion a part of the lives of youth. Out of all the preachers today, he has gone the furthest in trying to look for the loosest and yet most valid meanings and opinions in orthodox Islam. So when Moez actually speaks up and says something is not quite right, then have no doubt that he already has in mind the most lax interpretation without compromising on validity and authenticity. Below such a point, one is no longer looking for what is religiously valid but simply what their whims dictate to them at that moment.

For the past year, Moez has been outspoken with his motto of, "though you should hate the sin, you should never hate the sinner." In that vein, he's said that we have to hate the sin of homosexual activity, but not the homosexuals themselves. He's said music isn't haram (prohibited)—for there are other valid interpretations that allow it—and has, himself, released more than one song. His assistant that day (who for some reason Marwa begrudges Moez for having) is a screenwriter whose last movie was El-Gezira, and who entered the field with Moez's guidance and blessings. By offering these valid, looser interpretations, Moez has been accused by some of being a heretic. Anyone who has seen his shows, and more so anyone who knows him on a personal level, knows that this is not the person you accuse of being judgmental or hypocritical.

So to see Marwa try and dismiss the hassle Moez gets into for promoting such interpretations at his own cost by indulging in a vindictive character assassination doesn’t sit well with me. In fact, it grates on my nerves.

But back to the issue at hand. It is one such looser, yet valid interpretation that allows Moez to appear with women who have not covered their hair. It doesn't matter that Marwa, as she says, is "far from busty, sort of skinny, and kind of demure and frail looking." Again, Moez has already agreed to accept the opinion that modesty is alright even if the hair is uncovered so is it really too much to ask her to compromise on dress? After all, he is still a religious figure who has to maintain a certain standard when he delivers God's message.

Moez wasn't imposing anything on Marwa and didn't judge her because of what she was wearing; he simply upheld God's command that spirituality should manifest itself in one's physical appearance, male or female. Even the loosest interpretation of Shari'ah wouldn't accommodate her attire in this situation.

The mix up with her dress is an in-house issue, and not his fault, since the production team knew he was a religious figure who had pre-arranged a particular dress code to begin with. By highlighting to Marwa the consequences of carrying on with the episode as is, instead of focusing on her clothing’s incompatibility with spiritual principles, he was simply trying not to hurt her feelings. His other option was to tell her that her attire was not in line with God's command, which, under the circumstances of her being already visibly distraught, would have probably worsened the situation.

Personally, I don't think Moez had to apologize to her at all. If there's one misunderstanding that should have been cleared up, it would be the wrong impression she got that he was allowing what people think of him and his public image to dictate what he wanted her to wear. Obviously the only entity he's allowing to dictate to him is God; but with the aim of not insulting her, he may have gotten the wrong message across to her.

The last critique I have of Marwa's account is that unfortunately she herself is guilty of the very accusation she made against Moez: judgment. Let’s address some of her claims.

First of all, she alludes to the fact that Moez gave strict instructions against discussing certain topics, namely, sex, homosexuality, virginity, dating and Islamic legislation. She concludes from this that he has bowed to pressures from other religious figures who now dictate what topics he is willing to address. The truth of the matter is that Moez's only request (and one which he makes during all his appearances) was to exclude Islamic legislation or fatwa from the discussion as he is not qualified to answer such questions. Shame on him! If Marwa had bothered to watch his last show, The Right Path, she would have been pleasantly surprised to find all the aforementioned topics discussed.

Next, she said he tried to "score points" with a Christian colleague. How does she know that? Did she look into his heart? Isn't it possible he was simply trying to make the Christian woman feel included?

She then says Moez "allowed the gap between who he is and who he should be to grow wider." An unsubstantiated opinion—she knows who he is after meeting and listening to him for a mere 30 minutes?

She then accuses Moez of allowing his assistant to speak on his behalf. Um, he's his assistant? That's what they do?

Far from becoming the hypocrite who has been corrupted by fame, as Marwa states in her blog, Moez actually utilizes his fame to get a crucial message across to people: do not judge people based on their appearance. Marwa mistook his standing up for the loosest interpretation of God's command of dressing modestly (at least when in religious discourse) as him judging her character and that he did so because of fame. It still baffles me how she was able to conclude that this incident put her character into question in any way.

Ultimately, who is Marwa really brooding over? Moez, who worries about the consequences of his message and so had an agreement with the show to avoid such problems and who then apologized for her hurt feelings? Or the show's team members who failed to get the message across and in doing so jeopardized the very filming of that episode? Or is she simply brooding over God Who requires a certain degree of modesty particularly when He is the topic to be discussed?

In conclusion, I ask that Marwa do what Moez tried to do with her, which is to try and not be so narrow-minded. In the words of Metallica, who I know Moez likes to quote: "Open mind for a different view." So you have an opinion, great! But sticking so firmly to one side and refusing to bend the slightest will get you nowhere in life. It is so easy to jump onto the 'curse the preachers' bandwagon and brand everyone who speaks in the name of religion a hypocrite.

I've read your book. I know how you feel you have to stick up for every little thing or else you'll get steamrolled. But accusing someone who's doing so much good as being "as fake, as pretentious, as superficial, and as gutless as the rest of them" is not a light accusation—make sure it's true before you say it. And above all—don't start the music unless you're willing to dance.


Anonymous said...

The epitome of objectivity. Major thumbs up to you!

Anonymous said...

even though i was opposing to Marwa's reaction in a comment I sent to her post, but I have also to give her two thumbs up for allowing Ethar good article to appear in her blog, I'm glad to see such healthy civil debate amongst intelligent Egyptians.

Shimaa Gamal said...

Posting this article on your blog is the best example for tolerance and open mindness.
Thumbs up :)