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Egyptian Advice Columnists: Envisioning the Good life in an Era of Extremism


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During the 1980s, religious conservativism gained momentum in Egypt after military defeats and major social and economic upheavals. A few months after Sadat’s assassination by religious extremists in 1981 a column appeared in Al-Ahram responding to letters of Egyptians caught in the problems of daily living. The columnist, Abdul Wahab al-Mutawa, a self-proclaimed humanist, published complaints about government services, and offered solutions to personal problems. He felt people suffered from straying too far from time-tested social traditions.  He saw some good in religious conservativism when people sought happiness in family life, but criticized radicals with unrealistic dreams through messages embedded in his columns.

            Also appearing were advice columns written by religious sheikhs mostly affiliated with Al-Azhar University. These columns described Islam’s relevance to modern life and answered questions on religious practice. As competitors, it’s easier to see how these columns were shaped to counter the extremists. But these state-salaried writers showed a perplexing ambivalence by sometimes supporting the government and sometimes extremists. Only in retrospect can we see why this happened. 

This book is the first to plumb the depths of personal experience in the volatile 1980s, showing people’s desire for moral certainty and laying the groundwork for the disruptions behind the Uprising of 2011. The book describes the columnists’ prescriptions for leading the good life, how they modelled “moderation” and the influences that discouraged their full candor. 

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