By Briana Booker
The conflict of religion & political intersection
The Yacoubian Building, a novel by Alaa Al Aswany, exposes the macro politics of Egypt and how these transformations in society affect the lives of individuals since the Coup D’etat revolution. Aswany allows a downtown apartment building in Cairo be used as metaphor for the internal struggle of the state to have a fair and liberal society. However, the state and its citizens have barriers that prevent their unification and defined identity. The people have no loyalty to the state and follow no religious principles. There is no order; there is no peace. A battle for resources and social prestige is what allows the problematic intersection of religion and power in Egypt.
The modern Egyptian society creates a dilemma for the individuals in this book because western society allows immeasurable ideal freedoms and opportunities. These can lead to a life of prestige and economic affluence. There is no need to blend state and religion in a westernized culture. An individual is simply the conductor of his or her own life orchestra. This is not true of Islamic society.
Traditional Islamic society blends religious principles with economic and social factors. The citizens are not certain if assimilating to western culture is better or getting back to the basics of Islamic society is in their best interest. This is the core dilemma Aswany emphasizes contributes to the state and the citizens corruption and tensions with one another. The citizens and the state must co-exist in a civil manner to achieve stability, identity, and comfortable livelihoods. Without respect for one another, a state and its citizens will not flourish. This is revealed with the two characters of Taha el Shazli and Hagg Azzam. The turmoil between state, religion and individual are depicted through them. Aswany‘s metaphor of the Yacoubian building helps readers understand the history and internal struggles of Egypt. These men are tormented by their own cognitive dissonance.
For example, Shazli is a character who becomes obsessed with his desire for power and fair opportunity to be an actual element of society. These fair opportunities consist of political and economic liberty, equality and protection. However, he was denied these privileges due to social stature.
Shazli’s efforts had no valor. The law could not grant him justice. Instead of using his intelligence to advance himself out of social poverty, he increased his hatred for the government and used religion as a political instrument. Shazli joined the Gihad, to revenge the state. He could no longer endure the discrimination and vast inequalities that was placed on the lower class. This is displayed vividly when his friend Busayna implied that the power and the state belong to the Bourgeois (59).
The only citizens respected are the ones with economic wealth and power of influence. The poor are tremendously impacted by the abuse of power by the state and the minority bourgeois. Economic disparity and sexual abuse are a few tactics use to oppress the lower class. Citizens feel trapped in their lifestyles and livelihoods.
In the case of Shazli, he looked towards Islam to secure his political ends for better opportunities and liberties. He wanted to rebirth his country, revive traditional Islamic society and help formulate Pan-Arab brotherhood by overthrowing the government. For the poor, power is in religion not in the state. Shazli desired a socialist society, not the present capitalist society. Yet, he allowed vengeance to be more important than using his intelligence to potentially free him from a life of poverty.
Obsessed with this objective, he could not adapt to the realities of his environment. Both the state and its people strive to be more modern and prosperous. The state is a father to its citizens. When a father leads by a bad example, the children are more likely to be faulty. Shazli is a primary example of the conflict between religious authority and the state. Shazli wanted to create his own destiny but in religion actions revolve around the will of God. In politics, everything revolves around the best interest of the state.
This distress about individuals having no self- directive allows religious fanatics, corrupt regimes and nationalist to sprout up. Hagg Azzam is an example of the consequences from a lack of self-directive. Obsessed with prestige and power, he finds himself politically and religiously corrupt, which is seen vividly in his interaction with his second wife Souad Gaber. This desire for power created him into a man not worthy to be in the presence of God or humanity. Cultural and social satisfaction can never come from corrupt political or religious principles.
The comparison of these character portrayals shows readers that the contemporary intersection of religion and power is inevitable. Individuals and the state will choose religion or political power to accomplish moral decision making. No one is immune to faulty judgment.
The common fault of these characters was their pursuit to be better than others, rather than being better than their previous selves. This is behavior learned by observing the actions of the state. The state speaks beautiful words, yet disguise ugly actions. When a state is built on that principle, there can never be a universally prosperous society.
Azzam and Shazli compromised their principles. They verbally implied that they lived lives promoting democracy and virtue. However, they distanced themselves from both political and religious ideals that promoted respect and love for ones self and others.
Taha and Azzam’s goals failed because religion promotes more love than hatred in actions. These men display how easily one can lose a connection with God. Man is easily tempted by idols of power through state politics. Religion places people at the mercy of God. There is very little innate self-directive.
Western culture promotes self-directive but the economic glass ceiling barriers disperse resources and wealth unfairly. A life of full liberty, even if corrupt, is addictive. Egypt is like an individual looking up at the glass ceiling, seeing all the benefits that can be obtained by modernizing, but at the same time, this is seen as losing its heritage. Because of these dilemmas the characters conceal their desires for that lifestyle and use religion as their shield. For the state and its citizens to propel themselves out of this identity crisis, a state must guide its self by religion or strictly politics must be chosen. Trying to balance the two, the state and the individuals have lacked in development. The politics and western culture are seen as this glamorous lifestyle but in the end, the state and individuals have no reality because they do not know who they are as a people. They are living a staged life. That in itself is more tragic than picking a true principle, a true identity.
The state and its people need to modernize to be competitive in economics but they need to live by what they imply as their sole purposes of existence- to live by the word of God or at least principles of fair opportunities and liberties in its social system. The point Al Swany tries to get across is that the state’s independence and strength does not only come from tangible existence and materials, but internal balance in one’s self.This is the will of God and state, which is why they intersect and conflict with one another.
I recommend reading this book. It is enlightening, as well as a good representative that moral struggles by politics can reflect on the makeup of its society. Two paths exist. One is of progress and the other is a path to moral demise. When moral demise is chosen, the result is a tremendous social gap of inequality and corrupt governance. Until this gap is set to a compatible existence there will always be turmoil in developing and developed state politics and religion, which is displayed in the history of Egypt and the characters of this novel.
The Yacoubian Building: A novel is an excellent read. There is also a movie. Enjoy!