Osama bin Laden: Financier of Intolerant "Desert"
Gaber Asfour, the Egyptian writer, heads Egypt's Supreme
Council of Culture, a writers' organization. His comments are excerpted
from an interview with Leila Conners, editor-at-large for NPQ.
Cairo-The struggle to keep our traditions open
in the face of fundamentalist fervor should be seen in the West as an
internal matter. This is not a clash of civilizations between Islam and
Christianity, but an historical clash of one interpretation of Islam versus
Just as it has always been, the clash we see today is between the tolerant
peoples of the "Islam of the rivers," such as flourished in
the Nile delta, and the intolerance of the "Islam of the desert"
practiced by Osama bin Laden, the multimillionaire son of a Saudi Arabian
The desert culture is opposed to the culture of the Nile as well as to
the pluralistic, haggling life of the el haraa-the urban alleyway bazaars.
It is fanatic. It does not respect the diversity of ideas and opinions.
It believes that people must have one creed, one idea and one interpretation
The "other" is always hated, always an enemy. Western civilization
in particular is distrusted as the modern incarnation of evil. Equality
between women and men is not respected in the desert, where women are
regarded as a source of temptation and evil. The long gowns of the "galabeyya"
men and, of course, the beard are signs of the desert.
In Islam there has always been two trends: the tolerant "trend of
the mind" associated with the river cultures of Egypt, Syria and
Iraq and the intolerant "trend of transmission" associated with
the harsh desert. Loosely translated, the "trend of transmission"
means literal belief in the text of the Koran as God's infallibly transmitted
Historically, during periods of flourishing civilization the tolerant
trend prevailed. During times of defeat the intolerant trend prevailed.
Intolerant fundamentalism began to grow in the Arab world in the humiliating
aftermath of the defeat of the Egyptian army by Israel in the 1967 Six
Day War. The crisis of identity this caused in Egypt was paralleled by
the tremendous explosion of wealth in the Arab oil-producing countries.
This provided the Islam of the desert with money. And money is power.
With money, it is possible to force your culture upon others. Well-financed,
desert-based Islam stepped into the vacuum of Egyptian defeat.
Thus, unofficial sources of funds from the Gulf countries, especially
from Osama bin Laden, have played a critical role in exporting desert-brand
fundamentalism to Egypt and instigating its dangerous activities here
and elsewhere. The Egyptian ministry of culture has tried to combat this
effort by, among other methods, publishing a series of books called The
Books of Enlightenment. But we lack the kind of financial resources Bin
Laden can command, which makes his books cheaper and more widely distributed
than ours. When he was living in the Sudan, Bin Laden decided to supplement
this activity by strengthening terrorist activities all over the world.
The strongest fundamentalist movement in Egypt today is that of the Muslim
Brotherhood. Founded by Hassan al Banna, the Muslim Brotherhood started
in the Suez Canal area during the period of upheaval against British rule.
They mixed the ideas of liberation from colonialism with a return to "pure
Islam." Hassan al Banna was deeply influenced by the ideas of one
of the famous Hanbali scholars-Bin Tanweer, a man of the desert. "Late
Hanbali Islam" emerged during the Crusades when Muslims were fighting
the invasion from Europe and had to go to ideological extremes to survive.
The religious ideas of Bin Tanweer are the basis upon which the Saudi
creed was built. Those ideas became the pillars of the state in Saudi
At first, the Muslim Brothers remained tolerant because of the Egyptian
context. But as time went on, the rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser and the new
Arab nationalism in 1952 created a reaction from the desert. The Saudi
monarchy wanted to destroy the influence of Nasser. In this we saw the
beginning of Egypt's struggle with fundamentalism. With Nasser's defeat
in 1967 and the destruction of Arab nationalism, the desert Muslims offered
their ideology with the slogan "Islam is the Solution." Their
great hope has been that a return to strict Islam would provide the strength
for a final victory over Zionism and Israel.
Today, the Nile culture is endangered by the encroaching desert. To reassert
the Nile sensibility we are emphasizing cultural education focused on
the Egyptian ideas of tolerance and respect for difference. This movement
of enlightenment is driven by artists, like the late novelist Naguib Mahfouz,
who was himself a target of the fundamentalists.
We will need time to turn back a tide gathering popular momentum for more
than 20 years. It won't be easy. But if our long history is any guide,
the Nile will nourish tolerant Islam once again.