- Practicing Islam in Egypt: Print Media and Islamic Revival by Aaron Rock-Singer
Aaron Rock-Singer's Practicing Islam is a masterpiece. The "book is the first to draw on Statist, Islamist, and Salafi publications in telling a history of religious change in Egypt" (p. 2). Rock-Singer argues that print media "served as a key means of social mobilization" because Islamists "lacked access to television, radio or daily newspapers," given state repression (pp. 2–3). In addition to the Muslim Brotherhood, Rock-Singer includes analysis of publications by the Jam'iyya Shar'iyya, quietist Salafis, Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya, and the Ministry of Endowments' Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs. The discursive competition between these movements, institutions, and their main publications "have undergirded the emergence of piety as a norm rather than an exception in Egypt over the past four decades" (p. 5). The most significant contribution of Rock-Singer's argument is that, contrary to most scholarship on Islam in Egypt, "Islamist projects of mobilization emerged within and were deeply shaped by state institutions" (p. 5).
Rock-Singer's book consists of six chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion. Each chapter sheds light on "the roots, genesis, and consolidation of an Islamic Revival in Egypt between 1970 and 2015" (p. 6). The first chapter "examines the process by which leading voices within Islamist organizations and state institutions came to conceive of themselves as enmeshed in a period of religious change" (p. 27). The second chapter answers the question "where does religious change happen, who participates?" by identifying "pathways of participation" in "the signature lines in letters to the editor and fatwa requests" (p. 53) in three religious publications—al-Da'wa, al-I'tisam, and Minbar al-Islam. More than 1,000 data points are obtained from these three publications, [End Page 667] including an interesting analysis of advertising to illustrate "the silent majority of readers" (p. 70).
The author's mapping of participation in "revival" networks shows that the bulk of participants were located in Cairo, the largest population center in the country. Perhaps more interesting, however, is his finding that "beyond the centrality of Cairo and Alexandria … Delta governorate capitals and even a few urban centers emerged as key sites of religious mobilization" (p. 61). One question that remains is how the percentage of letters to the editor disaggregates by geography and by the number of people living in a given location. Had Rock-Singer provided this analysis, readers would get a per capita score for participation in the revival. This number could also be examined in light of the number of literate people living in a specific geographic location. The tables that break down the professions to which those who wrote letters to the editor belonged are instructive. Through this analysis we see that Islamist mobilization via print media was a literate, middle-class enterprise.
Chapters 3–5 provide the bulk of the book's main case studies of instances of Islamic revival; the competing voices in these transformations; and the place of state-social movement engagements in the quest for a more pious Egypt. Chapter 3 focuses on the contest to shape religious education, which is again a "literate" form of engagement which heavily involves the middle class. For example, Rock-Singer notes that contests over piety within statist and Islamist visions "empowered those educated within the civil educational system" while the project "excluded the approximately 60 percent of the Egyptian population who could not read for leisure or intellectual edification" (p. 105).
Chapter 4 explores how more inclusive "piety" campaigns were waged in the expanded Muslim public sphere in Egypt via mobilizations to institutionalize public observance of afternoon prayer. The midday zuhr prayer "was the only prayer to fall directly in the middle of both the official work and school days, thus offering Islamists a novel means by which to insert their vision of religious piety into the clocks and corridors of Egyptian state institutions" (p. 107). As a result of this "re vival" project...