Video: Hypocrisy, Honor, and the Egyptian Media

Though Islamists currently govern Egypt, they often behave as if they are still an oppressed minority subject to endless conspiracies. Among their chief targets of complaint is the independent media. Here, they have a point.

Riham Said receives a prominent Islamist lawyer, Sheikh Youssef al-Badri, on her show and proceeds to bait and berate him on what seems like an obscure point. The video is only a three minute clip, but the tenor of their conversation suggests it was a difficult interview throughout.

At heart is the issue of wearing a hijab, a head covering which reveals the full face. After the revolution several Islamists have demanded their interviewers wear a hijab, and Riham appears to relent, though she is not pleased.

But then she takes it off amid an argument, and reveals the amount of money Badri received to make an appearance on the show. It is good entertainment, but it looks also like a set-up. Certainly she showed little respect to Badri, an old man.

But then again, Badri appears to deserve little. He earned his reputation as as an activist lawyer. Long before the revolution he would bring lawsuits against prominent personalities who in his opinion violated sharia law. Often, the law (or at least the judge) agreed. He is a crusader and the scourge of Egypt’s intellectual class.

But perhaps he is also a hypocrite. Filming off air, he and Riham talk casually without her hijab, as they discuss whether or not she must wear it. But once the cameras are rolling, as she removes the head scarf Badri averts his vision, lest he improperly look at an uncovered woman. Furthermore he shouts about her betrayal of agreement amid boasts of his suit to shut down the whole station.

But his piety is public, and she exposes him. It is fair, I suppose; hypocrisy should be exposed. But perhaps one of the reasons Islamists detest the independent media is they violate the cultural values of honor and shame.

In traditional Egyptian understanding, sin is not a great problem unless it becomes known. Public morality is elevated over personal morality, and if an individual can conceal his or her deviant thoughts or behavior it does not embarrass the family or larger group. Everyone knows the arrangement; you protect me and I’ll protect you.

Independent media has its own objectives, which include entertainment, making money, and often, opposing Islamist politics. But to do so, they trash this unwritten understanding. Yes, Badri is exposed as a hypocrite, but Riham emerges as a woman with little honor.

Sometimes I find this balance to be difficult to maintain. In pursuing journalism I do not simply want a story. I want to tell the truth, but I also wish to honor those I speak with. Ideas and politics can be thoroughly opposed; their advocates must be treated with respect.

But what about a hypocrite? The honor and shame culture breeds hypocrisy, in my Western-developed sense of morality. There is much to be respected in covering over sin, but at the end of the day, sin will be exposed. Is it not the journalist to whom this burden falls?

Especially as a foreigner, lack of full understanding gives me pause, and knowledge of my own hypocrisy invokes the Golden Rule. There is a job to be done, but what manner of conduct results in the most good?

Randa embarrassed Badri, but Badri was rejected and hated by her audience from long before. Perhaps those outside her audience were also listening; maybe those outside Badri’s ideological camp but of non-liberal persuasion might see him in a new light. Let us consider that his activism is unbecoming and improper; did Riham’s behavior curb his influence? Did it damage an excessive Islamism?

What if she had simply ‘honored’ him? If she let him spew his viewpoints with deference perhaps he might have even have convinced some of her traditional audience. She would be hurting her own cause.

This is why honor is not enough. Riham showed little, and though she exposed Badri she comes off herself as brutish. She makes a point, and perhaps some are affected. But Badri remains an unchanged man.

What if instead of exposure or honor, Riham cultivated love for Badri? There would be no off-camera revelations, no set-up, no angry storming off the set. She would challenge him – pointedly and explicitly. But could she engage him and lead him to expose himself? Could she have sought to display his hypocrisy not to an audience, but to his own heart?

Maybe, and perhaps he would still have remained an unchanged man. Perhaps Riham would have lost rating points, and Badri maybe would even have gotten the better of her.

But this video brings out the worst of both. Hopefully Egyptian media – of all stripes – can find a better way.

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