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Michael Madoff

Michael is a junior in the School of Foreign Service studying International Politics with a concentration in Foreign Policy and Policy Processes. He grew up in Boston, Massachusetts. In the fall 2011 semester, Michael is studying at Georgetown’s villa program at the McGhee Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies in Alanya, Turkey. During his stay, he hopes to learn about the political relationships between the peoples and governments of Europe and the Middle East. He is also learning to speak Turkish. At Georgetown, Michael is a member of Delta Phi Epsilon Professional Foreign Service Fraternity. Additionally, he worked as Director of Outreach and Legislative Affairs for DC Students Speak and was managing editor of the Georgetown Progressive. Michael also broke his leg surfing in Spain two days before arriving in Turkey, so his trip has had an added element of danger and excitement.

The Soul of the Egyptian Revolution

November 6, 2011 | 2 COMMENTS

Last Friday I attended a pro-democracy rally following Friday prayers in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the birthplace of Egypt’s revolution this past January. The country is in the process of drafting a new constitution that will define the trajectory of the Arab Spring. Creating a constitution, more than a set of legal technicalities, is about defining the principles and ideals that comprise the character of a nation. Among the major debates on the content of the constitution is the role that religion will play in this heavily Islamic country.

That night in Cairo I had dinner with Dr. Tarek Naga, who, in addition to being the architect redesigning the site of the Pyramids at Giza, is an amateur opera producer and political philosopher at the intellectual vanguard of the Egyptian Revolution.

I met Dr. Tarek at his office in Heliopolis, an upper-middle class district outside Cairo. The office features a few small statues of Buddha, his abstract art on small canvases littered about the room, and numerous technical drawings of the layout of the Pyramids site at Giza.

He explained a little about his vision for the last remaining wonder of the ancient world, “the Pyramids were built as a holy site. They should convey the same sense of spiritual awe that accompanies a Mosque or a Cathedral. It should be a temple shared for all of humanity.”

Dr. Tarek plans to strip away all the modern buildings from sight and move the infrastructure underground. Tourists will no longer be allowed to approach on camels and horses as it damages the archeological value of the site. I objected somewhat to the last point as I had seen the Pyramids on horseback.

His current multi-media operatic project abstractly deals with the confluence of three mystics from three religions: Islamic, Christian, and an amalgamation of East Asian traditions. Another show set for the Biennale in Hong Kong addresses the grass-roots nature of the Egyptian Revolution.

Before the revolution, Dr. Tarek lived in Los Angeles as an architect and observer of American political tradition. He is a great admirer of Thomas Jefferson and wants to build a new Egypt partially based on the social contract theory at the heart of the American Revolution.

“Egypt is a country that has been without a soul for too long,” Dr. Tarek observes, “our current project is to find and define the soul of the nation again.” The new constitution is an expression of that soul. Dr. Tarek, a self-described idealist, often speaks in such platitudes.

Specifically, the debate in Egypt centers on Article II of the constitution that describes the role that Sharia Law will play in Egypt’s judicial system. Currently Article II reads, “the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence” also known as Sharia. Islamists would like to delete the word “principal” while secularists would like to delete the whole of Article II.

During our dinner, a man sitting at the next table interrupted our conversation about the constitution, saying “they have no future in our country.” He was referring to the Islamists, continuing, “I am a Muslim. I pray and I fast, but I believe Islam has no place in our constitution. We need a secular state.”

Dr. Tarek cautioned against this line of thinking, noting, “I am not a Muslim but I know it will be impossible to have a democratic process that excludes political Islam altogether. If the people are allowed to vote, they will, at first, vote for Islam.”

The vast majority of Egyptians are Muslims, but protections must be afforded to religious minorities in Egypt. The situation of the Copts, who have in the last few weeks been the victims and perpetrators of sectarian violence, is of particular concern.

Continuing, Dr. Tarek declared, “we want our Jewish Egyptian brothers to return from exile, but more importantly, I want the day to come when I can stand in Tahrir Square and say ‘I am an atheist!’ and no man will judge me.”

Leaving the restaurant after midnight in Dr. Tarek’s open-air jeep, we raced through the streets of Cairo. Crossing a bridge he pointed to a spot, “that’s where I was when they started shooting” during the 18 days of the revolution.

Egypt as a country has a difficult road ahead. Demonstrations continue every week in Tahrir Square as the military regime holds on to power. Conservative Islamists will very likely win the constitutional battle and the upcoming elections. Still, there is hope that religious and personal liberty will be protected and that Egypt will eventually become a modern democratic nation.

COMMENT FROM PROF. ERIC LANGENBACHER - February 13, 2012

It is the ultimate college experience to be a witness to epochal events while simultaneously studying about a country and its political dynamics. It is equally amazing to witness the joy and idealism that historical actors feel as they influence the course of political events. Egypt is experiencing one of those rare moments of hope and re-foundation--it is indeed endeavoring to "find its soul." But the idealists need to become pragmatists very quickly under such volatile circumstances, as the on-going outbreaks of violence and continued repression by the authorities in Egypt attest. Unfortunately, there is not a surfeit of time to debate and determine what the "soul" of the country entails. I can't help but think of the historical parallel with the Revolution of 1848 in the German lands and the attempts over a year to write a Constitution for a new liberal Germany and establish representative democracy. Over the course of the months that this process took, the forces of conservative reaction were able to re-group and subvert the entire process. German liberal democracy did not recover from this counter-revolution until after 1945. So, I hope that Egyptians can seize this precious, short window of opportunity to establish their own liberal democratic order before the inevitable forces of reaction and counter-revolution have a chance to regroup. The necessarily imperfect result will disappoint idealists, but will surely be better than the alternative.

RESPONSE TO MIKE MADOFF FROM JAMIE MARTINES - April 4, 2012

On the surface, comparing Egypt and China is a lot like comparing apples and oranges, as the adage goes. Yet based on your observations there is one characteristic that these two rapidly changing states seem to have in common: they are both grappling with an identity crisis.

As you noted, Egypt is struggling to define “the principles and ideals that comprise the character of a nation.” China is certainly not anywhere near the verge of revolution and the central government continues to comfortably rule with absolute power. But based on my observations, it appears that at the cultural level China is in fact a nation in flux. Rapid economic development has impacted more than just people’s paychecks. It has also forced people to question their identity as a member of a particular ethnic group, faith, or resident of a particular region, as I discussed in my JYAN pieces. As people continue to question their place in civil society, they will naturally start to question their relationship to the government. The danger in China—for the Communist Party, at least—is that isolated incidents of political unrest could turn into a mass political movement.

It is impossible to predict what the future holds for both China and Egypt. As you noted, “Egypt as a country has a difficult road ahead.” I believe that China does as well. As Egypt attempts to construct a state based on a shaky national identity, the people of China are struggling to define their personal identities in the context of an authoritarian state. I think your piece clearly highlights how significant and universal the concepts of culture and identity are in both building and maintaining a stable state.

The Political Economy of the Burqini, or the Burqa-Bikini Crossover

December 2, 2011 | 2 COMMENTS

A new fashion has arrived to accompany the alcohol-soaked beach resort hedonism of Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. Alongside bare-breasted Scandinavian tourists, women sporting the latest designer burqinis splash in the waves and build sandcastles with their children. A burqini is the crossover between a burqa, the traditionally modest Islamic dress that covers a woman from head to toe, and a bikini. The innovative combination of these two seemingly irreconcilable articles of clothing represents the interwoven contradictions that comprise modern Turkey.

In recent years, Turkish politics has taken a culturally Islamic and economically neoliberal direction. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which came to power in 2002, espouses a brand of Islam that embraces Western-style capitalism. This represents a stark departure from the Turkish Republic’s strictly secularist roots.

Turkey is fundamentally a patronage society. Success in any field from business to academia depends on personal connections that individuals either inherit or build for themselves. Therefore the acquisition of political power quickly translates into economic power. With an Islamic political party in control, many socially conservative Turks are getting a chance to experience wealth for the first time.

For decades, commentators have discounted Islam’s compatibility with capitalism and democracy. Certainly the Muslim values system promotes a more communitarian approach to economics. Take the example of a Turkish restaurant in Istanbul. If you order something that is not on the menu, the waiter would happily bring it to you from the competitor restaurant across the street. Yet recall that even the prophet Mohammed himself worked as a merchant and became a wealthy businessman.

The mention of financial success and Islam usually conjures images of opulent Gulf states featuring palm-tree shaped artificial islands and indoor ski mountains in the desert. However, in Turkey, the shift of wealth is more gradual and evenly distributed, leading to the rise of an Islamic middle class. This group seeks to use its newly acquired disposable income for Western luxuries and amenities without sacrificing traditional culture and values. Among the most obvious luxury items in this hot summer climate is of course a trip to the beach, where mothers and daughters can show off their burqinis.

Of course not everyone in Turkey is thrilled with the rise of the “burqinied class.” When Ataturk, Turkey’s founding father, established the country, he enshrined laicite in the constitution. At its foundation, Turkey is a secular republic. For many ardent Turkish nationalists, the increasing power of political Islam is a threat to the country’s core values. Perhaps more fundamental however, is the changing distribution of economic resources. Financial gains made by the Islamists must come at the expense of the favored position of secular elites.

These secular elites are also the best educated and aligned with Western interests and values. They are concerned about the encroachment of Islam into not only their government, but more importantly, their soccer stadiums, movie theaters and beach resorts. In public, the most visible manifestation of Islam is women who wear the hijab, or headscarf. For decades, the headscarf was officially banned everywhere in the public sector from government offices to universities. When the AKP came to power, its leaders made the controversial decision to push for an end to the ban.

At a Sufi Muslim cultural event I attended in the city of Konya, the wife of Turkey’s president was also present. When I recounted the event to a handful of university students at the bar later on, they expressed an intense revulsion for their first lady. They disliked her even more than the president himself and I couldn’t understand why at first. The students explained that the office of the president, which in Turkey is largely symbolic, is supposed to serve as a representation of the secular state. By wearing the hijab, the president’s wife has become an overt expression of Islamist power.

In the short term, the Justice and Development Party’s economic liberalization program seems to be working. Everywhere in Turkey massive apartment complexes are under construction and imported European cars flood the streets. Whether this development comes with a secret or not-so-secret Islamist agenda continues to be a hotly debated question in the coffee houses of Istanbul and Ankara. Furthermore, it remains to be seen whether a new distribution of wealth will make Turkish society more equitable, or simply shift economic power from a secular elite to an Islamic elite.

COMMENT FROM LAUREN BOAS HAYES - JANUARY 3, 2012

Hi Mike,

Great article! I really enjoyed it. Interestingly enough, bathing suits in Thailand are also rather telling of the national development trajectory. Thailand’s development and international image are closely intertwined and often present many contradictions between where Thailand seems to be moving and what Thais hold dear to them in their culture.

For instance, Thai fashion tends to be very conservative by American standards. Both men and women wear shirts that have sleeves and necklines that do not go below the collarbone in addition to bottoms that go beyond the knee. However, Thailand, specifically Bangkok, has become intrinsically linked to the sex trade and it is very common to see women walking around in ultra-miniskirts with rather “Thai inappropriate” tops on. Thailand has become the major tourist destination in Southeast Asia and yet it wants to develop its national economy.

I brought a bikini with me to Thailand thinking that if I ever made it to an island it might come in handy; however, when I realized that my gym membership included access to the pool I decided that I should buy a “Thai appropriate” bathing suit. My roommate, who was Thai, and I went to the mall and she selected a bathing suit for me. This thing looks like some kind of suit that an elderly woman, living in the 1940s would wear to a water aerobics. The suit looks a great deal like some of the Burqinis, minus the leggings and hijab, that I saw when googling the Burqini. Despite how silly I felt in this suit I wore it when I to the pool in Khon Kaen and I blended in nicely.

I eventually traveled to the south to an island and I saw thousands of people, typically white foreigners, wearing bikinis and above the knee swim trunks. It struck me as quite interesting that the idyllic Thai beaches are hosting swarms of foreigners who do not seem to make many efforts to uphold the culture; meanwhile there are very few Thais no these beaches and the few that are there are not generally wearing bikinis.

There are many contradictions between traditional and modern Thai culture and tourism seems to accentuate these differences.

COMMENT FROM CAITLIN ATTAL - JANUARY 6, 2012

This was such a fascinating article, and you mentioned many things that I can relate to after studying in Jordan. Amman is considered one of the more westernized cities in the Middle East and, compared to Cairo or Damascus, it is quite accurate. However, from a western perspective, describing Amman as westernized is quite difficult, especially when it comes to dress. The vast majority of women veil; if they don’t, shirts never reveal more than an elbow, and pants never reveal more than an ankle. Men always wear long pants, but t-shirts are quite common.

I went to the Dead Sea multiple times while I was in Jordan, and I brought a two-piece and a one-piece bathing suite just in case. I was shocked to see almost everybody walking around in two-pieces when I walked down to the beach (granted, the majority of them were foreigners). One family stood out in particular, though. It was a Jordanian family of four, a mother, father, and their two daughters. The mother was wearing a bright green burqini while her two daughters (maybe 8 and 10) wore two-pieces. The interfamily contradiction stunned me.

I know that I returned to the same place in about five years, both of the burqini-clad woman’s daughters would most likely be wearing bathing suits that match their mother’s. One thing that I have learned in Jordan is that modesty is a girl’s “welcome to womanhood” present. It is almost as if pre-adolescents are westernized, yet once they cross the line into adulthood, tradition takes over.