A Marxist Comes Home to Islam

Adel Hussein's intellectual odyssey ends with his rediscovery of the religion he was raised in

ADEL HUSSEIN can trace the twists and turns his life has taken by following the bookshelves around his living room.

The titles tell the story. By the picture window overlooking one of Cairo's parks he keeps books from his youth: "Optimal Functioning System for a Socialist Economy," by N. P. Fedorenko; a yellowed copy of "Planning in the USSR;" a theoretical work on communism by former Hungarian Prime Minister Imre Nagy.

Farther along the wall are volumes with more of a third-world flavor: "Nation and Revolution," by Anwar Abdel Malek; "Latin America: Underdevelopment or Revolution."

And by the door, handsomely bound in red leather, are the books he draws on now for inspiration, not in English but in Arabic: scholarly religious works on the faith he rediscovered late in life, Islam.

Currently the editor of Al Shaab, Cairo's most prominent Islamist daily newspaper, Mr. Hussein's intellectual odyssey - from his student days as a Marxist admirer of the Soviet Union, through his militant years of Arab nationalism, to Islamic activism - are emblematic of the shifting currents in political thought that have dominated the Middle East over the past half century.

His former colleagues brand him an opportunist. But Hussein insists that if his approach to the world has changed, his central concerns have not. When he rediscovered Islam, he found it contained the answer to his search for a system of social justice and human values.

"The internal logic is simply that from the very beginning my main target has been to achieve progress and prosperity for my people," he says. "And accordingly I have tried to find the way leading to that.

"The moment I discover that my theoretical approach is not adequate for my target, I start modifying it."

A slight man with a penchant for comfortable old trousers and baggy sweaters, Hussein looks every inch the leftist Egyptian intellectual. Not for him are the beard and traditional robe of the stereotyped "Muslim fundamentalist."

But if his outward appearance has not changed - he pores over the proofs of the front page of Al Shaab in the paper's spartan office just as he once wrestled with the text of communist manifestoes - Hussein's mentality has been transformed.

He began his political life during his university days in the early 1950s "attracted by Marxism for its stand against Western imperialism and for social justice." His view of the world, he recalls, was strongly colored by his admiration for the Soviet Union, which in those days, to a young Egyptian leftist, "looked as if it had been successful in linking development with social justice."

The elegance and coherence of Marxist thought, however, lost some of its luster when reflected through the prism of what Hussein came to see as "narrow-minded Soviet views and Moscow's hegemonic position" toward nationalist movements in the Arab world inspired by then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Jailed by Mr. Nasser, like many of his communist comrades, Hussein grew increasingly critical of Soviet expectations that local communists would put Moscow's cold-war concerns above their own and shifted his perspective to a radical nationalist stance.

From a theoretical point of view, this was not a wrenching change, since radical nationalism in the Arab world, as in the third world generally, was imbued with a strong dose of Marxist analysis. From a practical perspective, his emphasis on planned development and social justice remained essentially the same.

For nearly 20 years, from the early years of the 1960s to the late 1970s, radical nationalism was Adel Hussein's intellectual home as he embarked on a painstaking critique of Marxism and anti-Western thought.

That effort was interrupted, he says, by President Anwar Sadat's dramatic journey to Jerusalem and his conclusion of the Camp David peace accords with Israel in 1979, which put Cairo firmly in the Western camp.

As a consequence, Hussein turned his focus to a study of the economic ramifications of Egypt's treaty with Israel and its subservience to American interests in the region.

Exploring the possible avenues of independent development for a country like Egypt, Hussein was "keen to take into account the geopolitical considerations of the political economy, and also the cultural environment in economics."

That point was to take Hussein down an entirely new path. "I discovered the importance of the cultural dimension," he recalls, "and accordingly my interest in the study of Islam increased, because Islam is the backbone of Egyptian culture.

"I began by saying that whether I believe in it or not, it is my culture," Hussein explains. "The second phase was to wonder whether I respected Islam only because it was my tradition and heritage, or because it in itself deserved respect."

By the mid-1980s, Hussein's rediscovery of the religion that he had been raised in was complete, and he had joined "the camp of those who were propagating Islam as the basis for authentic development."

What Hussein found in Islam was a new way of rooting his anti-imperialist principles. The stress on "authenticity" recast an old preoccupation of Arab political thinkers: the desire to ensure "the dignity of Muslims, their right to establish their own way of life, their ambition to develop a different civilization," free of Western domination.

In Islam, Adel Hussein found an approach to life that embodies his ideas of social justice and cooperation, puts human values above economic ones, and makes him feel that the materialistic philosophies to which he used to subcribe were shallow.

Islam also has led him to espouse modern causes such as environmental protection, from a religious perspective. "The rate of growth and the rate of profit are not sacred in Islam," he argues, "but according to Islamic beliefs we should live in harmony with the earth. My understanding of the relationship between economic development and nature is quite linked to Allah ... as the creator of the universe."

On the surface, there could scarcely be two more different approaches to Egypt's social problems than godless communism and Islamic activism, but perhaps Adel Hussein has merely come full circle. Sitting in his sitting room cum study, the table covered with books and papers, he acknowledges, "Marxism was some kind of religion ... I exchanged one comprehensive system based on a materialist view for another comprehensive system based on God as the creator."

For him "that changes everything" in his approach to the world. It also changes his place in it. This time, at last, after two false starts, Adel Hussein feels he is on the side of History.

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