Egypt's Police See Satan in Teens' Western Ways
CAIRO — The three policemen came at 4 a.m., while another with a Kalashnikov rifle waited downstairs. They rummaged through Omar's room, taking rock-and-roll music cassettes and a skull-and-crossbones wall poster.
Next they demanded Omar himself. His father insisted that he go with his teenage son, but before he could dress Omar was gone. "I thought they were going to take me somewhere, and my parents wouldn't know anything about me," says Omar, who asked that only his first name be used. "I read the newspapers. They can do real bad things to you."
Now Omar sits relaxed in the plush couch of his parents high-rise Cairo apartment, wearing jeans and a New York Yankees baseball cap. But on Jan. 22, he was one of 78 young people arrested on suspicion of devil worship.
After 48 hours of being handcuffed, blindfolded, and crammed, shirtless and cold, into a small, crowded cell, he says, he was let free. But 20 more youths still languish in prison, and arrest warrants are out for 20 more.
The Internet, satellite dishes, and other technology are bringing Western culture to Egypt faster than ever before. And analysts see the harsh police measures - and rapid public condemnation of these young people - as a knee-jerk reaction to this increased pressure of Westernization.
Many of the youths, from middle-class or wealthy homes, enjoy heavy metal or rock music. They wear trendy black clothes or sport the grunge look: baggy trousers, oversized shirts, and American baseball caps.
Officials allege that some have gone too far. The 78 youths are charged with propagating extremist thought, offending religion, and threatening social stability and national unity. They could face up to five years in prison.
When news reports of wild teen behavior first broke last year, it aroused fear that this evil would spread and erode the very fiber of this conservative, religious society.
The press and authorities claimed devil worshippers stomped on the Koran, Islam's holy book, drank cat's blood, and more. Egypt's leading Islamic theologian, the Mufti Nasr Farid Wassil, says that given their age, the apostates should have time to repent. But if they don't, they should die.
While a handful of the suspects may have practiced satanic rituals, it is widely believed that most are innocent. So far, the evidence against them is flimsy: videotapes of a Dec. 20 hard rock concert, T-shirts and posters with skulls and cross bones, and CDs and cassettes of heavy-metal, reggae, and rock bands, including Black Sabbath, Bob Marley, and The Pretenders.
The police also confiscated a Chicago Cubs baseball cap and Statue of Liberty T-shirt.
"They [the suspects] will influence the youth," says Chief Prosecutor Hisham Saraya. "Legally, we had to intervene."
"The world has become a small village because of the Internet and television, so you can imagine new ideas against your culture overcoming traditional, conservative ideas," says Salah Abdel Motaal, a sociology professor at Cairo University. "This is a conflict between the old and the new."
Specifically, an "Americanization wave" is sweeping the country, social scientists say, with growing numbers of American fast-food restaurants, home-grown bands fashioned after American hard rock, and kids sporting American duds.
When analyzing the phenomenon, Egyptian commentators have blatantly blamed the West. "Devil worship is a natural culmination of prevalent Western thought. It is what secularism leads to after besieging religion and the sacred and destroying all that is absolute in faith and morality," wrote Fahmi Howeidi in Cairo's leading semi-official daily, Al-Ahram.
Analysts also say the supposed presence of devil worshippers gave the government the perfect opportunity to show its religious convictions and its willingness to fight evil as police continue arresting hundreds of young Islamic fundamentalists suspected of militancy and trying to overthrow the government.
These arrests of young men from mainly poor southern villages continue, despite the decline of Egypt's Islamic extremist movement the last two years.
As Egyptians gasp, analyze, and point fingers at the news of devil worshippers in their midst, the suspects and their families live in fear and anticipation.
"My son didn't do anything wrong, except that he looks American," says one father, whose teenage son is still in prison. "Like any youngster, he likes to go to discos and parties. What's wrong with listening to music and dancing?"
Grim and bleary-eyed, the man sat in the court's reception area, waiting for permission to see his son. Fearing for his son's safety, the father refused to give his name or profession. He had just returned from his job in Saudi Arabia and hadn't seen his son in nine months.
One father who agreed to meet this reporter declined after Egypt's interior ministry warned him not to speak to the press.
The effect on youths is tangible. Young people who once had dreadlocks sport short hair today.
Others who dressed in grunge suddenly sport neat polo shirts and khakis. Girls removed their black nail polish, and boys doffed their baseball caps.
Omar's father says his son's ordeal has left him terribly sad. "Our country is only three years from the 21st century, and there is this ignorance," he says. "If they [the police] had phoned and asked for my son, I would have brought him. But they came at dawn and took him. They treated him like he was a terrorist or a mass killer."