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The battle over religion heats up in Egypt

"You're not more Muslim than the rest of us!"

So shouted Parliament speaker Saad El-Katatany at Member of Parliament Mamdouh Ismail. The whole thing happened in Tuesday's session of Parliament in Cairo. Out of nowhere, Ismail suddenly decided to stand up in the back of the assembly and make the call for prayer, the azan. Loud. Ignoring the speaker's objection to his disorderly conduct.

It was surreal.

Ismail is one of Egypt's ultraconservative Salafis. Speaker El-Katatny is an MP from the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, so he's hardly a secularist.

But even to him Ismail's actions were utterly unnecessary. An irritated Katatny chastised his unruly colleague: "There is a mosque [in the parliament complex] for the call for prayer; this room is for discussion."

But MP Ismail was trying to one-up everyone else. His previous claim to fame, as journalist Issandr Amrani reminds us, was the lawsuit he filed against businessman and politician Naguib Sawiris for tweeting what he deemed to be an offensive cartoon. So it seems that he needed a new hobbyhorse.

The importance of this incident is twofold.

First, it showcases the difference between the Muslim Brothers and the Salafists. Both are Islamists, adherents of political Islam, and are instrumentalizing religion for political gain. But Salafists, representatives of a more hardline interpretation of Islam, are often more concerned with the superficial expressions of religiousness than with faith: Think strict dress codes, beards, complete gender segregation, and so forth. The Muslim Brotherhood is both more realist and somewhat more amenable to discussion.

Second, it is a reminder that religion sells -- and particularly the superficial expressions of it.

Mamdouh Ismail probably has nothing to add to the debate. His only contribution would've been a call for prayer and perhaps even a compulsory prayer break, à la Saoudienne.

And it wouldn't have been a once-off occurrence. Ismail would've probably stood up and interrupted discussions every day for the next five years around prayer time.

Experience shows that any remotely religious decisions, even if they're motivated by pure political opportunism, are impossible to roll back. Egypt, for example, included a reference to Islamic law as the main source of legislation in Article 2 of the Constitution. That amendment wasn't part of the original version of the constitution passed in 1971; it was added in 1980. By then, President Anwar Sadat -- no great fan of religion -- was trying to lift term limits so that he could remain in power as long as he wanted, so he needed to neutralize potential pressure from the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups. Ironic, isn't it?

Another example is the addition of the words "Allah Akbar" -- God is Great -- to the Iraqi flag. This was the doing of one Saddam Hussein, another notorious secularist, just days before the Second Gulf War in January 1991. Here, too, his goal was to curry favor with the Muslim world and drum up regional support.

In 2004, when the US occupation administration in Iraq suggested modifying the flag, some of the voices that came out in defense of the existing design did so not out of nostalgia for Hussein's rule but as a reaction to a perceived American attack on a religious symbol. When the flag was finally changed in 2008, Iraqi lawmakers kept the text but dropped the stars that had adorned the banner since 1963.

And during the run-up to the Egyptian referendum on constitutional amendments in March 2011, Article 2 became the rallying cry for the campaigns by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists -- even though said article had already been excluded from revision. The proposed amendments pertained to presidential powers and the president's term of office, so they had nothing to do with religion. Yet people who rejected the proposed amendments were often branded as "anti-religious."

The emotional weight of religion, especially superficial expressions of it, is undefeatable.

The whole incident raises one more intriguing question: Does it take an Islamist to catch an Islamist? In other words, had the speaker of Parliament been, say, a liberal MP -- would he have been successful at silencing the rowdy MP who breached decorum? Or would said hypothetical liberal MP have found himself silenced by others on the grounds that he was attacking an "Islamic" symbol, namely the call for prayer?

These are worrisome questions, because the answers may suggest that the political conversation is increasingly being drawn to the right, with any religion-flavored subject riling people up to the point of stifling the debate.

Mohamed El Dahshan also blogs at http://eldahshan.com and tweets at @eldahshan.

Democracy Lab

E-readers in Uganda

"Folks in Uganda love your story," Elizabeth Wood, my publisher, wrote to me recently. She was referring to my children's book The Blue Marble, which has just been imported back into the country in a novel way. She forwarded an email from Daria, one of her colleagues, who is currently on a trip to Uganda for the Worldreader project:

I'm so excited! When the teachers at Humble [a school in Uganda] saw that there were African books on their e-readers they actually seemed astounded. A quick look into Humble's library and you know why: everything was American. This might be going too far but they looked like they were in a state of disbelief, almost as if they themselves had never really connected the idea of books and African authors. Actually, when Esther said The Blue Marble was by a Ugandan writer a few of them commented in disbelief. Seeing the Ugandan names actually made a few of them giggle with surprise and delight. Jackee Batanda is going to be the first Ugandan author most of them read.

Worldreader is a non-profit organization committed to delivering digital books to children and families in the developing world using e-reader technology. Already launched in Kenya and Ghana, the project seeks to promote reading through e-readers and works with underprivileged schools. Worldreader launched in Uganda last week, and, judging by the emails, Ugandan teachers are excited.

Generally speaking, teachers in Uganda have little to be excited about. Last week, I read with trepidation that the government has, for the time being, ruled out pay rises for all civil servants (except those in the security sector). This country's fixation on high defense spending over quality of education and health care bodes ill for the nation's future. Around the world, the debate on the failing education standards is growing. What are the nations with the best education standards doing right? And what are those with low education standards doing wrong?

Uganda boasts high student enrollment due to a policy of free universal primary and secondary education. The numbers look good when it comes to World Bank statistics on enrollment, but they tend to ignore the quality of education. In an op-ed he published in Uganda's The Independent newspaper last year, Bob Kasango argues for the need to overhaul the whole education system and motivate teachers. He quotes reports indicating that children who have passed through the Ugandan school system cannot tell time or do simple mathematical calculations. He argues that the need to improve education standards is of the essence.

To compete, we either must raise our educational standards or we shall be left out and left behind. But how do we do this? The answer is simple. Get more and great teachers, pay them well and treat them with the same professional respect we accord to lawyers, engineers, doctors, accountants etc. But developing great teachers requires an extremely rigorous and competitive process. They must be subjected to entry exams to a teaching job and continuously assessed and given regular periodical training to widen and upgrade their knowledge base. The teacher-student ratio must not defy the principal laws of meaningful learning....

Last year teachers participated twice in national strikes, calling on the government to increase their salaries by 100 percent. The average income of a primary school teacher is 260,000 shillings ($93 USD) per month, according to local press reports. They threatened another strike this year. Instead the government promised to raise their salary by 15 percent in the next financial budget cycle. The decision to increase teacher's pay by only 15 percent underscores the failure to grasp that more money needs to be channeled into education if we are to develop as a nation.

Civil society organizations like Worldreader are stepping in to fill the gap. The e-reader project is an example of a pilot project that promotes reading through new technologies. This is just the sort of thing the government appears incapable of doing on its own.

While money needs to be spent on the security sector, a larger amount needs to be invested in education. Investing in the education sector will ensure the growth and development of the country.

STUART PRICE/AFP/Getty Images