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Egypt in fear of Islamic onslaught
- Museum statues vandalised

Cairo, June 18: A religiously motivated attack on statues at a museum in Cairo has sparked outcry in Egypt and fuelled fears that the country is veering towards an Islamic state.

The attack on three artworks, by a black-clad and veiled woman screaming, “Infidels, infidels!” followed a fatwa issued by the Grand Mufti of Cairo, Ali Gomaa, which banned all decorative statues of living beings.

It led to furious criticism of the mufti from Egyptian liberals. In a televised debate with the mufti after the attack, one poet raged that “the prevalent religious discourse in Egypt encourages terror”.

Although the ancient treasures of Egypt have been protected under Islam so far, an increasing extremism in the country could make statues such as the quartzite head of Nefertiti, the colossus of Amenhotep, and the golden death mask of Tutankhamen possible targets in future.

At the scene of the attack,, Hassan Heshmat, guards said they had been woken in the middle of the night by the woman’s shouts and the sounds of destruction.

“It was a fully covered, religious woman,” said Raisa Intesar, who looks after both the museum and Heshmat, now 86. “She had jumped over the wall. We rushed out to stop her but by the time we had overpowered her, she had destroyed three statues."

The damaged works included Motherhood, a piece featuring three delicately carved heads, all of which had been snapped off. Also damaged was a smaller piece, The Victory Leap, Heshmat’s tribute to Egyptian troops in the 1973 Yom Kippur war.

But the patriotic sentiment of the work was lost on the attacker, who was intent on following a religious imperative. “She had been listening to the mufti, and was following his orders,” Intesar said.

In Islam, representations of the human form and potential idolatry are particularly sensitive topics and helped to fuel the riots over the depiction of the Prophet earlier this year.

So, in Egypt, which has become markedly more conservative in recent years, artists such as Heshmat now find that national pride is losing out to religious fervour.

The attack exemplifies the clash of secular and religious societies in Egypt where, on the streets of Cairo, beauties in low-cut tops mingle with veiled women who walk behind their husbands.

“We are seeing an increase of conservative, Islamist feeling,” said Nabil Abdel Fatah, from the Al Ahram centre for Political and Strategic studies in Cairo.

“The Islamisation of Egyptian society is happening from the bottom up, and now it has reached the middle classes.

“Over the next few years political Islam will grow and grow.... The duality between secular and religious is very dangerous and will lead to a very serious conflict in Egyptian society.

“We are seeing terror attacks. And we’ll see new radical groups who will want to change the state in the most basic way ' by suicide bombs and assassination.”

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