Faith, Politics and Swine Flu in the Middle East

ISLAM AND THE WEST By Daniel Brumberg “We remind Hosni Mubarak that we are all Egyptians. Where does he want … Continued


By Daniel Brumberg

“We remind Hosni Mubarak that we are all Egyptians. Where does he want us to go?” Gergis Faris, a 46-year-old pig farmer in Cairo who collects garbage to feed his animals, told the Associated Press. “We are uneducated people, just living day by day… and now if our pigs are taken from us without compensation, how are we supposed to live?”

In the past two days Egyptian authorities have slaughtered some 300,000 pigs. Never mind that health officials from Atlanta to Melbourne have asserted that Swine Flu is transmitted not by pigs but from people to people. As panic sets in on a global level, pork barrel politics of a very different kind is spreading fast, and with equal madness.

Egypt’s story, of course, is not solely about pigs or disease. Partly, it is a story about the status of Christian Copts, who make up ten percent of the population, and who have long complained of political and economic discrimination. If, as the Washington Post reports, some Islamist radical Web sites have asserted that the Swine Flu is God’s revenge against “infidels,” we can’t blame Egyptian Copts for feeling that there is more to the killing of their pigs than the arbitrary actions of an arbitrary regime.

I have not as yet found the above referenced militant Islamist Web site. But I would not be surprised were some Jihadists to believe that Swine Flu is divine retribution. Totally departing from mainstream Islam, Jihadists assert that being Christian or Jewish is itself a crime. On this basis, they believe that non-Muslims are getting their just desserts.

Egypt’s Muslim Brethren have taken a religiously more palatable position. At a health symposium the other day, one of the group’s leaders asserted that while many Muslims have failed to understand why Islamic law prohibits eating pork, Swine Flu has proven “the truth of God’s words to us.”

Many devout Jews might reach a similar conclusion. The Jewish ban on pork is partly rooted in an ancient belief that pig meat carries disease. That people are dying from Swine Flu only seems to reaffirm the wisdom in Leviticus (11,7-8), which states: “And the swine…shall ye not eat, and their carcass shall ye not touch, they are unclean to you.”
Yet if not eating pork is central to Jewish orthodoxy, does it follow that the term “swine flu” is itself un-kosher, or that its uttering is somehow equivalent to eating pork?

This seems the conclusion of Israel’s acting Minister of Health. A member of the ultra-orthodox community, the minister declared that henceforth, Israel would speak only of “Mexico Flu.” When Mexico’s ambassador complained, Israel’s foreign ministry offered the somewhat tongue in cheek reassurance that the minister was “just kidding.”

Some joke! Writing in Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper, one columnist bemoaned a “system that produces a government where a party representing a community whose media cannot print the word sex, airbrushes women out of photos, and binds them into a strict second-class status, can be put in charge of the Health Ministry.”

The real problem, as this columnist goes on to note, is not religion, or even the very strict version of Judaism that Israel’s acting Minister of Health adheres to. Rather, it is the grafting of religion -and religious leaders–to politics and the state.

Faith is a wonderful remedy for an aching soul. But when its mysteries are invoked in the place of science-based public policy making, you sometimes get absolute nonsense, or what they call shtiyot in Hebrew and ha-bal in Egyptian Arabic.

Daniel Brumberg is Associate Professor of Government at Georgetown University Acting Director of U.S. Institute of Peace’s Muslim World Initiative.

By Dan Brumberg | 
May 1, 2009; 3:22 PM ET

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Islam and the West

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  • CCNL

    Just more proof that the most of the contemporary 1.5 million Conservative Jews and their rabbis who have put most of the OT on the myth pile, e.g. there was no Abraham, Moses or Noah and David was some minor county commissioner, got it right!!!Time for some more pork ribs!!!

  • WmarkW

    Islam is what Judaism would be if:Jews weren’t well-educatedFortunately, Jews are too smart and small in number to implement their scripture literally.

  • abhab

    The only segment of population in Egypt and most other Muslim majority societies that handle pork are Christians. Many of the impoverished Egyptian Christians (Copts), especially those in and around Cairo, raise pigs for a living; they sell pork to hotels that cater to Western tourists. They feed them by simply making them rummage in the city trash dumps.

  • halozcel1

    *Swine Flu has proven “the truth of God’s words to us”*What about *Bird Flu* ? God didnt prohibit chicken,turkey,duck etc.

  • omniscience1

    Amazing how spin and personal perspective can affect opinion, and while I agree that some religious rightists should not be in positions governing population health, using the remark by the Israeli Health Minister as a basis to support this general stereotype is unfounded.We haveand none of these countries complained.

  • Usama1

    Each flu mentioned- Spanish, Mexican, Hong Kong- were all swine flu sustained in pig populations until some human became infected, thereby passing it to humans. Estimates are 50 million people died in the 1918 “Spanish” flu. Muslims are correct to see a correlation between pigs and swine flu as detrimental to human populations whether they be Muslim or not. Its Christians who choose to ignore the health, ecological, and economic disasters that pigs bring. As one fellow mentioned, he ignores all of this because they taste good! So be it. You choose to ignore reality. But at every turn, pork industry lobbyists are telling health officials and politicans not to threaten their industry.

  • omniscience1

    Permit me to correct some mis-statments: The reservoirs for at least two of the flu pandemics mentioned were chickens and birds not swine. In fact, in 1983 we in the US killed 7-8 million chickens because it was feared that they were infected with a strain of flu and would infect humans. You are correct that that pigs are indeed a fertile reservoir for diseases of many kinds , but chickens are also a prime reservoir for flu viruses – (and bacterial diseases as well) yet they are biblically permitted. You should know that personally, I do not eat any pork products of any kind for the precise biblical injunctions you raiseYou should also know that I think there is ample evidence to forecast the the current swine flu wave will metamorphasize into a more serious pandemic – and will be spread by pigs — your precise concern, butFalse fears of the swine flu are especially dangerous. In 1976 a false scare of swine flu seduced the US to disseminate a vaccine that resulted great harm, including causing hundreds of cases of Guillion Barre Syndrome.One final question: will you allow yourself to be vaccinated for the swine flu if a vaccine is developed — since the vaccine will be composed of a variant attenuated swine flu virus?

  • Gaby1

    USAMA1″”Pigs are indeed dangerous. Its quite obvious they are reserviors for disease, as the same swine flu has remained in pig populations for decades. Pigs carry other diseases. And pigs are omnivores that eat anything which exposes them to diseases from carrion. Feral pigs destroy native ecologies and outcompete native species. Feral pigs are classified as nuisance animals to be culled in 40 US states and countries across the world. Pigs contribute to the extinction of species, such as the Dodo bird”Then all I have to say is that the human is most closely related to the pig. We are omnivores, carry plenty of diseases unheard of in animal populations, we definitely are dangerous was we kill and maim each other without a second thought.Human also destroy native ecologies and outcompete native species, plus they contribute to the extinction of species.So really to call a human a pig is no insult, it’s the truth!