UA Anthropologist Studies 'Moral Panic’ In Egypt

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. - It’s called a moral panic, an episode when the public voice of a society - everyone from political and religious leaders to pundits and parents - calls out to condemn a certain influence or activity within the community. Although usually short-lived, these episodes can lead to monumental social upheaval, even the persecution and oppression of specific groups of people. Sound familiar?

If you hate the violence in video games or worry about kids who dress all in black, it should.

That’s because moral panics occur in every society, says Ted Swedenburg, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Arkansas. Swedenburg recently made a presentation that shed light on one episode of moral panic in the Middle East but which also gave insight into why such panics happen right here at home.

At the recent American Anthropological Association meeting, held in San Francisco this November, Swedenburg presented a paper titled "Satanic Heavy Metal in Egypt." His presentation examined an episode of moral panic that occurred three years ago in Cairo, ignited by a growing interest in heavy metal music among affluent, young Egyptians.

In January of 1997, Egyptian authorities stormed a heavy metal concert in Cairo, arresting 80 young people and jailing them on charges of Satanic worship. It represented the culminating event of a panic that had been sparked months earlier when an Egyptian reporter published a series of articles alleging Satanic activity amongst heavy metal music fans.

"The truth is that there was no Satan worship going on. The kids were released 10 weeks later because nothing could be proved," Swedenburg said.

So in studying the episode, Swedenburg set out to discover the real factors that had instigated the panic and to discern how a marginal teenage music scene had exploded into a full-scale government investigation.

Recognizing that the first allegations had originated from a reporter, Swedenburg began his research by examining how the news media had contributed to the development of this moral panic. At the French Research Institute, he found hundreds of articles that had been written in the months preceding and following the January arrests. Looking at each article, Swedenburg found that opinions and exposés had saturated the Egyptian news during the course of the panic, appearing in nearly every newspaper and magazine in the nation.

He further discovered that, rather than questioning the imprisonment of 80 students or investigating the link between heavy metal and Satanism, these articles seemed to fan the flames of the panic. They offered tips on how to recognize Satan worshipers (black clothing, long hair on men); identified places where Satan worship was likely to occur (nightclubs, furnished flats); and described a variety of Satanic rituals (chanting, black candles, sexual depravity).

In addition to these recurring themes, the articles attempted to identify the causes and contributing forces that had "lured" Egyptian youth into this deviant lifestyle. This effort ran the gamut of speculation - attributing the problem to everything from the influence of western popular culture to the deterioration of family values.

"Every writer had a different theory, so the panic became like a Rorschach test, with everyone reading into it exactly what they wanted to see," Swedenburg said. "In actuality, the panic sprang directly out of anxieties that Egyptians hold about the future of their young men and of their country."

Swedenburg states that this is typical of moral panics across the globe. Though they flare up around a specific group of people or activity, panics are usually fueled by underlying anxieties within the larger society. Ultimately, that’s what people can learn from such episodes, he added - the true values and fears of a given community.

While the news media fanned the flames, the real fuel of the panic was a variety of social doctrines and mores that were seemingly threatened by the newfound social freedom of Egyptian youth. As young people acquired more access to money and to technologies such as the Internet, older Egyptians feared their children would abandon their cultural and moral identities.

Western influences were already perceived as a threat to Egypt, which had been dominated and occupied by Western powers until recent decades. Foreign education systems and the popularity of franchises like MacDonald’s and Coca-Cola added to the sense of cultural loss. Heavy metal music appeared to be yet another damaging Western import.

But in addition to these external forces, internal social anxieties also contributed to the panic. One of the largest internal factors was religion, said Swedenburg.

"The allegation of Satanism was serious enough," he explained. "But the situation was exacerbated by religious doctrine. In Islamic law, it’s a serious crime to abandon your faith. That’s the main reason that the government got involved."

Additional internal anxieties may ring all too familiar to other societies that have experienced moral panics: fears about the deterioration of family values and about a generation of youth raised in unprecedented wealth and privilege.

Under the accumulation of so many contributing factors, the 1997 panic turned out to have little to do with heavy metal music. Nevertheless, the episode had profound effects on the musical scene in Cairo as well as on the activities of Egyptian youth.

"The heavy metal scene pretty much disappeared. Parents confiscated CDs and posters, forced kids to cut their hair, closed down the concerts," Swedenburg said. "But the fears, the anxieties that triggered the whole thing are still there."

As a result, the likelihood for future panics and for further censorship of youth activities is high. And this can be taken as a cautionary note for any community that has experienced an episode of moral panic, said Swedenburg. Before the public cries out against a perceived threat, perhaps they should look at the real issue driving the fear.

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