Egypt and the Challenge of Islam in the Public Sphere

“Know that you can have three sorts of relations with princes, governors and oppressors. The first and worst is that you visit them, the second and better is that they visit you, and the third and surest that you stay far from them, so that neither you see them nor they see you.” – Abu Hamid Muhammad Al Ghazzali. (d.1111)

While Ghazzali’s advise seems apt for all those Islamic leaders who are interested in ‘preserving Islam’ and ‘Islamic ethics’ in any society, the reality is quite different. Almost every time a religious group has come to power, it gravitates to acquire more power, hence becoming more ‘worldly’ than spiritual. This trend has remained somewhat consistent: from the Catholic Church to Islamist parties in Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia and the rest, though some are more restrained than the others. The question that is on several people’s mind is this: Should Muslim Brotherhood (MB) still be part of the political landscape in Egypt? Despite the ban on MB and being labelled a ‘terrorist’ outfit, should the group and its cadre be allowed to participate in the political sphere? These are some questions that will continue to haunt both the Egyptian people as well as the international community. While the ground realities in Egypt preclude any rational dialogue and much of the decision making seems to be taking place in the realm of realpolitik and the struggle for survival is dictating the tactical steps that the Egyptian ruling elite is taking; strategic foresight in this case requires a different approach.

Photo credit :
Photo credit :

As the New York Times reported about the bomb blasts in Cairo today, “A crowd of more than 200 people was demonstrating in support of General Sisi and against the Muslim Brotherhood. “The people want the execution of the Brotherhood,” they chanted, waving Egyptian flags and holding signs depicting a profile of General Sisi in dark sunglasses against the profile of a lion, or, in other posters, of a hawk.” The mood in the country is anything but calm and factions supporting the General and those on the side of MB have become more entrenched.

Jose Casanova, one of the most eminent theorists of Sociology of religion points out, the distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’ religion is one of the key points of contention from a secular perspective. But he is careful to delineate the differences between the types of secularizations, which he identifies as being of three kinds: secularization as separation of state and religion, secularization as decline of religious practices and secularization as marginalization of religion to a privatized sphere. He has argued for the public inclusion of religious parties in the political sphere. His is a slightly complicated argument, but one worthy of examination.

I quote Casanova at length, where he points to the benefits of public religion: “The public impact of religious critiques should not be measures in terms of the ability of any religion to impose its agenda upon society or to press its global normative claims upon the autonomous spheres. In modern differentiated societies it is both unlikely and undesirable that religion should again play the role of systematic normative integration. But by crossing boundaries, by raising questions publicly about the autonomous pretentions of the differentiated spheres to function without regard to moral norms or human considerations, public religions may help to mobilize people against such pretentions, they may contribute to a redrawing of boundaries, or, at the least, they may force or contribute to a public debate about such issues. Like feminist critiques or like republican virtue critiques of modern developments, they will have functioned as counterfactual normative critiques.” This is a critique that many secularists in Egypt are not able to heed. Perhaps the atmosphere has become too vitiated and the camps so entrenched in their views that any discussion of alternatives seems impossible.

As Casanova points out further, the fusion of the ‘Church’ and ‘State’ that took place in the Christian domain is exceptional and the only case. Once the Western Roman Empire disintegrated, it became a salvation religion with the political structure of an imperial state. There is no reason to believe that Islam or any other religion will go this route, even with the establishment of religious communities in charge, politically. Casanova argued for the maintenance of Secularism in terms of differentiation between religion and state, and institutions and religion. Within that religion can have a role to play in public sphere, with some conditions.

New York Times also reported in a short statement posted online, the Brotherhood said it “strongly condemns the cowardly bombings in Cairo, expresses condolences to the families of those killed, demands swift investigations.” It blamed the “coup authorities” for deteriorating security and the failure to apprehend the perpetrators of previous bombings. While this may be seen as a way to wash their hands off any blame, there is growing suspicion that the MB was in some way involved. While these debates are ongoing and it will be years, if not decades, before there is any consensus on how best to deal with opposition parties in the country; it is important to remember, that, as Talal Asad points out the history of how Secularism came to be part of the discourse in the Muslim world. In Egypt, the introduction of European laws, in lieu of Shari’ah in the 19th century was a precursor that finally lead to the total unification of state power and abolition of the dual structure of courts, in favor of European-derived laws. This, he points out was partly as a result of European coercion and also Egyptian elite’s infatuation with European ways. The Islamists urge to gain power of the state and bring back the Shari’ah laws should be understood in this context. There is also great anger that the democratically elected government of Mr.Morsi was ousted by a coup. So, it is back to square one, for the Egyptians.

This is not to say that there is just one conception of Islam and the state. There are also devout Muslims and scholars, who have called for a ‘Secular state.’ Abdullahi An’naim, another scholar of Islam has pointed out in Islam and the Secular state that by a secular state, he means “A state that is neutral regarding religious doctrine, one that does not claim or pretend to enforce Shari’ah – the religious law of Islam – simply because compliance with Sharia cannot be coerced by fear of state institutions or faked to appease their officials.” He further points out that it is perfectly possible for a Muslim majority state to be secular and yet remain true to Islam. In fact, this is what is needed in our modern era, when pluralism is a fact of life and homogenous populations in most countries is a thing of the past. “As a means to being religious, I need the state to remain secular,” he adds. An’naim has argued that the future of Shari’ah law is a secular state. By this he means that a state that represents Islamic ethos is one in which there is no fear of favor of any one particular religion and this in essence means a secular state.

An’naim’s is a radically different take on Islamic societies. His vision may be more applicable in our times, where any mention of religion in the public sphere is bound to raise suspicions. Although this vision requires buy-in from all parties, he does see a role for Islamist parties to participate in the political sphere. Afterall, they should not be barred from the political sphere, just because of their religious affiliation. This would be truly un-democratic and against the liberal ethos that the secularists are supposedly upholding.

Dinner with an M.B. supporter- Democracy in the Middle East (DIME) #1

As everyone was preparing for the end of Ramadhan in the U.S, I was busy moving into a new apartment, close to the mosque on North Main Street in Blacksburg. Among other things, this new location gives me access to the mosque and also a grocery store. I am thankful for this, and to test out how long it would take me to walk to the mosque, I headed over to the mosque to pray, the day I moved to the new place. Not only did I end up eating a sumptuous meal with a total stranger, who turned out to be a Muslim brotherhood (M.B) supporter, but I also got a close look into the mind of someone who captures the complexity of emotions and thoughts that many M.B supporters are going through, given the current political and social instability in Egypt.

The conversation went something like this:

Me: “Salaam brother,” what time is the Taraweeh prayer today?

Stranger: Not for another hour brother. Have you broken fast today?

Me: No. I am not fasting today. Please go ahead and break your fast.

Stranger: Sure, but why don’t you join me. I have a lot of food her, and can’t finish it myself. Let’s eat together. Please join me.

Me: Sure, thank you. Be with you in a minute.

I joined the stranger, who we shall called Mohammed, perhaps the most common first name in Egypt. Turns out he is a PhD student in the Engineering school at Virginia Tech. After the preliminary courtesies, he enquired about my background and what I was doing in Blacksburg. I told him that I am a PhD student myself and studying Philanthropy in the U.S

Mohammed: That’s interesting. We have a lot of charity and giving in our society. There is a saying that no one dies of hunger in Egypt.

Me: That is interesting as well. I do know that Egyptians are generous people, but what about the current situation and unemployment in Egypt? What do you make of it?

Mohammed: Well it is bad, but not as bad as the media make it out to be. All my friends have jobs, the educated ones at least and may be they don’t have exactly the job they want, but they are not starving. The current political turmoil has everyone anxious, but trust me, it is not as bad.

Me: That is an interesting perspective, you seem to be an optimist.

Mohammed: Well, yes I am an optimist but also a realist. I don’t think media are portraying what is going on in Egypt clearly. There is a lot of misleading information and half-truths out there.

Me: Such as?

Mohammed: The fact that the second “revolution” was in fact real. I think it was orchestrated entirely, to get the Morsi government out of power. While I used to support Morsi and even voted for him, I think he was unfit to rule. I am happy that he is out of power, since he could have destroyed the country, but his ouster certainly not democratic.

Me: Do you still support M.B?

Mohammed: As a party, it stands for solidarity and social justice, but I think under Morsi, it went to extremes, and I don’t support that. Extremism was their undoing. I think there is a possibility of compromise and I would like to see that happen. Ultimately, we are talking about our country, and not political parties or the Army

Me: But isn’t that paradoxical? A party that took away the rights of their opposition and forced their way through, with little regard for the minorities’ viewpoint?

Mohammed: Yes, precisely, the M.B has been persecuted for decades and once they came to power, they did not know how to govern. This, in my opinion is the issue. A mediated settlement with all parties involved, is something we should aim for. Fighting over ideological issues is not going to help anyone.

Me: So would you consider yourself a M.B supporter now?

Mohammed: I would consider myself a reformed supporter. I think we have seen how badly they have governed, so need to chastise them and also keep checks on their power. But to keep them out of the public sphere would be foolish. They were banned during the Mubarak regime, had to organize and operate clandestinely and only with the Morsi victory did they get a chance to rule. But the fact that they went over-board and let nepotism be the state policy was damaging.

“The M.B supporters put the party above their nation, and that was their downfall,” he pointed out, rather poignantly.

Mohammed represents a side of the story that of often not told, in the narratives of Egypt or M.B, that of a self-critical loyalist, one who is willing to criticize and often pull back his support from a party that he believes represents the aspirations of the average Egyptian. While it is best not to quote numbers and statistics, that no one is sure of, such anecdotal narratives to provide a window, although in a limited manner, into the minds of M.B loyalists. If this is how even if a small minority of them are thinking – then I am optimistic for Egypt. This line of thinking represents a reform movement, one that challenges traditional authority and can be the seeds of change, in the long-term. The fact that this is emerging internally, within the supporters of M.B is another positive sign.