Saturday 19 January 2013

Challenges for Secularism in Egypt

"No religion in politics!" A sentence that is often used by those who call themselves secular and/or liberal (the term 'secular' has mostly been shunned and 'liberal' or 'civil' became umbrella-terms for all non-Islamists) on the Egyptian political scene. But what does it really mean and is it an adequate slogan to represent the secular stream in Egyptian society (which is itself a diverse group of course)? Any spectator of current Egyptian affairs will have noticed the uneasy relationship between religion and politics which has become an omnipresent subject in almost all political discussions. The following is an attempt to explore the issue from a different angle.

It is not unusual for Egyptians to hear political opinions being laid out while attending Friday prayers, in fact, there have been some reports recently of skirmishes occurring within mosques because some felt the sheikh had crossed a line by endorsing a political party or condemning its political opponents openly. The line between politics and religion however, is very flexible and vague in a country where according to some interpretations of religion, it means more than just religion and becomes "religion and state". In the Coptic Church, the Pope's political opinions were criticized not just for their content but for their supposed influence on Christians. In other churches, especially after the revolution, certain political opinions of the leaders are identifiable as well. 

Many of those who call themselves secular have criticized clergy or religious preachers for openly expressing political opinions, but are men of religion only confined to talking about religion at all times? Can't they express political opinions purely in their capacity of Egyptian citizens? The reality is that one cannot and should not stop these men from expressing their views on politics, that's not to say there can't be internal regulations forbidding the use of the pulpits for political campaigning. The true problem, after all, is not that some people are using religion in political speech, it's when religious rules are enforced using state power and that is, in fact, what seculars should be fighting. The new constitution, for instance, determines that a body of the renowned Islamic institution Al Azhar is given the power to interpret religious rules which, in their turn, are the main source of legislation in the country.

Ironically, so-called champions of secularism in Egypt have themselves used religion in their campaigning, the "Egyptian Bloc", for instance, which consisted of three secular parties, used this banner, which reads "The Quran is our Constitution", a slogan often used by religious parties and those calling for a religious state.


In one of his videos (AR) which was used as part of a campaign calling on people to vote no on the new Constitution in December 2012, Dr. Mohamed El Baradei, head of the secular Dostour Party, said: "we say no to the constitution because we want the Sharia".

In another instant, El Dostour party campaign flyers had been distributed to people attending Eid prayers. Muslim Brotherhood figure El Brens was reported saying that this signifies "the official burial of the saying 'No religion in politics'".

In a country where religion or at least the appearance or mention thereof play a big role in public life, can Egyptians have a meaningful political dialogue while completely shunning the subject? It is important that secular and/or liberals first know what it is exactly they are striving for and that they let go of slogans and/or methods which have proven unhelpful. As a political stream, they must reconcile with the idea that religion does play a big role in public life. Instead of calling for 'no religion in politics', it might be time to highlight the dangers of having religious rules forced on citizens by the state through legislation and the potential of abuse this has; while making clear that religion and religious freedom are respected. An important issue, for instance, has been the independence of Al Azhar. It should be made clear that no such independence can exist when the institution is given the power to interpret religious rules for the courts, thereby making it an important target for whoever is in power.

But above all, it is important for secular politicians to determine what they stand for on other issues, which will inevitably lead to their division in multiple parties based on their opinions on several social and economic questions (as opposed to one umbrella party that doesn't really stand for anything except its opposition to the Islamists). Political parties which are unable to reach citizens with well-researched programs and concrete plans for ways to take on the countries' many problems, will not get the citizens' votes. It is not enough to highlight the dangers of what the Islamist parties in Egypt are striving for, what is needed is an alternative. One that doesn't alienate the citizen nor patronize him or her and certainly one that respects that in Egypt, religion holds an important spot in many people's hearts. Egyptians don't need the government to teach them how to pray, instead, they require someone to create a legal environment where they can freely live and work, where economic growth can be achieved in a way that benefits all citizens, seculars should strive to be that someone.