Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 October 2012
Issue No. 1119
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The divisive politics of religion

With the rise to power of the political Islam groups following the Arab Spring revolutions, new questions have arisen concerning the nature of the state and the proper manner of handling public affairs. Religion, too, is being brought into question, as conflicting interpretations surface concerning its role in government.

Running a country is literally everybody's business. This is truer today than at any time in the past, for the public at large is now intensely aware of its rights, meaning that we have no reason to fear for the civil nature of the state in the immediate future. Populist politicians may posture to their heart's content, but in the end people are going to stand up for their rights. As a result, the new political reality that will emerge in this country will be one dictated by the nation as a whole and not by any particular group of politicians.

Regarding religion, which has catapulted many political Islam groups into power, the future is less clear. Thus far, these groups have been using the same tactics in power that they employed in opposition. They have been demanding political support not on the basis of their actions but by virtue of their religious rhetoric. With rival political Islam groups competing for attention, rival versions are now emerging of what they call the true faith, or at least the true Sharia.

Religion is also being used in the face of civil and leftist groups in the hope of discrediting them or alienating them from the public. The pretence is that there is an Islamic identity that we need to protect in every act of the society and state. These are areas of conflict that will have grave repercussions for religion and for its interpretation and societal connotations.

The ideal of a well-rounded economic, political and cultural system inspired by the lofty principles of Islam has always been a rallying call for political Islamists, and never more so than over the past five decades. Now this idea is being portrayed as one of a divine promise, as if all that the Sharia is about is to allow God to take care of daily human concerns.

Without doubt, the references to the Sharia in the constitution and the law are adding fuel to the current situation. It seems that instead of the nation being the source of political authority, the Sharia is becoming the source of all legitimacy. This is a situation that creates frustration on more than one level.

In the early days of Islam, the legitimacy of the ruler was based on a process of selection. He was approved by the nation, or at least by the influential members of society, and this is what allowed him to exercise power without much opposition, at least in theory.

The Sharia, however, was another thing. This was not something that the ruler could decide, and it was left firmly in the hands of scholars who were expected to rise above political interests when viewing the matter of Sharia. As a whole, it was handled by the judges, the top legal experts in Islam, and not by the governors, the caliphs or by anyone running the executive branch of government.

The Sharia authors state that politics, which they called the imamate (derived from imam, or leader), deals in interests and practical measures, whereas the Sharia deals with religious doctrines and rituals.

In Islam, one can safely conclude, the state does not have a religious function. Its main job is to handle administration efficiently and fairly and to uphold general principles of fairness and equality.

Islam does not have a political doctrine, and nor does it have a prescribed manner of running public affairs, and political Islamists have no right to pretend that their economic policies, for example, are the only ones acceptable under the Sharia. What they should do instead is to focus on promoting the freedom and dignity of the people who brought them to power.

Yet, the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies have been harping on about something they call the "Islamic economy" and railing against the so-called usurious arrangements that everyone else is steeped in, such as the charging of interest and all the rest of the conventional banking system.

Even so, as soon as a Muslim Brotherhood president took power in Egypt, he sent a delegation to the IMF to negotiate a loan. The same thing was done by the political Islamist authorities in Tunisia.

Insisting on the Islamist political project, of which the Islamic economy is only a part, can take a toll not only on society, but also on religion itself. If the state apparatus is used to impose the Sharia on society, then the admission is that the Sharia is something extraneous to society that must be forced upon it. This is not the way things used to be. In Muslim tradition, the people embrace Sharia, and their belief in Sharia influences the functioning of the state.

If Sharia is alien to society, and if it becomes something the state has to impose, then the result is a state that has a religious function and one that doubles up as a preacher, which could be highly divisive and ultimately explosive.

At some point, the political imposition of Sharia could escalate to the point where competing factions could trade accusations of apostasy against each other, something which is already starting to happen. Some people may claim that their opponents are too ignorant to be trusted, or that the bulk of the population needs to be re-educated in matters of faith. This is a slippery slope, even for cynical politicians.

If the Muslim Brotherhood wants to improve society through the Sharia, and if the Salafis want to purify people through worship, they are bound to alienate rather than to unite. Political Islamists must not give themselves the right to impose what they think is the true faith, otherwise they risk harming both politics and religion.

Regarding the manner in which the Islamists have been acting in the public sphere, in the elections they have claimed that their programme is the best for Islam. Yet, rival Islamist factions are challenging each other about what should be done in the name of Islam, and meanwhile the public is puzzled or confused.

When the Islamists claim that the identity of the Islamic state is in danger, they are putting not only non-Muslims at risk, but also all other Muslims who think differently.

Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Tunisian Al-Nahda Party, has been so frustrated with criticisms from the Salafis that he has asked them to turn their ire against the secularists instead. This was his solution to the blending of politics and religion -- not to seek a middle road, but instead to deepen the schism.

If there is a moral to this story, it is that all politics are contentious, but religious politics are the most contentious of all. The recent clashes in Cairo's Tahrir Square between the revolutionaries and young people from the Muslim Brotherhood are a case in point. The more the Islamists present themselves as the only defenders of the faith, the more they will divide the country.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 1119 Front Page
Front Page | Egypt | Economy | Region | Focus | Opinion | Press review | Readers' corner | Culture | Features | Heritage | Youth page | Sports | People | Listings | BOOKS | TRAVEL
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map