the islamic republic of egypt

Sissi prayingEgypt's Mohamed Morsi, the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Ahmed El-Tayeb, and Egypt's Mufti Ali Gomaa during the Al-Gomaa  prayer at Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo

Egypt is an Islamic state in all but name. The constitution more or less says so. Its institutions seem to act accordingly. So why is it fighting the Muslim Brothers and what are the Islamists fighting the state for !

The government is putting people on trial and jailing them for blasphemy or insulting the faith. It bans books or films because they allegedly libel or defame historic religious figures.

Youth travelling to and from sea resorts have had their alcohol confiscated by army or police check points, despite the fact that it is not illegal to drink alcohol in Egypt.

Police have also arrested people eating in public during the fasting hours of Ramadan, although there is no such crime in Egypt’s penal code.

A senior cleric, who is also a government minister, calls on the president to take from the rich and give the poor in the name of Islam — hasn’t he heard of the progressive tax system of the infidels!

Most recently, tv programmes of journalist and talk show host Ibrahim Issa have been referred by the “moderate” al-Azhar to a committe of experts to examine whether the man had blasphemed.

Issa’s “crime” was that he questioned the authenticity of some of the controversial hadiths (sayings) attributed to the prophet. Note he has not criticized the prophet, or Islam , he has simply pointed out what many scholars know : many of these hadiths were composed hundreds of years after the death of the prophet and are still used to justify all kinds of things in the name of Islam from the niqab and female circumcision to the relationship between the ruler and his subjects (not citizens).

More so called moderate scholars have now  weighed in in the row, and declared blasphemous any one who questions the authenticity of the anthology of purported sayings of the prophet compiled in the ninth century. This elevates the work of a human to the status of the Quran and the revelation itself. Such is the rigidity and and intolerance of the mainstream. Its guardians are the same people who said nothing  when ISIS massacred the Shias of Iraq, or drove the Iraqi Christians out of their own ancestral land in the name of Islam. Their silence speaks volumes about who they really are. If this is what the moderates believe in, so why are we so outraged by  ISIS !

One such controversial hadith was recently quoted by a widely respected cleric and professor of Islamic sharia at the Al-Azhar. Citing a purported saying of the prophet, Dr Ahmad Koriama concluded that on the day of judgment the Jews and Christians will have the sins of the Muslims transferred to their balance sheet because ultimately Allah will forgive all Muslims regardless what they have done in their life.

This is an affront not only to common sense, but also a blatant violation of a well-established Quranic principle that the individual is punished for what he or she has done (“And no bearer of burdens shall bear another’s burden (Surat Fatir, verse 18).

If this is what a “moderate” cleric preaches, why would any one be surprised when the extremist ISIS forces the Christians of Mosul out of their ancestral homes in the name of Islam.

Bizarrely, apart from a few angry reactions on social media, the article did not attract the public wrath it deserves, perhaps because the Egyptians and their Arab neighbours have become so desensitised to sectarianism.

Such is is the heavy legacy of political Islam. Its ideas have penetrated the public sphere and infiltrated state institutions. It has mainstreamed fanaticism.

Assuming formal political power would have crowned years of indoctrination of the public by groups such as the Muslim Brothers. They are no longer in power, but the hold of their ideology on society is no less certain.

The tragedy is that the state does not seem to realize that it is fighting Islamism with one arm, and encouraging it with the other. Al-Azhar’s recent intervention to censure free speech is a dramatic illustration of this schizophrenia.

Admittedly, Al-Azhar can call upon the constitution to justify its action. And so can its critics. The constitution enshrines freedom of belief and free speech. Tragically, the contradictions of Egyptian society and the power struggle between two opposing world views have found their way into the text of the constitution itself, thus bestowing legitimacy on both views, without showing ways how to resolve the potentially debilitating conflict.

President Al-Sissi has repeatedly spoken of the need to reform the way Islam is preached and to claim it back from the Islamists as a necessary prerequisite to fighting terrorism. So far, apart from the security drive, we have seen very little effort on the more important front : the world of ideas.

The government has tried to claw back control of the mosques. Important as they are, places of worship are not the only place where Islamism spreads and proliferates.

The real battle ground is the canonical texts of Islam itself, where they are taught and interpreted. Scholars who sought to challenge the received interpretation and its philosophical underpinnings were either quietly ostracized or hounded and declared apostates, with little or no help from the trembling hands of the state, which seems terrified of being accused of siding with the “heretics” and the secularists. But trying to appease the Islamists will only embolden and empower them.

We all know that Islamic tradition (like other religions) is full of material that can be used to justify violence, repression and demonization of the other, if taken out of its historical context. Using lines that encourage shunning or killing the infidels or Jews will continue to be used by Al-Qaeda and ISIS unless there is concerted intellectual effort by state institutions (schools, universities and the media)

that insists on contextualizing every line of the founding texts of Islam.

At heart is also the notion of the universal validity of the teachings of Islam. That too has to be questioned, refined and redefined. What is universal and eternal are the principles : justice, freedom and human dignity, and not the social mores or the penal code of seventh century Arabia. If Islamism (and traditional interpretations for that matter) suspend history, the war against this ideology should make inserting historical context in the act of reading and understanding tradition its biggest and most important objective, if it really wants to reform the way classical texts are read and taught.

Unless the notion of universal validity is given a new and very specific meaning that shuts out the literalist and militant interpretation that ignores the historical context, it’s hard to imagine how the intellectual (as well as the military) battle against Islamism can be won.

Finally, I should probably add that religion enforced by the state breeds hypocrisy and tyranny.  

[A slightly different version was written for IslamistGate : ]


Magdi Abdelhadi

Writer, broadcaster, moderator, media consultant. I commute between London and Cairo. I am a former BBC journalist. All views here are only mine.

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