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The truth about Egypt’s identity

Making controversy about Islam in a society instilled with shared religious values is a diversion and a waste of energy; Islamists should stop posturing and adopt the principles of co-citizenship, tolerance and diversity

Taha Abdel Alim , Thursday 11 Aug 2011
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On Friday, 29 July, Tahrir Square witnessed what the “Islamist” political forces wanted to see, namely a million man showing promoting the “Islamic identity and religious state”, instead of a million-strong crowd calling for “the will of the people and unified ranks”, as declared by political forces of all shades that made the revolution possible and joined it.

I will not discuss accusations by “democratic” forces against “Islamist” ones of rescinding the spoken contract of that day, and denying accord, because if the “democrats” were able to mobilise a larger group they would have imposed their slogans on the “Islamists”. Experience and knowledge have taught me that expecting good intentions among professional politicians is naïve.

Hence, I will discuss what is more important, namely the truth about the identity of Egypt. I will briefly discuss the issues of applying Sharia law, of religious parties, of the state of co-citizenship, of religion and the state, of national accord, and the principles governing the anticipated new constitution.

First, I must note that those who raised the banner of “The people want legitimate rule” are ignoring the fact that the legislative process in contemporary and evolving society is greatly diversified. The Muslim Brotherhood believes that banning political action based on religious reasons accuses Islamic Sharia of being sterile, and shackling those who believe ‘Islam is the solution’ for all issues and problems.

They believe it is the realm of the expert and wise, although it ignores the fact that there are varying and multiple solutions to resolve people’s problems, which results in many schools of thought and groups. These are prone, and are expected, to accommodate differences, diversity and adaptation depending on time and place, as noted by the eminent Tareq Al-Bishri.

Second, it is normal that debate in Egypt is heated about the relationship between religion and state as we prepare to pen a new constitution, as was the case during the infamous constitutional amendments of 2007.

At the time, I wrote: “I support the right of Muslim Brotherhood members to form a political party, as long as it is an Egyptian party, not a branch of an international organisation, and is in the open not quasi-clandestine, civilian not paramilitary, and an alternative not an arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Also, that it does not take a name that professes to be speaking in the name of Islam.”

After the 25 January Revolution and because of it, despite the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood was a latecomer, the state finally recognised the Justice and Freedom Party, although but the political wing of the group.

The future of this party and similar such parties depends on what the new constitution will stipulate regarding forming political parties based on religion, not only in terms of membership but also platform, goals and action.

This would not ban the creation of civic parties whose platforms are inspired by the goals of Islamic Sharia, as long as the constitution in letter and spirit precludes these parties from imposing their interpretations of Sharia on society. Also, as long as there are mechanisms to block the amendment or change of the constitution based on the will of such a party if it reaches power through free elections.

Third, when discussing the 2007 constitutional amendments, Muslim Brotherhood spokesmen blurred the line between patriotism and the country’s higher interests on the one hand, and Islam and upholding its jurisprudence on the other.

The notion of “either faith or country” brings into question the objective of putting affiliation to a political Islamic group and following its religious leaders in contradiction with patriotism and loyalty to higher interests.

The debate regarding the article on the principle of citizenship revealed that the Muslim Brotherhood does not accept Islamic interpretations that support equality between Muslims and non-Muslims regarding governance.

El-Bishri argues that equality between Muslims and non-Muslims is guaranteed in Muslim philosophy regarding personal rights; as for public governance (such as serving as president or in leadership positions in the army or judiciary) traditional philosophy accepts the rule of a non-Muslim in executive positions.

He adds that public governance has transferred from the hands of an individual to institutions, and hence equality between a Muslim and non-Muslim is absolute. Therefore, why are there hysterics about a civic state?

Fourth, we should not ignore that the citizens of Egypt are not only Muslim but share their lives with Christians, and that Christians in Egypt are not guests and Muslims in Egypt are not outsiders, as some ignorant people claim. There is no question that the ideas which some "Salafi sheikhs” adopt calling for marginalising and degrading Christians will come up against the rock solid wall of Egypt’s national unity.

This requires resuscitating the awareness of Egyptians that they modeled a pioneering and unique example of national unity.

We should also remember that the remarkable Egyptian slogan ‘Religion is for God; country for all’ was not born during the 1919 Revolution but is the foundation for the creation of the people’s national fabric and establishment of their central government and united country thousands of years ago. While the complete separation of state and religion is unlikely, the constitution must emphasise the principle of citizenship and the text should be precise in blocking the road to those calling for a theocracy.

Fifth, the Friday of "Islamic identity" should remind us of the Egyptian adage: "Don’t sell water where water-sellers live." There is no need for hysterics in the name of religion among a people who are nurtured on religion. No one can deny that the principles of religion were, are and will always be a core component of the value system of Egyptians.

A Muslim Brotherhood leader called for a mechanism to guarantee an Islamic framework, but this will be nothing more than a religious authority that overrides legislative power and is not too dissimilar from the idea of a theocracy even if the mechanism which decides whether legislation complies with Sharia or not is a panel of senior scholars or the Islamic Research Association and not the Muslim Brotherhood mufti.

To claim that Islamic Sharia ruled for 14 centuries irrespective of how deviant governance became in Islamic societies is a distortion of history. The deviation of the ruler from the principles and goals of Islamic Sharia is the rule not the exception; just study history.

Lastly, the partners in national dialogue must realise the most important guarantee to build a state of co-citizenship is a precise text in the constitution stipulating the mechanisms that will safeguard this state.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which participated in the revolution and is irreplaceable in leading the transitional phase, must understand the gravity of concerns about a religious state and remain committed to Article 4 of the constitutional declaration which states: “It is prohibited to take any political action or create political parties on religious foundations”. SCAF must also fulfill the promise it made in its statement issued on 14 July about “drafting a document of principles and regulations to choose the Governing Assembly that will pen a new constitution in the country and issuing it in a constitutional declaration after political forces and parties agree on it.”

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