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Focus on politics, not identity

For revolutionary movements to attempt to separate religion and politics in Egypt is a mistake that can only benefit Islamists

Ibrahim El-Houdaiby , Sunday 14 Aug 2011
Views: 4224
Views: 4224

Intersection between religion and politics is inevitable in the Egyptian context. Politicians should therefore reorient the ongoing debate to focus not on whether politics should be fully separated from religion, but rather on how to properly manage this intersection between the two domains.

The 18th century idea of absolute detachment of politics from religion deserves some scrutiny. The idea was based on the possibility of procedural separation, allowing both state and church to operate independently in their respective domains with the state being a neutral, procedural entity that reflects societal values. The world has not been stable since. The emergence of the absolute nation state and the technological advancements in the decades that followed made this separation practically impossible, with state laws governing domains previously non-existent or dictated by religious values, including the formal educational sector, media, entertainment and other sectors.

Extension of state scope into different domains (including the core of the religious domain in some cases) left politicians with only two options. First, is to observe religious values and principles in different domains, meaning that the absolute separation no longer exists and that, instead, the focus is diverted to scrutinising ways to properly manage the relation between both domains. The second option is that religious values will not be observed in these domains, which means that a) separation entails the violation of religious values in influential social domains; and b) that each domain creates its own set of values and therefore becomes its own framework of reference.

That is, the overarching values governing society and ensuring harmony cease to exist, and are replaced by other values for each domain: growth becomes the ultimate objective of economy (regardless of the impact of this growth on people’s social and economic lives), power becomes the ultimate objective of politics, victory (and not cooperation) becomes the ultimate objective of sports, and so on.

This separation becomes even more impossible in the case of Egypt. According to a 2008 Gallup world poll, 98 per cent of Egyptians say that “religion is an important part” of their “daily lives” while 87 per cent say that traditions and customs associated with Islam play a central role therein. Religion for them, therefore, is not merely a set of rituals, but rather a weltanschauung —world view —with its value system and legislative guidelines. According to the same statistics, the vast majority of Egyptians want to have Shariaas a source of legislation —“the only source of legislation” for a majority of Egyptians.

Other Gallup polls conducted in late 2010 and early 2011 further emphasise this impossibility of separation. According to the statistics, only a small minority of Egyptians (nine per cent) want to see absolute separation between religious and political institutions, giving religious scholars no authority whatsoever over political affairs. While another minority (14 per cent) of Egyptians seem to be support theocratic rule (where religious scholars have full authority over political affairs), Egypt’s mainstream (70 per cent) stands somewhere in between, demanding that religious scholars play a role in advising those in power.

If anything, these statistics underline that religion will still play an instrumental role in a democratic Egypt. The alienation thereof will automatically re-detach people from political system and the public sphere, leading to a situation similar to pre-revolutionary Egypt, where (according to the same statistics) only four per cent of citizens voiced their opinion to a public officer (lowest figures worldwide) as politics seemed distant.

But this basing of the political system on religious grounds raises serious concerns regarding civil and minority rights. These concerns are legitimate, for the practices of “Islamic” political systems are hardly encouraging, and contemporary Muslim political thought is yet to present a practical alternative. Nonetheless, and in the Egyptian context, there should be less of a concern as basic civil and minority rights will be hardly jeopardised.

Statistically, Egyptians illustrate higher levels of religious tolerance than their regional counterparts. Some 75 per cent of Egyptians support freedom of religion in any new constitution to be drafted, and Egyptians are the second highest in the Middle East (after Lebanon) to accept a neighbour from another religion. For the most part, women’s rights are equally guaranteed.

While Egyptians support Sharia, they also believe in civil liberties. An overwhelming majority of Egyptians (97 per cent) support constitutional guarantees for freedom of speech in any new constitution to be drafted, and 88 per cent (the highest amongst Muslim world) believe democracy will help in progress —clear indicators that Egyptians will not accept an oppressive authority that jeopardises their rights, be it a religious, military or civil.

The threat from Islamists should not lead politicians to call for separation between religion and politics, for this in fact only empowers Islamists. Egyptians do distinguish between Islam and Islamists, and while support for a political system that endorses Sharia is overwhelming, only 15 per cent of Egyptians support the Muslim Brotherhood, seven per cent the Salafists and another five per cent support Al-Wasat Party. Islamists are only capable of securing a larger number of parliamentary seats because their political opponents challenge the country’s very Islamic identity through the call for separation between religion and politics, transforming elections from being a question of polity to being a question of identity. On the latter, Islamists definitely win.

Egypt’s Muslim identity should not be a threat to any of its citizens. As most scholars understand, Sharia’s legislative component is not a monolithic rigid body of law but rather a highly diverse and flexible set of objectives, legislation and legislative guidelines. If Islamists have a tendency to adopt its most rigid interpretations, for identity politics purposes, their political opponents should better focus on challenging Islamists choices and not Sharia, for the former choice would enrich the debate and lead to the sophistication of political discourse, while the latter would increase polarisation and put questions of politics behind those of identity.

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