Answers needed on state and religion
Ibrahim El-Houdaiby, Saturday 2 Mar 2013
Categorising political forces into 'Islamist' and 'civil' camps does not help society face pressing challenges, or mean much on the positions of each camp on key issues

Successive events continue to show confusion among political forces on the relation between the state and religion. Shura Council discussions over the past few weeks were eye opening in this regard. The draft law on “Islamic bonds” — submitted by Islamists — was rejected by Al-Azhar (according to Article 4 of the constitution, senior Azhar scholars are consulted on Sharia issues), not because it contradicts Sharia but because it prevents appeals against decisions that are based on it. Also because it gives foreigners ownership rights, which seems more of a political rather than a religious argument. In reaction, civil groups, which fear the interference of religious institutions in governance, welcomed the move.

A few weeks later, the same council discussed a proposal to borrow from the EU, which was strongly opposed for a variety of political, economic and even religious reasons. Some opponents were not sure if the loan would include usury. And so they asked for the proposal to be referred to Al-Azhar based on the same article in the constitution. But the leader of the “Islamist” majority rejected the move claiming that referral to Al-Azhar detracts from the people’s sovereignty that delegates members of parliament to legislate.

These two developments can be viewed from several perspectives. On one hand, they reveal that the majority of those brandishing “civil” or “Islamist” colours are not serious about defending what they are calling for. They are willing to compromise in return for minor political gains which, in turn, strips the dispute of its identity and makes one see the truth about economic and political interests and outlooks.

On the other hand, the two positions spotlight the inability of either camp to present a serious vision on the relation of religion and state, making do with slogans — whether Islamist or civil — that zoom in on differences between them.

When asked for more details, they resort to general rhetoric that acknowledges there are grey areas where state functions and religious rulings overlap, but they do not define this grey zone or how it should be regulated. This makes rhetoric on both sides populist and not serious.

Serious regulation of the relationship between “religion” and “politics” requires an answer to three questions. First, the definition of Sharia; second, the definition of state; and third, their relationship. Neither camp (or any other influential players) have made any real effort to answer these questions.

It is notable that Islamists (the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists) have not yet offered a definition of Sharia, whether a total one or as the source of laws or key jurisprudential positions they seek to establish. This leaves the definition of Sharia vague and elastic depending on political interests, and gives weight to claims that these currents are only using Sharia to accomplish political and group gains.

It’s not much different for Al-Azhar. Article 219 of the constitution (written by Al-Azhar) states: “Sharia principles includes total evidence, fundamentalist and jurisprudential rules, and recognised sources in the doctrines of Sunnis and community.” Thisis a very broad definition that justifies one thing as well as its opposite, especially in light of diverse Sunni religious schools and a growing disconnect between the reality of Al-Azhar and its past, when it was more firm on its Ashaari character, doctrine and Sufism, until the beginning of the last century.

Neither have “civil” parties explained what Sharia is since they present themselves as “civil” groups who believe in the rule of “Sharia principles," but object to the definition of these principles by others without offering an alternative.

The definition of state has been on the table since the establishment of modern Egypt under Mohamed Ali. The industrial revolution gave the state tools it did not have in the past, enabling it to administer society, "control it," and interfere in private lives that were beyond its reach in the past.

Hannah Arendt described the main role of a modern state as making housekeeping a national mission. Questions about the boundaries of the state’s primary roles (political, economic and social) highlight contradictions between the positions of most political currents that support the state’s interference or reticence on certain issues, based not on their vision of the state’s role and duty but the outcome of such intervention or reticence and who is doing it.

The question of the relation between religion and state is problematic, and various parties have not given any answers. These include jurisprudential responses to questions pertaining to reality (especially after a decades-long hiatus in jurisprudential productivity through branching doctrines, and adopting “Salafist” doctrine that leaps over cognitive heritage to the original text). Also, the boundaries of “necessity” that politicians use to justify their political positions, and how to achieve proper legitimacy in political power and policies. Also, how to regulate relations between religious and political institutions to guarantee neither encroaches on the other, and the standards needed to raise the efficiency of these institutions. Some Islamists debating how to choose the new mufti did not mention criteria such as the candidate’s scholastic aptitude, but only focused on him not being a remnant of the former regime.

Such questions need time for researchers and experts to find answers. It is very harmful to quickly jump to conclusions, politically manipulate hollow slogans, and respond to pressure laid on by reality with unscientific responses that blur the issues at hand, and thus delay real answers.

Realising these facts — the need for time, expertise, and the risks of political manipulation — should compel rival parties to focus on urgent current issues, while experts focus their research on producing more earnest answers to questions on the state and religion.