Mixing religion and politics is the root of despotism in the East, say academics

Mohammed Saad , Monday 31 Dec 2012

At a recent conference, Egyptian historians and academics argue that religion has been used to serve authoritarian political interests since the East knew religion

Amr Hamzawy and Mohammed Afifi
Historian Mohammed Afifi, the conference co-coordinator (left) and Political Analyst Amr Hamzawy (Right), during the conference

Over two days Egyptian historians and political analysts discussed the thorny relation between religion and politics in Egypt across the ages in a conference held at the Supreme Council for Culture 26-27 December. The primary aim was to reflect on the current political, social and religious scene in Egypt as a new ruling elite with religious references takes over the reins of power in Egypt.

The conference sought to prove that religion has been used in the political formula in Egypt since the early ages of Islam. Historians and political analysts who participated in the conference vehemently criticised this relation, saying that religion has been always put to the service of dictatorship and to achieve the narrow interest of ruling elites.

“Tyranny has been always connected to religion in the East. Yes, the Ancient Greeks has merged politics with religion too, but they never developed into theocratic rule, as for them religion was more like folklore than the idea of religion as we know it in the East. I dare to say that this relation is the root of despotism in the East since Hammurabi, who claimed that his laws were inspired to him from God,” said historian and Islamic thinker Mahmoud Ismail.

Ismail, who is considered one of the most controversial thinkers and known for his daring views, criticised the Islamic Caliphate, saying it is one of the most degenerated political systems in history and the basis of the Islamic theocratic state.

“They say politics and religion are inseparable. I say politics and theocracy are inseparable. Religion has no connection to politics and it’s a shame to use religion in politics. Religion is absolute; politics is changing,” Ismail explained.

He further asserted that political literature in Islam was always a fundamental basis of tyranny, as it approved and justified the powers of despotic rulers even if they were immoral and obscene.

Ismail said that there is no relation between politics and religion in Islam, and the idea of the Islamic theocratic state was only established to use religion in a domain where religion has no natural place.

He also interpreted the verse of the holy Quran which says, “And judge between them according to what God revealed,” saying that it did not mean to judge people politically, but to judge people in the judicial system.

Political analyst Amr Hamzawy and former presidential assistant Samir Morqos also attended the conference.

“A modern state is founded on the basis of separating religion from politics,” argued Hamzawy, who gave a historical background of the emergence of the modern state in the West, arguing that the modern state was born in many cases through a struggle — bloody in some cases — with religious authorities.

Hamzawy said that the main challenge that Egypt is facing right now is managing the social and sometimes political role of religion on numerous institutional levels.

“Modern states should determine what shape its relation with religion takes. This is a very thorny question but we have to face it. The modern state is always entitled to create a parallel frame to organise the private life of the people aside from religion, and it deepens this dualism. We should resolve this challenge,” Hamzawy said.

Hamzawy called the first Egyptian republic (1952–2011) a moment of pure tyranny in the history of Egyptian state. Regimes during this period sought to build legitimacy through lobbying with religious institutions and dominating them.

“The religious component of this society has been taken over and politicised in favour of the ruling elite during the first republic and especially since the late 60s. There were prices that have been paid to religious authorities to build the legitimacy of political authorities, and diminish the freedoms and private lives of citizens,” Hamzawy said.

Hamzawy argued that political Islamism, currently ruling Egypt, did not settle its position on democracy and the modern state. Until this current does, Egyptians will stumble on the path to democracy. Now these currents are using religion to repress multiplicity and political and cultural differences.

Vivian Fouad, professor of psychology, said that the Egyptian state has been always used religion to pass its social policy, repressive in many cases. Fouad argued that establishing democracy on the political level is impossible if the social level is neglected.

Thinker Samir Morqos made a comparison between the situation at the beginnings of the 20th century and the situation now in Egypt. Morqos thinks that Egypt entered the 20th century with a rich experience, where the religious institutions had a discourse that celebrated diversity and multiplicity and accepted the other, unlike the present religious discourse, which represses multiplicity.

“We should regain the Egyptian experience that we’re sacrificing now; it’s an experience that celebrates the differences of the other and tolerates it. Now we’re wasting a rich experience by walking the road of disputes,” Morqos said.

Mohammed Harbi, head of the cultural section at Al-Ahram daily, criticised the conference as it excluded the conceptions of the people on the relation between religion and politics, and instead drowning debate in academic discourse that exists within the scope of elites and the official narration of history, according to him.

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