Countering sectarian slogans

Amr El Shobaki , Thursday 25 Nov 2010

The spread of sectarian political slogans in recent years is a dangerous development that goes against Egypt’s best traditions. The government should take action against it

Religious slogans have become commonplace in Egypt’s legislative, municipal and syndicate elections, indicating that sectarian ideas and attitudes have taken root in the country and betraying a widespread blindness to the fact that respect for the sanctity of faith is best ensured by keeping religion aloof from the pragmatic considerations of politics.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s use of the slogan “Islam is the solution” in their campaigns reflects one of the major dangers in this tendency to fuse religion and politics. This is because the Brotherhood’s insistence on the use of this slogan implies a rejection of the idea of respect for the rule of law, even in cases where one might be against aspects of it.

Islamist groups in Turkey have honoured and upheld the laws of the secular Turkish state, while using existing legal mechanisms to amend some of them. In Egypt, by contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood operates outside the law and ignores the country’s Supreme Electoral Commission, which prohibits the use of religious slogans in campaigns, precisely because it is a government agency. Surely the fact that members of the Muslim Brotherhood take part in the electoral process should oblige them to respect decisions taken by the Commission, even if they do not always see eye-to-eye with it?

This situation typifies the standoff that exists between the Muslim Brotherhood and the government. The Muslim Brothers have participated in five parliamentary elections – in 1984, 1987, 1990, 2000 and 2005 – but their participation has benefited neither society nor the regime. The Brotherhood has refused to accept the political and legal conditions set by the government and transform itself into a genuinely democratic movement, while the regime has demonstrated its intention of not accepting the Brotherhood as an equal partner in the political process even if it complies with these conditions.

However, the Muslim Brothers do not have a monopoly on religious sloganeering. Candidates from the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and other parties and groups also use religious slogans for political purposes. In fact, the spread of religious slogans in politics goes deeper than just the immediately political domain. Instead, it tells us that the modern state that Egyptians have known for the last two centuries is now in jeopardy, and it bespeaks a fundamental transformation in the relationship between the country's Muslims and Copts.

The deterioration in this relationship has gone hand in hand with the rise in the discourse of Islamic pietism, as epitomised by the proselytising industry promoted by official religious institutions and encouraged by various Islamist trends, the Muslim Brotherhood above all. This development has fed both fanaticism and sectarianism. In giving the rhetoric of pietism free rein to take control of people's minds, the government is following an unwise policy, holding that anything goes as long it does not take the form of organised political activity. This attitude suggests that there is nothing wrong with sectarian, bigoted and even extremist ideas, as long as they stay clear of “politics” proper, and in practice the government has tended to remain neutral when it should have intervened. It has also intervened harshly when it should have remained neutral.

The result has been an unrestrained growth in the new sectarianism, not at the hands of some deviant or alien minority, but because society as a whole has been left exposed to fundamentalist and inward-looking Islamist discourse. The more this discourse has taken hold, the more some Muslims have seized upon everything that is superficial in religious thought and practice, and the more some Christians have responded with a growing bigotry and insularity of their own.

A religious scholar may make a slip, or even a gross error, in a statement or judgment, and there may well be extremists on both sides. However, the crux of the problem lies in the sectarian mentality that has spread from a minority in society to growing segments of the broader public. This mentality is sucking society into a dangerous vortex. It breeds mounting intolerance and narrow-mindedness, which in turn develop mechanisms for deepening rifts between the people of the same nation. As these mechanisms gain in strength, it becomes harder for society to build the bridges necessary to break free of this vicious cycle.

Egypt’s Muslim and Coptic communities have experienced some tense moments of mutual recrimination. Many Muslims have complained of manifestations of Christian intolerance, and more often than not they may have had some justification. However, they have forgotten, or have refused to admit, any responsibility on the part of Muslims for the behaviour of their fellow citizens. They have not acknowledged the fact that bigotry among the Muslim majority, and their failure to provide an Islamic model of conduct that honours the intellect and rational ethics and promotes democratisation and development, have driven Christians to a counter bigotry of their own and a kind of hyper-sensitivity towards everything Islamic.

The question that people forget to ask themselves in the midst of this controversy is why this transformation has occurred. Is it because of a hidden hatred Christians harbour towards Muslims and everything Islamic? To go in this direction would be to sink to the level of the bigots in the West who hold that problems in the Arab world stem from the fact that its inhabitants are Muslims, who are blind to social and political contexts, and who reduce everything to rigid and immutable cultural traits that have nothing to do with the realities of life, let alone contemporary political circumstances.

Christians in Egypt have lived peaceably with Islam throughout much of our history following the Islamic conquest. Since the 1919 Revolution, Egyptian Christians have been fully part of the Egyptian national movement, and they have shared a spirit of brotherhood with their fellow Muslim citizens. It was not until the Muslims changed that the Christians followed suit. As Muslim pietism and bigotry spread in society, Christians began to feel alienated from a society that seemed to exclude them. As a result, they in turn withdrew behind the walls of their churches where they too became exposed to a discourse marked by sectarianism and bigotry. You cannot condemn the effect and not the cause.

 The true traditions of the Egyptian state will not reassert themselves until the law is applied in full. For this to happen, public space must be placed on new foundations that prohibit offences against other faiths and creeds, as well as the use of religion in the political sphere and electoral process. Any candidate employing religious slogans should be disqualified from election, since in doing so he is going against the laws of the state.

The government should be firm in its attitude towards those who proclaim that “Islam is the solution,” because in so doing it will have taken an important step in shifting the conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood from the realm of security to the realm of politics and ideology.  Strident though the Brotherhood’s voice may be, and even if its discourse exercises a strong grip on a broad segment of the Egyptian public, if the government acts to defend the principles and traditions of the state it will win the support of many political and intellectual movements and trends, many of them in the opposition. With time, it can then recover its own legitimacy and political appeal at the same time as it rescues society from the maw of the discourse of religious extremism and sectarianism. Yes, Egypt needs a civic state that has the courage and ability to rescue Christian young people from feelings of exclusion and alienation and Muslim young people from the sense of being under attack. It should help both sets of young people to fight myths and superstition and resist the lure of conspiracy theories. Both groups of young people have the potential to forge a better future for our country by engaging in public affairs with a full faith in democracy and by fighting for the realisation of full civil rights for all Muslim and Christian citizens.



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