Religion and the civil state in the elections

Waheed Abdel-Meguid , Monday 29 Nov 2010

The world is retreating to religion and dogma

The phenomenon can be seen in countries across the world, be they Muslim, Christian, Hindu or other. Countless studies have examined the trend, the most recent of which was published in the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine. Among the study’s principal findings is that a religious resurgence is occurring across the globe, and that religion is playing an increasing role in international relations as well as domestic politics. The study also concludes that globalization is reinforcing this process, providing the backdrop for a newly expanded role for religion.

The fact that religion is on the rise in the West as well as the East is an indicator that secularism, a product of the values of the Enlightenment, is quickly losing its appeal. It thus appears that the mind can be corrupted in much the same way that it can be restored; it can destroy just as it can create, and it does not always act rationally. One result is a slow but steady retreat to Christian conservatism in a number of western countries.

The most powerful and wide-spread religious revival, however, is taking place in the Muslim East, where burgeoning religious identity is drawing both praise and scorn. Of the many questions posed by the controversial trend, is what impact it will have on the nature of the state in Arab and Muslim countries. Under particular scrutiny are civil states based on religious and sectarian pluralism and rule law. Such concern has been raised in many countries, including Egypt, which in recent days witnessed parliamentary elections that helped embolden fears about the future of the civil state. Religion was part of the Egyptian electoral process on a wide scale, its definitive use having become part of complex phenomenon of the increasing religiosity of politics on one hand, and the politicization of religion on the other.

The impact of the phenomenon is even more troubling than it was in the mid-seventies and nineties, when fear took hold of the state in a far more pronounced and violent way through firearms and explosives. Meaning that, the clearer the threat, the easier it is to face—no less so when it appears in the form of terrorism under the banner of religious slogans.

The current danger, however, is not of this sort. Instead, it more closely resembles the kind faced by Egypt during the first half of the 20th century, when the fall of the Ottoman Empire spurred King Fouad to bestow upon himself his new title. The extent to which the nature of the state could be transformed had King Fouad succeeded in appointing himself Caliph was not clear to most Egyptians at the time. Only a small group of political and cultural elite understood the potential danger. This group, however, believed the mixing of politics and religion to be detrimental to both, as former prime minister Mustaffa al-Nahass once told Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna.

Despite their intellectual and partisan affiliations, the elite—composed of both observant Muslims and Christians— held that religion should play a considerable role in society, though not in the realms of governance and politics. At the same time, they were aware of the dangers of bringing religion into politics and vice versa. Religion, they believed, was absolute and above debate, while politics required debate and pluralism for the common good. It was therefore easy for intellectuals and politicians who engaged at that time in the battle for a civil state to ward off the specter of a reestablished caliphate, and history has recorded the likes of Abdel Razeq, Taha Hussein and Abdel Aziz Fahmy for their role of protecting the civil state despite accusations they faced. Though these individuals defended religion first and foremost and only then a civil state for all its citizens, it was easy to slander their piety of others who defended the civil state.

Religion is the first to be compromised when it is used for political purposes. Touting slogans such as “Islam is the Solution” merely puts the nation’s belief in Islam to the test—where it has no place. Such sayings negatively impact both the civil state and the character of the nation.

A clear example of this in recent days was the exploitation of religious services to influence voters by transforming mosques and churches into platforms of political propaganda. Ramadan prayer services in some areas were turned into veritable carnivals of political pandering. This, despite a warning published by the Ministry of Religious Endowments on November 9 against the use of mosques for the proliferation of propaganda.

Among those who ignored the warning were representatives from various party-lines, one of whom utilized loudspeakers at mosques to announce the times of his rallies, while another allowed his election meetings to be used for religious preaching. In some areas, candidates used churches to hold meetings with their constituents, leaving little room between electoral activity and the so-called guardians of God. One candidate, ironically a member of a long-standing secular party, even asked that the Pope pray for him.

Such actions threaten the wellbeing of both the civil state and religion. Respecting religion and leaving it in its rightful place beyond politics does not detract from its place in society. Rather, it protects it from exploitation by those who manipulate religious sensibilities for political purposes.

This danger facing the civil state today is no less menacing than in the past. Perhaps it is even greater. And while Egypt’s political legacy has equipped it with the means to cope with such dangers, it is not enough to rely on these alone without accelerating those reforms that will free the state from the burdens weakening it, and allow those who truly believe in it to retake the reins of initiative.


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