A few weeks after the ouster of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, the New York Times ran this headline: “Egyptian Liberals Embrace the Military, Brooking No Dissent.” The accompanying photograph showed a man with a full beard and shaved moustache in the Salafi style, a prominent prayer mark (a “raisin” in the Egyptian vernacular) on his forehead. Behind the man is a wallpaper of Muslim pilgrims circumambulating the Kaaba in Mecca. A framed portrait of then-general and coup master Abdel Fattah el-Sisi leans against beige tiles stickered with several Qur’anic verses. The headline limits the military’s support base to (secular) liberals, while the image shows us it actually extends beyond this narrow stratum.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died shortly before the 2012 Meskel festival, the Finding of the True Cross—one of the major festivals of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Its public centerpiece is the burning of a great bonfire in Addis Ababa’s Meskel Square, which takes its name from the occasion. State television broadcasts the ceremony every year, and the 2012 broadcast (2005 by the Ethiopian calendar) can be found on YouTube. The festival revolves around the bonfire, recalling the smoke that led Constantine’s mother Saint Helena to the recovery of Christ’s cross. On this occasion a kitsch re-enactment of the story precedes the lighting of the fire, as Helena and her entourage parade the cross, decked with fairy lights, on a carnival float [4:50-5:20]. Overlooking the whole event, and clearly visible as the fire burns, are several billboards depicting the recently deceased Prime Minister. One reads: “We will keep our word and fulfill your vision.” The religious connotations of the Ge’ez word ra’iy, “vision,” are presumably intentional.
Ark Encounter will be a $150 million biblical theme park, scheduled to open in summer 2016. Set on 800 acres of Kentucky rolling hills, 40 miles south of Cincinnati, the centerpiece of the park will be an all-wooden re-creation of Noah’s ark, built to “Young Earth Creationist” specs from the text of Genesis 6:9. The completed ark will be built from three and a half million board feet of timber; stand 50 feet tall, 75 feet wide, 510 feet long (about 300 feet shorter than the RMS Titanic); and contain more than 100,000 square feet of exhibit space.
The park is a joint venture between the creationist ministry Answers in Genesis (AiG) and the for-profit Ark Encounter, LLC. Founded in 1994, AiG is the same ministry that opened the $30 million Creation Museum in 2007. From October 2011 through June 2014, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork with the creative team leading the conceptualization and design of Ark Encounter.
Perhaps the most pertinent question to be asked of Egypt’s revolutionary/counter-revolutionary process in the past three years is this: how can we properly diagnose the persistent incongruity between the slogan of the 2011 revolution—“bread, freedom, and social justice”—and the failures of all political entities in Egypt to achieve them? These entities include the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a transitional military regime that assumed power directly after the revolution (February 2011–June 2012); the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (June 2012–July 2013); and now, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s new presidency and the immediately preceding civilian regime installed under his military command (July 2013–May 2014). In other words, how and why has every organized entity in Egypt since January 2011 failed to meet the basic demands of the revolution?
Carl Becker was right in his assessment of great events: they have an ability to create a new normal language of profound significance. Each era has few words that epitomize its worldview. The Arab Spring has been a momentous event of profound significance, but the systematic hampering of ideas into pre-packaged catalogs of binary grouping, as reflected in Mohamad Elmasry’s comment on my reflection on Egypt, has been a major obstacle in revealing the creative ideas of this unique event. This response is to transcend the binary framework in both Dr. Elmasry’s readings of Egypt and the wider discourse regarding the Arab Spring.
My reflection concerns ideas, not groups. Elmasry’s version of the story is the opposite. This is the dividing line between our two viewpoints. Both could be right in their incommensurable paths. As such, there is a conceptual trap in responding to his binary framing of the story. Since his version is a litany of claims for and against the Muslim Brotherhood, a response to them will by default put me in the opposite camp, which I abstain to join.
In the last week the US Supreme Court has acted in two religious freedom cases (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and Wheaton College v. Burwell) in favor of conservative Christian plaintiffs seeking exemptions from the contraceptive coverage mandate of the Affordable Care Act. Liberals have gone nuts, wildly predicting the end of the world as we know it. While I share their distress about the effects of these decisions on women, I want to talk about religion. I believe that it is time for some serious self-reflection on the part of liberals. To the extent that these decisions are about religion (and there are certainly other reasons to criticize the reasoning in these opinions), they reveal the rotten core at the heart of all religious freedom laws. The positions of both liberals and conservatives are affected by this rottenness but I speak here to liberals.
What role do divine interventions play in Egypt’s current political climate? Is Abdel Fattah el-Sisi a Sufi? Is the Muslim Brotherhood anti-Sufi? To understand the interplay of religion and politics in Egypt today, it is not enough to pay attention to political parties, constitutions, and political slogans. We need to also look at how the invisible and the divine are invoked in the public sphere. The belief in divine interventions, divinely inspired dreams and visions, and direct contact with the prophet Muhammad and his saintly descendants is often associated with Sufism. In recent months, however, dreams and visions have also figured in the supposedly moderate, liberal, secular Sisi camp and in the supposedly Islamist Muslim Brotherhood camp.
In a recent essay on equality and citizenship in a multi-religious Sudan, Noah Salomon describes a commitment among development experts to equality before the law as a “non-ideological” solution to the problems of post-conflict societies. Salomon disagrees with the consensus, suggesting rather that “law, the institutions which promote it, and our relationship to them enfold deep ideological and political commitments which require a whole host of presumptions about justice and how best to achieve it.” While the rule of law is assumed to govern from a neutral public space that has transcended ideological and political particularities, the hegemony of rule of law discourse should not be taken as a mark of neutrality. It would be a mistake to remove the rule of law from conversations about power, history, difference, and governance.
The same may be said of secularism.
The ouster of Mohamed Morsi involved a dispute over legitimacy—what gave the Egyptian president the right to remain in power? Despite the arguments of some commentators to the contrary, Morsi’s claim to legitimacy was based in democratic norms, not religious ones.
An earlier article, “Egypt and the elusiveness of shar’iyyah,” published at The Immanent Frame, contains several problematic assumptions, which lead the author, Mbaye Lo, to a series of equally problematic conclusions. Lo suggests that former Egyptian president Morsi claimed legitimacy on religious grounds rather than democratic grounds and that Islamists could not be trusted to respect Egypt’s democratic process. Lo also seems to uncritically accept claims made about the Muslim Brotherhood by some of Egypt’s political liberals.