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.
Richard Madsen has done me the favor of reading my book carefully and sympathetically. He points out that the complexity of comparative analysis increases immensely when one does away with assuming unified cultural wholes. The kinds of narratives that were built in the past on the assumption of unified wholes have become impossible, and with them the kind of theorizing that characterized comparative analysis. In the view of many scholars, that means an end to comparative analysis. How can one do comparison of shifting, disintegrating social and cultural realities? How can one compare India and China when one respects the fragmentary nature of society?
The Modern Spirit of Asia is like a brilliant pencil sketch for an uncompleted oil painting. Something inspiring appears in abstract, but the necessary shading hasn’t been done, and any effort at further illumination will necessarily transform what is depicted. The book traces in provocative outline the recent histories of India and China, arguing that neither formulations of modernity were merely derivative or defective imitations of the West, and that the degree of colonial encounter entwined religion and nationalism differently for each. While its larger goals are admirable, it fails to justify them by doing truly original research or rigorous theorizing. I agree with many of Peter van der Veer’s conclusions, but I fear that anyone who isn’t already singing from the same hymnal isn’t going to be converted.
At a time when the late twentieth century giants of comparative social science—like S.N. Eisenstadt and Robert Bellah—have recently passed away and when most of the younger generation of social scientists are preoccupied with narrowly focused research questions, it is heartening to see Peter van der Veer reviving the great tradition of comparative inquiry into the cultural origins and consequences of modernity. The Modern Spirit of Asia is an ambitious book that sets a new standard (and a hard standard to meet!) for comparative studies of religion and modernity. The level of erudition is impressive, but unlike the work of most comparative historical sociologists of an earlier era, the knowledge of historical documents is undergirded by an experiential, ethnographic knowledge of the languages and cultures of India and China (as well as extensive knowledge of European languages). Beset by pressures for specialization and for rapid and steady “productivity,” younger scholars will find it difficult to reach the level of scholarship displayed in this book.