Amid the conflict currently underway in Egypt—between state authorities led by the military-backed government and the Muslim Brotherhood and their Islamist allies—another momentous battle is being waged over the country’s mosques and pulpits. Sermons, religious lessons, and charitable and development activities centered in mosques are an important sphere of influence for Islamist movements of various stripes. This arena is also a space to affirm the legitimacy of the regime in Egypt, whose government directly runs many mosques and oversees many more through the Ministry of Endowments (Awqaf). As such, mosques have long been the locus of struggles over power and influence between the regime and its men in the official religious establishment on one hand, and Islamist groups on the other. Currently, the Ministry of Endowments is instituting strict policies aimed at tightening its exclusive control over all Islamic rites and mosque-centered activities, in tandem with a sweeping security campaign targeting the activities of all Islamist movements, with the exception of the pro-government Salafi al-Nour Party.
In the following essay I would like to offer three observations about the use of religion in politics in Egypt in the aftermath of the ousting of president Mohamed Morsi, and about the Muslim Brotherhood (MB)—the oldest and most important Islamic organization in Egypt—particularly on how the group became targeted by the current military government in Egypt.
Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is the new Nasser, according to many Egyptians. The image of the military strong man currently leading Egypt is frequently put beside the picture of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who led a group of younger military officers in taking control of Egypt in 1952. The new government presents itself as saving Egypt from the religious fanaticism of the Muslim Brotherhood, just as Nasser liberated Egypt from imperialists and conservative forces. Since many secularists and self-identified liberals supported Sisi’s takeover of the government in July 2013, the subsequent political conflicts can appear to be a continuation of the battles between advocates of a secular modern polity and religious fundamentalists. However, viewing the current turmoil as being basically a conflict between religious and secular forces in the public arena can lead to conclusions that make real conflict resolutions more difficult. “Secular” versus “religious” is not the major battle. The goals of the protesters have been more basic: to gain control over their lives through improved economic opportunity and freedom from the surveillance and control of a dominating police state, whether that state is secular or religious.
Shortly after the late Omar Suleiman, the Hosni Mubarak era head of Egypt’s military intelligence, had been appointed vice president in a belated attempt to appease Egyptian protesters, he gave an infamous interview to Christiane Amanpour, in which he declared that the Egyptian people were not ready for democracy. While his remarks were rightly dismissed at the time as a self-serving declaration intended to justify why the regime was not moving faster to respond to the demands of the protesters, it certainly invites one to ask why Egyptians have had such a difficult time building a viable democracy. A popular theory, invoked by many Egyptian liberal democrats and supported by the military’s ouster of Egypt’s first democratically elected President, Mohamed Morsi, is that there exists a fundamental incompatibility between Islamist politics and democracy, or at least between the Islamist politics of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and democratic politics. (Ironically, that was precisely one of Suleiman’s claims in that interview—that elections would only empower what he derisively called the “Islamic current.”)
In The Myth of Religious Violence, William Cavanaugh argues that the assumption that religion is inherently authoritarian, divisive, and predisposed to irrational violence is a myth. This myth has its origins in the so-called “Wars of Religion,” which, he states, did not precipitate the rise of the modern state as is commonly assumed. Rather, he argues that these wars served as a justification for the nascent nation-state, which then used them to assert its power over the church. The church, correspondingly, was either absorbed into the state or relegated to an essentially private realm. It was only through the creation of a distinct private sphere for religion that the divisive properties of religion could be kept at bay—or so it was claimed. The myth of religious violence, propagated by political theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, has been used to legitimize the state’s claim to a monopoly on violence, lawmaking, and public allegiance in the name of Western secular ideals.
For the past few years, much of the scholarly literature on Islamist movements has danced around the “participation/ moderation” idea: that participation in democratic politics tends to moderate the ideology and positions of Islamists. I choose my term deliberately. When I say “danced around” I do not mean that scholars have endorsed its automatic applicability; far from it. Most have eschewed the vague term “moderation,” but even those who have used it have tried to give it specificity. And they have noted that the “participation” in question has generally been in non-democratic systems, so that a generalization culled from scholarship on political party behavior in democratic electoral systems (one that has plenty of qualifications and exceptions attached) is unlikely to be transferable to elections in which the existing regime will not allow itself to lose.
Having been invited to reflect upon the themes of this forum, first raised during the European University Institute (EUI) workshop “Beyond Critique,” I hope the reader will not mind if I begin my essay with a story about shipwrecks.
In a now-famous talk, the Columbia University historian Carol Gluck suggestively argued that history finds itself, temporally and conceptually, “after the shipwreck.” The “shipwreck,” for Gluck, stands as a metaphor for the destruction of the major metanarratives (scientific objectivism, progress, modernity, chronological linearity, historical materialism, the nation) and paradigms (Marxism, Liberalism, Nationalism) that have underpinned much of modern historiography. The deconstruction of such metanarratives is inseparable from the scholarly turn to critical theory, post-structuralism, and post-colonial approaches to the study of history starting in the late 1980s.
When Pope John Paul II visited Poland in 1979, he used his addresses and homilies to speak of faith and the moral renewal of the country, and of human dignity and religious freedom. Millions of Poles responded to his words with hymns and prayers. But aside from carrying crosses, they also waved Polish flags. For them, the pope’s appeals to the dignity of the human person did not resonate in an abstract theological sense, but within concrete historical experience: their opposition to Marxist atheism and Russian control, and their commitment to preserving the Catholic identity of the Polish nation.
The Unintended Reformation is an unusual work of history in deliberately focusing as much on the present as on the past, and in emphasizing the ongoing importance of the Reformation era for understanding the Western world today. Having considered issues related to the book’s genre, method, and assumptions in the first part of my response and others related to its historical arguments and omissions in the second part, the principal focus here will be the reactions of the forum participants to my description and assessment of the present. I will also take up speculation about my supposed agenda, and the book’s lack of ideas for solving contemporary problems.
On July 24, 2013, a “Letter to the Prime Minister of Turkey” was published as an ad in the British newspaper The Times. It was signed by an illustrious group that included showbiz celebrities, such as Sean Penn, Ben Kingsley, and David Lynch; popular academic writers, such as Andrew Mango, known for his Ataturk biography; and notorious secularists, such as the Turkish composer Fazıl Say. The letter was part of the international contestation over the correct interpretation of the Gezi protests, which began in the last days of May 2013. After likening a government-organized rally against the Gezi protests and in support of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to the Nazis’ Nuremberg rally, even calling Erdoğan’s rule “dictatorial”, the letter continues as follows: “[Y]ou described these protesters as tramps, looters and hooligans, even alleging they were foreign-led terrorists. Whereas, in reality, they were nothing but youngsters wanting Turkey to remain a Secular Republic as designed by its founder Kemal Ataturk.” As exemplified in this letter, public reactions in the West tended to emphasize the purportedly secularist motivation behind the protests in opposition to a government whose authoritarianism was supposedly connected to its religious views.