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Egypt’s Choice Is Not Between Secularism and Theocracy

May 15, 2011

There's an ongoing debate within the Muslim Brotherhood over the proper relationship between Islam and democracy.

Black-and-white thinking–or at least stark either/or discourse–structures many discussions about the future of post-Mubarak Egypt and the post-Arab Spring Middle East  generally. In the US, especially, many people seem to think that there is only a choice between a secular democracy, on the one hand, and a Iran-like theocratic state on the other.

In fact, democracy comes in many forms, and there are many possible ways religious ideologies and democratic political institutions can co-exist. Currently, there is a great deal of debate within Egypt’s largest and best organized Islamic group, the Muslim Brotherhood, over just these questions. The continuum stretches from those who take the position that Islam is not compatible with democracy to those who imagine an Islamic political party similar to the Christian Democrat parties in Europe–secular political parties whose platforms are consistent with mainstream theology and clearly rooted in Islamic values (the comparison with the Christian Democrats is not accidental–with its conservative moral platform and progressive social agenda, in countries where it exists it has become the most popular party among European Muslims).

A recent contribution to this debate was an article by Mu’taz Abdel Fattah in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood website Amlalommah on April 29th arguing that while Western secularism is not the right approach for Egypt, neither is autocracy.

Abdel Fattah, a political science professor at Cairo University, argues that the claim to divine right of rule is not established by the Qur’an or Hadith but was instituted by men–men like Mu’awiyah Ibn-Abi-Sufyan, the first Umayyad Caliph, who created the first Islamic totalitarian political state; or like Umayyad Caliph Abd-al-Malik Ibn Marwan who claimed his execution of the prior ruler Amr Ibn Sai’d Ibn-al-As “was the will of God”; or  Umayyad Caliph Walid Ibn Yazid who claimed that “the Caliphs of God have been appointed by Him.”

“The history of the world asserts that autocracy in the name of religion is old and that existed even before Islam,” he writes. Autocracy is a disease that can emerge within any religion or political ideology, but democracy, properly constituted, is the best way to avoid it:

I believe that democracy with all its institutional and procedural mechanisms, with my due respects to the first three articles of the constitution, constitutes the guarantees which we badly need, and this is not an action that undercuts Islam, as some people would like to portray it, but is a remedy of a disease which we might contract as others contracted autocracy in the name of religion or other beliefs.”

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