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Ecumenism Versus Secularism in the New Egyptian Politics

July 10, 2011

How are religious minorities to live alongside majority populations? It is a question that has plagued political thinkers for centuries.

In the modern world, the answer is usually secularism, understood particularly as the belief that religious life can be separated from ordinary life, and that political institutions in particular should be kept separate from religious institutions in nation states.

But efforts by religious-political organizations to create political parties has led to alternative visions of Islamic-Christian cohabitation in a democratic Egypt, a kind of interfaith pluralism I gloss as ecumenism. And most of the advocates are Christians.

The Freedom and Justice Party offers an ecumenical alternative to secularism for Egyptian Copts, claims Rafiq Habib, Christian Vice President of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in an article in the Daily News Egypt. (Rafiq seems to be an Anglican, but many media reports describe him as a Copt, so I’ll just stick to Christian here…)

Secularism was first advocated in Egypt by Christians during the colonial era. Several Christian intellectuals fled second-class status in Ottoman Syria for more privileged positions in British-occupied Egypt. There these writers (like Nicola Haddad, Faris Nimr and Ya’qub Sarruf ) became advocates of secularism, understood as separation of religion and state. They were joined in this by Egyptian Christian writers like Salama Musa and Lewis Awad.

Muslim writers promoting versions of secularism fared less well. Most controversial was the 1925 work al-Islam wa ‘Usul al-Hukm (Islam and the Foundations of Governance) by the Muslim religious scholar Shaykh Ali Abd al-Raziq, who asserted that Islam was a religion and not a state, that nothing in Islamic law required either a Caliphate or an Imamate, and that the Caliphate as an institution created disasters for the Muslim community it governed. He argued that Muslims can live under any form of government, so long as it serves the common welfare. These claims led him to be anathematized by Al-Azhar (but didn’t stop him from occupying one of Egypt’s three highest religious positions, Minister of Endowments).

Fauzi Najjar in “The Debate on Islam and Secularism in Egypt” in Arab Studies Quarterly, Spring 1996 writes:

Most Islamists look upon secularism as a kind of kufr (unbelief) and irtidad (apostasy). Whoever advocates secularism is an apostate from Islam, according to Muhammad al-Ghazali, a leading Egyptian theologian. “As separation of religion and state, secularism is unadulterated kufr.”(4) The Saudi Arabian Directorate of Ifta’, Preaching and Guidance, has issued a directive decreeing that whoever believes that there is a guidance (huda) more perfect than that of the Prophet, or that someone else’s rule is better than his . . . is a kafir. It lists a number of specific tenets which would be regarded as a serious departure from the precepts of Islam, punishable according to Islamic law: …

  1. institutions and laws enacted by human beings are superior to the Shari’a;
  2. Islam has been the cause of the backwardness of Muslims;
  3. Islam is not applicable in the 20th Century;
  4. Islam is limited to one’s relation with God, and has nothing to do with the daily affairs of life;
  5. the application of the hudud (legal punishments decreed by God) is incongruous with the modern age; and
  6. it is permissible not to rule according to what God has revealed. It concluded whoever allows what God has prohibited is a kafir.

Many salafi preachers in Egypt continue to advocate strict interpretation of these principles. But mainstream Muslim political organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood must necessarily find more nuanced ways of dealing with them if they are not to be rendered politically irrelevant in the new Egypt.

Habib’s argument on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party seems to have three main points:

  1. Egypt has always been built on religious foundations, and the current religious majority is Muslim, and that any other position is unrealistic.
  2. Most Egyptian Christians do not believe religion can be separated from everyday life, and they are morally and socially more aligned with their Muslim compatriots than with secular intellectuals
  3. That Christians’ fears of Islam have been manipulated by the government, the media, and a small number of fundamentalist salafi groups, whereas Christians have nothing to fear from the moderate, mainstream Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Freedom and Justice Party has 8,821 founding members across Egypt’s 27 governorates, including 978 women and 93 Christians.

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