With the ascension of the Islamist movement of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) to the Egyptian presidency, many considered this as a historic occasion: one that signified the next great step for Islam and democracy. Others, however, questioned whether such an assessment was useful, or if it hindered our comprehension of the relationship between religion, identity politics and the Egyptian public sphere.
It is difficult to identity what is considered to be ‘Islam’ in the context of contemporary Egypt. Within the modern academic domain of Islamic studies, the concept of a normative ‘Islam’ is subjected to the post-modern critique – on what basis is anything described as normative? Why is this ‘Islam’ more ‘Islamic’ than that ‘Islam’? Who has the authority to insist their reading of religion is more authentic or justifiable than someone else’s?
Historically, religious authority in Muslim communities was derived from a combination of popular consent, as well as continuity. In Egypt, an institution emerged with both - the Azhar. Not the university particularly, which is a modern institution, but the Azhar Mosque itself, which produced scores of religious scholars that were considered as authoritative reference points for Sunni Muslims. The Azhar’s approach to religion, described as the ‘Azhari minhaj’, remains the technical basis of the Azhar University’s creed: ecumenical upon matters of law according to the extant schools of jurisprudence, classical Sunni theology, and the different Sufi orders. It’s inspired and linked to other approaches represented in other countries – the Tabah Foundation in Abu Dhabi, for example, or the plethora of institutions worldwide that seek it’s authentication.
Beyond its historical continuity, the Azhar has popular consent – 95% of all Egyptians express confidence in the Azhar, according to Gallup polls. Internationally, it is also recognised as unique, in that it has the pedigree of being, as the Secretary General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation put it to me, ‘ the only Islamic institution that has kept a continuous chain of education for more than 10 centuries.’
The MB is a recent, modern political movement, which distinguishes it from the Azhar as a religious institution. However, it is more than that – it is the politicisation of not the historic religious approach of the Azhar, but of another religious approach. The contemporary MB is divided along several different religious interpretations, but the core of the MB is a religious approach that is invariably described as ‘reformist Salafism’, ‘modernism’ or simply, ‘Brotherhood-like’ (ikhwani). On issues of law, theology and spirituality, it differs with the more historical Azhari heritage in a number of different ways, in pursuit of, as the MB sees it, a reformed, modern approach to religion. Within the Egyptian religious establishment, this type of approach is identifiable and well-known. While not viewed with the same distaste and aversion which is reserved for the purist Salafism of the likes of the Nour Party and the wide ‘Salafi movement’, it remains an approach of suspicion owing to what the scholastic authorities of the ‘Azhari approach’ consider to be academic weaknesses within the ‘Brotherhood’ methodological approach to religion.
This is separate and additional to the scholastic Azhari opposition to the political instrumentalisation of religion that the MB engages in. Some intellectuals and scholars of that approach posit that there are two problems with the ‘Islamic state’ that the MB advocates: the first has to do with the ‘Islamic’ part, in terms of the religious approach. But the second problem, in their view, has to do with the ‘state’ argument, in that contemporary notions of statehood and government are not easily grafted onto Muslim ethics of governance. (Pre-modern Muslim government, for example, was typically small, and often libertarian, relying on a large space accorded to civil society to fulfil welfare needs and provisions.)
What the Azhari approach to politics would be is something of a mystery, in that the Azhar’s scholars have typically preferred to play the part of the public’s conscience, rather than the public’s chastisers or activists. There have been exceptions to that rule, in positive and negative ways – the Azhar has, particularly in the modern period, been less independent from the ruler of the age, and had it’s credibility damaged as a result. One wonders if in post January 25 Egypt, amid calls for the Azhar’s independence to be restored, this might change.
That sort of tension outlined above with the religious establishment goes someway in understanding the ‘religious engineering’, for lack of a better phrase, that the MB has attempted to engage in while holding the levers of political power within Egypt. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that the MB and other Islamist movements in Egypt, such as the purist Salafi movement, seek to implant other religious approaches as a new Islamic orthodoxy in Egypt – starting with the Minister of Endowments, continuing with the position of the Mufti, and ending with the head of the Azhar University.
With the rise of the MB to power through democratic means, and the success of its political party, the Freedom & Justice Party (FJP) in gaining a plurality of seats in the parliamentary elections, the message, it seemed, was clear. There were a myriad of responses from within capitals around the world – inside Muslim communities, and outside of them. There were those, for example, who echoed the regime of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak: that the engagement of the MB with the political sphere would be a catastrophic event that must be prevented at all costs. Such figures found space within Western capitals, as well as within parts of the Egyptian intelligentsia – their reaction to Mr Morsi’s narrow victory against Ahmad Shafiq in the presidential elections was one of horror.
There was a mosaic of observers who, however, expressed support for the victory of Morsi over Shafiq. Some did so out of ideological support or sympathy for the MB – others out of antipathy to Mr Shafiq, who represented a return to the former regime, as Mr Mubarak’s last prime minister. There were some, however, who considered a wider question: that the political advancement of the MB in general, including Mr Morsi’s presidency, represented an advancement of the relationship between Islam and democracy. The beneficiaries of such advancements would not be Egyptian alone, but the entire Muslim world.
The logic of such a sentiment was not typically found within Egypt, with the exception of MB supporters, and even then, not all of them. The reason for this is fairly simple: in order to advocate such a position, ‘Islam’ would need to be equivocated with, in varying degrees, Mr Morsi, the FJP and the MB. Such equivalence is difficult to assume when Egyptians, 85%-90% are Muslim, in the presidential election voted overwhelmingly for candidates other than Mr Morsi.
One of those candidates was Hamdeen Sabahi. Over the course of the election, one of his campaign’s favourite slogans was: “No to remnants [of the former regime]; No to traders of religion”. An overwhelming majority of Mr Sabahi’s supporters were, of course, Muslim - but they did not perceive that their religion obliged them to support Mr Morsi. On the contrary, they viewed Mr Morsi and his MB movement to be ‘traders of religion’ – i.e., partisans who instrumentalised religion for political gain.
With all the above in mind, it is difficult to argue conclusively that the MB represents ‘Islam’, or has the most popular claim to represent a normative and historical understanding of Islam in the context of modern Egypt. Would, then, it be possible to declare that the MB represents ‘Islamism’ (i.e., the modern political ideology), and that this latest period thus represents a great step for ‘Islamism and Democracy’?
Such a statement might be more credible, but it presents a fairly Arab-centric view of what ‘Islamism’ actually is. As noted above, the MB’s political ideology is rooted in a particular religious approach – while other Islamists might reject that approach entirely. The Islamists of Turkey, for example, represented in the current AKP government, do not ascribe the MB’s Islamism. Turkish Islamists are vehemently opposed to the purist Salafi movement, in a way that the MB is not – to the point that Turkish Islamists are currently expending vast amounts of funds for the upkeep of Sufi mausoleums within the Arab world, which purist Salafis would prefer to dismantle and destroy. The intellectual heritage of Turkish Islamism also differs from that of MB Islamism, quite substantially.
Perhaps, then, one might speak of Morsi’s presidency as the next ‘great step’ for MB Islamism and democracy? Perhaps, indeed. After all, the Egyptian MB is the progenitor of many other Islamist movements in the region, and indeed worldwide. If the Egyptian MB can succeed in producing a government that genuinely provides good policies for all Egyptians, and does not increase religious-based identity politics (especially damaging in a country with a large non-Muslim minority), then that might have wide-scale repercussions elsewhere.
Many Egyptian observers who remain sceptical of Mr Morsi still hope he will be successful in taking Egypt to a more positive and progressive stage of its political transition. For them, however, his failure or success will be his own, rather than Islam’s. Those of us outside of Egypt are, in the main, waiting to see what will happen next – and to see if, indeed, Egypt’s next great step will be a positive one, or a negative one for future generations to correct. After all, there was one more than one revolution in the Egypt of the 20th century – there may well be another in the 21st.