In a single week, Arabs of the Christian and the Islamic faiths commemorate the births of their most significant religious figures. The past year has seen their faiths deployed on many an occasion for various gains – sometimes laudable ones, but often otherwise. Will 2014 see a change in how religion is used in Egypt and Syria? Will it be used to bring people together, instead of forcing them apart? Or will it merely continue to be a tool for partisanship, bigotry and violence?
Christian Arabs who follow the different Orthodox calendars rejoiced in the birth of Christ earlier this week. In Egypt, they did so under close guard, amid fears that violent opponents of the government might target Christians. Radical Islamists have promoted sectarianism in Egypt for a long time, including in this current phase where many of them believe that the Coptic Church is disproportionally responsible for the ousting of Mohammed Morsi. Certainly, religion in this context is not being used to bring people together.
In a few days time, Muslim Arabs celebrate the birth of the final Prophet of Islam during Mawlid al-Nabi (the Birthday of the Prophet). They will do so the day before the much-anticipated referendum on amendments to the country’s constitution. In the run-up to that referendum, Egyptians have seen religious functionaries deploy religious language to support a “yes” vote. Former grand muftis of the republic have issued clear statements where they encouraged a “yes” vote on the basis that this was religiously commendable. Religion in this context is also not being used to bring people together – but rather to build support for a partisan position on a legal document that is a genuine point of contention between Egyptians.
In the early days of the Syrian revolution, people of all ethnicities and religious backgrounds joined together to peacefully protest against the Assad regime. In response to the brutal government crackdown, some religious authorities insisted on calling the government to account from the pulpit, insisting that even if the protesters might be wrong, they had the right to voice their demands peacefully. Other religious figures deployed religious arguments and used their religious office to justify the viciousness of the security force – both Muslim and Christian ones. As the revolution ensued, the sectarian genie was let out of the bottle by the regime, and religion was used to not only delegitimise the revolution, but dehumanise it entirely.
The predominant political use of religion in the Arab world has fallen into four basic modes. The first is sectarian in nature, used by different types of Islamist forces in places like Egypt and Syria. In the latter case, both supporters of the regime such as Hizbollah, as well as its opponents, such as the Al Nusra Front, use that rhetoric.
The second kind of use is partisan in nature – the usage of religious language, symbolism and arguments to justify supporting a specific partisan position and delegitimise the opposing position, even to the point of claiming “hell” for the other side. This is far more widespread – almost all Islamist political forces will engage in that kind of rhetoric, which led to them in Egypt being described as “merchants of religion”. However, it is clear that non-Islamist, or even anti-Islamist religious forces will also use religion to back their partisan stances. That was clear in the public interventions of a number of religious authorities in Syria, and in Egypt – former and current grand muftis in the latter have gone on record to justify religious support for blatantly partisan positions in the midst of extreme polarisation.
But religion can be used as a great moral force – either quietly or more overtly. One of the most noted religious scholars of today, al-Habib Umar bin al-Hafiz of the Yemen, notes: “Leave the rulers to their corruption and their oppression – we do not condone their oppression or follow them in committing evil. We advise them if they are ready to accept sincere advice.” It is not a position all might partake of, but it is a legitimate one for those who consider the political arena to be more or less unsalvageable in the grand scheme of things.
Religion in politics has shown itself in another way, however, over recent history – and that is in speaking truth to power, or calling those in authority to account. Muslim history is replete with examples of such figures in the Arab world – who did not seek power for themselves, or a particular political party, but who criticised the ruler for how they treated the ruled. They might have found themselves in the midst of great change, where they felt they could not be silent. That has also been the case in modern times – the Network of Free Scholars in Libya, as well as many religious scholars in Syria and Egypt, have often criticised those in power for how they treated the powerless. In doing so, they gained the admiration of many – in contrast to those who supported the powers that be, and even encouraged them further.
As 2014 unfolds, perhaps religious leaders might consider that practice of their own heritage – where power is not encouraged and courted, but is judged without partisan considerations. Especially in a time of great polarisation, religious leaders and religion ought not to be enlisted as lobbying tools, but as reminders to all that moral power remains a force for good in the world. The “counter-power” of Arab religious establishments today, speaking truth to power, in a way to bring those in the Arab world together, remains direly needed. The powerless, whether those suffering from governments or sectarian movements, are far more deserving of religion’s moral strength than the powerful.