“For those asking from Egypt: None of the choices in the referendum
are sinful or in opposition to the sacred law, except voting for
something that goes against your convictions in order to attain some
worldly gain, or blindly following another person's opinion.” Al-Habib
Ali al-Jifri, Yemeni Islamic scholar
It is not Christmas in Egypt this week. Most Egyptian Christians will
celebrate Christmas on the 6th of January, as per the Eastern Orthodox
calendar. Yet, as 2012 draws to an end, this week is, indeed, still a
time when many in Egypt are thinking about religion. The reasons,
however, are hardly in keeping with a joyful, holiday spirit. Religion
is on Egyptians’ minds at present because they are angry at how it is
being used – and how it may yet be abused in the year to come.
Perhaps it was foreseeable. After
all, during the constitutional amendments referendum last year,
Islamists in the ‘yes’ camp positioned their vote as a ‘yes’ to ‘Islam’.
During the parliamentary elections later on in the year, Islamist
parties deployed religion as a mobilization tool, and were rewarded by
the electorate for doing so.
Nevertheless, something was different in the past few weeks. The
reaction to the Egyptian president’s decree divided Egypt, with two very
loud camps: those who were deeply opposed to his issuing of it, and
those who were in favor. Political polarization is bad enough in any
country, let alone one that just went through a revolutionary uprising
that was truly a popular movement that was representative of all of
Egypt. But this polarization was different – it was deeply sectarian,
and on many levels.
In the ‘yes’ camp for the recently passed constitution, there were
prominent figures from the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Mohammed Beltagi,
arguing that a majority of protestors against President Mursi were
Christians. As though that would somehow make a difference – after all,
Christian Egyptians are as Egyptian as Muslim Egyptians are. But it was
not true in any event: the majority were, as the majority of Egyptians
are, Muslims. The point behind his statement, however, was clear: it was
a message to declare that this is a Muslim versus Christian battle.
Other preacher-supporters of the president, such as Sefwat Hegazi, took
the opportunity at pro-Mursi rallies to send a ‘message’ to the
Christian Church itself, issuing ‘warnings’. One can assume that his
message was hardly a truly spiritually enlightened one; his warnings
certainly didn’t imply so.
The sectarian attitude was not limited to Christian versus Muslim
polemics, but deeper than that. Supporting the president, and the ‘yes’
vote, became an issue not only of politics – but religion and salvation.
This was turned into a vote on ‘Islam’, where the ‘yes’ camp was
supporting Islam and the Shariah, with their opponents being, obviously,
against both. The most disturbing aspect of this was displayed during a
funeral for some supporters of the president who had died in clashes
outside the presidential palace. The president’s supporters were
described as being in heaven – while the dead of their opponents were in
hell. It’s a famous line, coming from the aftermath of a battle in the
life of the Prophet, against people who were trying to kill him and
destroy Islam. To ascribe the same line to a political skirmish between
Egyptians in 21st century Cairo is concerning, to say the least.
But in the midst of this discord, there were also good signs – signs
that more level headed and mainstream religious authorities could see
potential dangers unfolding, and were taking steps to respond. The Grand
Mufti of Egypt, for example, issued a statement where he emphasized
“the role of the real religious scholar, which should not be a tool for
partisan politics; but, rather, he places himself above these minor
political gains and set the interest of the general public as his
Others also issued warnings. Noted Azhar sheikhs expressed great dismay
that Islam would be used in this fashion, and religious authorities
further afield agreed. Al-Habib ‘Ali al-Jifri, the Yemeni scholar
resident in Abu Dhabi who leads the Tabah Foundation, in response to
queries and questions from Egyptian followers, has commented on more
than one occasion in public on the worrying trend of irresponsible
discourse from radical preachers in Egypt. The Grand Mufti of Egypt, Ali
Gomaa, has also been quite pointed in his criticism with regards to the
partisan politicization of religion in general, and has long warned
against unqualified, radical religious preachers.
Nevertheless, Egyptians can expect more of this abuse to continue. The
populist and sectarian abuse of religion that was so evident in 2012,
stands set to continue in 2013. What may be different, however, is the
awareness that ordinary Egyptians have in this regard. It will be down
to them and civil society at large to engage and combat this phenomenon –
for as yet, the government has not even identified it as a problem.
Indeed, in many ways, the Muslim Brotherhood benefits from such
preachers’ support, even though it might not be guilty of the worst of
Religion is an indelible part of Egypt and of the wider Arab world. It
will continue to be a part of it, as this revolution continues to
unfold. Egyptians will be, in 2013, pushed to make their choices more
manifest: do they want a religious atmosphere that is informed by a
heterodox, sectarian, toxic, and in large parts, non-Egyptian discourse?
Or do they want one that is more indigenous to the country of the
Azhar, and to the sophisticated and broad-minded mainstream of its
history? By and large, they clearly want the latter – but that will now
have to be fought for.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution and
the ISPU, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University.
Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer
This article was published by Al Arabiya on December 27, 2012. Read it here.