Saturday, February 12, 2011

Egyptian Revolution and Islamic Revival

With the fall of long-time Egyptian President Husni Mubarak, many fear that Egypt will evolve into a theocracy under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood. In that light, this statement is significant:
"Preserving the people's freedom is more important than setting up a system of Sharia (Islamic law), even though freedom remains part and parcel of Sharia, said Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi on Friday evening in an interview with Al Jazeera television network. Al-Qaradawi, who is an influential Islamic thinker and president of the International Union for Muslim Scholars, is closely tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition group.

"Recently, some members of the Brotherhood have tried to alleviate concerns that they want to establish an Islamic state by asserting that the Brotherhood does not seek to the rule the country or establish an Islamist government in Egypt."

I don't know on what show this interview was conducted, but prior to his retirement he was central to the highly rated al-Jazeera show Shari'a and Life. He was also an early follower of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, though he has resisted involvement in the Muslim Brotherhood's leadership. Although despised by al-Qaeda types, he is one of the undisputed leaders of conservative Islam in the world today, and his views are significant.

The Muslim Brotherhood's support for democracy is not a momentary tactic, but has roots in its theological foundations. The group draws on the traditional of Islamic reformism associated with Jamal al-Din al-Afghani in the 19th century, which taught that instead of traditional Islamic jurisprudence, Muslims should rely on contemporary interpretation of the Qur'an and hadith. These modern interpretations can be harsh and puritanical, as well as liberal, and the Muslim Brotherhood has interpreted criminal law, for example, fairly literally. Politically, however, a key principle is "shura," or consultation, which at least since the Young Ottomans opposed to the Tanzimat reforms of the mid-1800's has for many carried connotations of democracy. Richard Mitchell, whose 1969 book on the Muslim Brotherhood remains a standard, explained it thus:
"'The nation,' 'the people,' in fact, are the source of all the ruler's authority: 'The nation alone is the source of power; bowing to its will is a religious obligation.' The ruler has no legal existence and deserves no loyalty except as 'he reflects the spirit of the society and is in harmony with its goals.' Banna described the relationship of ruler and ruled as a 'social contract' in which the ruler is defined as a 'trustee' and 'agent'...Since the ruler is the 'agent contracted for' by the nation, he is 'elected' by it."

Not all or even most of the specific systems of government proposed under this framework could be called "democratic," as many involve religious tests for office, limited electorates, and clerical councils with important powers, but the point I make is that for the Brotherhood, there is no break between advocating democracy and core political theory.

In the present context, I'm not even convinced that the Muslim Brotherhood wants to exercise power. It has pledged not to run a candidate for president, which is probably about reassuring those fearful of its influence, but may also cover uncertainty about the effects of actually having responsibility for things on its image and overall message. A further point is that there are several strains of thought within the MB, and I am not certain they will hold together in a common organization without the unifying concern for strength and unity in the face of military government.

If there is a related concern going forward in Egypt, it does not involve the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization, but rather the generally illiberal impulses of Egyptian society. The specific form of Islamic Revivalism involving puritanical intolerant religious ideas has been growing steadily in Egypt for many years. I know its broader context from anthropological studies by Charles Hirschkind and Saba Mahmood, and there is a decent journalistic account by Geneive Abdo. One factor seems to be returning guest workers from Wahhabi Saudi Arabia. Migration from conservative rural areas to the cities is also spreading that conservatism through urban society. Physical manifestations of the movement are seen widely attended unlicensed, often open-air mosques led by independent preachers and the circulation of salafi cassette sermons. Legally, there is a steady drumbeat of court cases involving alleged blasphemy. I expect all these trends to make themselves felt more publicly in a freer political environment.

At the same time, however, it may be that the salafi wave has crested. I suspect it is too soon to proclaim a post-Islamist Middle East, but several factors may gradually reduce its attractions. For one thing, a less corrupt government that spent more on economic and human development could reduce the incentive to become a guest worker in Saudi Arabia. In addition, the moderate clerics favored by Mubarak may no longer suffer from government associations in the court of public opinion.

Most important, however, is the sudden upsurge of new, competing ideologies and paths to dignity and meaning in life. I don't have the materials at hand to provide concrete examples, but I was struck by the way in which the reasons many protesters gave for wanting to participate in the uprising paralleled those of people attending conservative shari'a classes at their local mosque. This passage by Mohammed Bamyeh is kind of what I mean:
"Third, remarkable was the virtual replacement of religious references by civic ethics that were presumed to be universal and self-evident. This development appears more surprising than in the case of Tunisia, since in Egypt the religious opposition had always been strong and reached virtually all sectors of life. The Muslim Brotherhood itself joined after the beginning of the protests, and like all other organized political forces in the country seemed taken aback by the developments and unable to direct them, as much as the government (along with its regional allies) sought to magnify its role.

"This, I think, is substantially connected to the two elements mentioned previously, spontaneity and marginality. Both of those processes entailed the politicization of otherwise unengaged segments, and also corresponded to broad demands that required no religious language in particular. In fact, religion appeared as an obstacle, especially in light of the recent sectarian tensions in Egypt, and it contradicted the emergent character of the Revolution as being above all dividing lines in society, including one’s religion or religiosity. Many people prayed in public, of course, but I never saw anyone being pressured or even asked to join them, in spite of the high spiritual overtones of an atmosphere saturated with high emotions and constantly supplied by stories of martyrdom, injustice, and violence.

"Like in the Tunisian Revolution, in Egypt the rebellion erupted as a sort of a collective moral earthquake—where the central demands were very basic, and clustered around the respect for the citizen, dignity, and the natural right to participate in the making of the system that ruled over the person. If those same principles had been expressed in religious language before, now they were expressed as is and without any mystification or need for divine authority to justify them. I saw the significance of this transformation when even Muslim Brotherhood participants chanted at some point with everyone else for a 'civic' (madaniyya) state—explicitly distinguished from two other possible alternatives: religious (diniyya) or military (askariyya) state."

I remember G'Kar from Babylon 5:
"There is a greater darkness than the one we fight. It is the darkness of the soul that has lost it's way. The war we fight is not against powers and principalities. It is against chaos and despair. Greater than the death of flesh is the death of hopes, the death of dreams. Against this peril we can never surrender. The future is all around us, waiting, in moments of transition, to be born in moments of revelation. No one knows the shape of that future or where it will take us. We know only that it is always born in pain."

President Obama also spoke of the power of human dignity in his speech yesterday afternoon. If that is right, then the future is on the right track.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)



Anonymous First said...

Interesting couple of posts - and yeah, I often find that to best capture a momentus event in history a quote out of Babylon 5 or from Captain Kirk or Mr Spock hits the spot.

About the Muslim Brotherhood, they did very well out of Mubarak's rule without having to challenge him for power. As long as the clerics didn't try to bring him down, Mubarak was ready to go along with a bottom up Islamisation of Egyptian society inspired not just by the Brotherhood but the self confidence among the clerical class. It's almost as if Mubarak was given a free hand in the political sphere while the clerics were given a free hand in the social sphere - if it kept the peace. Abetted by an unsustainable population explosion the result was a deep conservativism and conformity within Egyptian society.

The Brotherhood at the same time benefited from the lack of self confidence of the educated middle & upper middle classes. Given that the educated middle classes led - or at least have been the media focus of - the Tahrir protests one wonders what the consequences of this will be for the MB and co.

7:43 AM  

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