The divisive politics of religion

October 27th, 2012

Published on Al-Ahram weekly online, Editorial, 18 – 24 October 2012.

With the rise to power of the political Islam groups following the Arab Spring revolutions, new questions have arisen concerning the nature of the state and the proper manner of handling public affairs. Religion, too, is being brought into question, as conflicting interpretations surface concerning its role in government. 

Running a country is literally everybody’s business. This is truer today than at any time in the past, for the public at large is now intensely aware of its rights, meaning that we have no reason to fear for the civil nature of the state in the immediate future. Populist politicians may posture to their heart’s content, but in the end people are going to stand up for their rights. As a result, the new political reality that will emerge in this country will be one dictated by the nation as a whole and not by any particular group of politicians.

Regarding religion, which has catapulted many political Islam groups into power, the future is less clear. Thus far, these groups have been using the same tactics in power that they employed in opposition. They have been demanding political support not on the basis of their actions but by virtue of their religious rhetoric. With rival political Islam groups competing for attention, rival versions are now emerging of what they call the true faith, or at least the true Sharia.

Religion is also being used in the face of civil and leftist groups in the hope of discrediting them or alienating them from the public. The pretence is that there is an Islamic identity that we need to protect in every act of the society and state. These are areas of conflict that will have grave repercussions for religion and for its interpretation and societal connotations.

The ideal of a well-rounded economic, political and cultural system inspired by the lofty principles of Islam has always been a rallying call for political Islamists, and never more so than over the past five decades. Now this idea is being portrayed as one of a divine promise, as if all that the Sharia is about is to allow God to take care of daily human concerns.

Without doubt, the references to the Sharia in the constitution and the law are adding fuel to the current situation. It seems that instead of the nation being the source of political authority, the Sharia is becoming the source of all legitimacy. This is a situation that creates frustration on more than one level.

In the early days of Islam, the legitimacy of the ruler was based on a process of selection. He was approved by the nation, or at least by the influential members of society, and this is what allowed him to exercise power without much opposition, at least in theory … //

… If the Muslim Brotherhood wants to improve society through the Sharia, and if the Salafis want to purify people through worship, they are bound to alienate rather than to unite. Political Islamists must not give themselves the right to impose what they think is the true faith, otherwise they risk harming both politics and religion.

Regarding the manner in which the Islamists have been acting in the public sphere, in the elections they have claimed that their programme is the best for Islam. Yet, rival Islamist factions are challenging each other about what should be done in the name of Islam, and meanwhile the public is puzzled or confused.

When the Islamists claim that the identity of the Islamic state is in danger, they are putting not only non-Muslims at risk, but also all other Muslims who think differently.

Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Tunisian Al-Nahda Party, has been so frustrated with criticisms from the Salafis that he has asked them to turn their ire against the secularists instead. This was his solution to the blending of politics and religion — not to seek a middle road, but instead to deepen the schism.

If there is a moral to this story, it is that all politics are contentious, but religious politics are the most contentious of all. The recent clashes in Cairo’s Tahrir Square between the revolutionaries and young people from the Muslim Brotherhood are a case in point. The more the Islamists present themselves as the only defenders of the faith, the more they will divide the country.
(full text).

(See also Two Fridays and beyond).

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