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The New Year

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Dr. H.A. Hellyer

Dr. H.A. Hellyer

On New Year’s Day, the Dar al-Ifta’ al-Misriyyah declared that 13 January would be the anniversary of the Prophet’s birthday in Egypt. It seems awfully fitting that at the dawn of 2014, this official government body would be in the fortuitous position of making that declaration – particularly as it means that the Prophet’s birthday this year follows Orthodox Christmas only by a few days. Certainly there might be opportunities for religious dialogue and furthering understanding – but there is a pertinent question to be asked alongside that. Will 2014, and another year since the birth of the Prophet, be one where all might stop using religion, and the message of Islam in particular, for partisan gain?

Early on in the post-Mubarak transition, the phrase ‘tujjar al-deen’ (‘traders of religion’) was heard, describing Islamist supporters who used religion to justify partisan political positions. Vote this way, support this candidate – and you will be supporting Islam. Vote that way, support that candidate – and you will be supporting the enemies of Islam. Even after the Islamists of the Brotherhood have been driven from power, one can still see on Brotherhood-supported media the same sort of discourse. That discourse which so shocked Egyptians during former president Morsi’s rule – the discourse that claimed one party’s supporters were in heaven, and another party’s supporters were in hell – implied  their conflicts were in some way similar to those during the Prophet’s own time. The symbolism of such a comparison, in a country so driven by religious identity as Egypt, ought not to be underestimated.

Of course, at the time, partisans of the then-Islamist government were not particularly energised to condemn such wanton use of religion for partisan gain. Their opponents, of course, were enraged – with good cause, one might add. Whether one believes in religion or not, even a non-believer can respect the notion that if religion is sacred to people, it ought not to be used for base, partisan, political benefit. Otherwise, it runs the risk of becoming besmirched & debased in the public arena, rather than serving as a force for moral virtues in society at large, if such is the purpose.

As the Prophet’s birthday draws closer, therefore, it is fitting to note – is it only Islamists of the Brotherhood and the Salafi parties who have opted to use religion in the public arena for political gain? Or have others as well? With the ouster of Mohamed Morsi, one might assume that a new type of “identity politics”, and new “traders” were at work – the “traders” of nationalism. Much has been written thus far about the use of patriotism in its basest form in recent months, to the point of driving such mass hysteria, even a puppet can be the cause of a formal and official investigation. But it is also religion that has been deployed – not just nationalism. Of course, it continues to be used by the Islamist camp – that has to be expected, and its usage follows a pattern.

Yet, by even the anti-Brotherhood camp, supporting the military-backed interim government, Egyptians have seen religious figures and religious establishments taking partisan positions, and deploying religious arguments. The former mufti of Egypt, rightly renowned for his religious learning by many in Egypt and beyond, has been very clear in his full backing of the state’s military forces and the interim government’s positions – and he has used religious arguments to justify and promote his political positions. On a political level, he has backed the constitutional draft that is due to go to referendum in the next few days, and he has encouraged the rallying of Egyptians behind a presidential run of General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. The imam of the Omar Makram Mosque, located on the edges of Tahrir Square, was once described as the ‘sheikh of Tahrir Square’, and recently described the Brotherhood as ‘waging war against God and the Prophet’. Even official institutions, such as the Ministry of Religious Endowments, have engaged in the debate – only last week, the ministry declared that Friday, 3 January would see sermons about “betrayal of the nation”.

Some might argue – is it not the responsibility of religious leaders to engage? Do not they, just as any other part of civil society, have the right to express themselves and be heard as citizens? Well, they might indeed. Sheikh Emad Effat, the “Martyr of the Azhar”, who was killed in 2011 in the midst of clashes with the military (for which no one has been held accountable), certainly expressed himself. He was often at protests, which were in themselves political positions – but he never came to them in religious garb. When he participated in such events, he did not go as a representative of religion or its dictates, but as a private citizen, never in his religious Azhari garb, and acted according to his conscience. He adhered, of course, to religious injunctions as he saw them, but he did not present his political positions as religious ones that ought to be followed, in accordance with his status as a religious authority.

In a month when Orthodox Christmas and the birthday of the Prophet are celebrated, one can recall with approval religious figures that engaged vigorously for society at large – sometimes even with the sword. The likes of Omar al-Mukhtar, the hero of the Libyan resistance against Italian fascism; the Algerian, Abdel Qadiral-Jaza’iri, eventually exiled by the French; and the list can go on. On the contrary, all great religious leaders have participated in society at large. History especially looks fondly at the civil society contributions of those religious figures that “spoke truth to power”. In a contemporary example, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, for example, spoke forcefully against the government of South Africa when it implemented apartheid. But one would have been disappointed if the archbishop had supported, for example, one candidate over another in presidential elections in South Africa – for that would hardly been speaking truth to power. It would simply have been political partisanship.

In this month of religious celebration and remembrance in Egypt, at the dawn of a new year, in a region that values religious identity greatly, religious leaders ought not to be encouraging the politics of polarisation. Rather, one would hope they would teach the difference, clearly between that kind of incendiary partisanship, and speaking truth to power. It is the latter, and not the former, that this region – and this country – needs more than ever.

About the author

Dr H.A. Hellyer

Dr H.A. Hellyer

Dr H A Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs, and relations between the Muslim world and the west. Fellow at ISPU, he was previously senior practice consultant at Gallup, and senior research fellow at Warwick University. Find him online @hahellyer and www.hahellyer.com .


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