Reviving religious discourse has been one of the central issues that occupied public dialogue in Egypt during the past few months. Massive efforts and resources are poured into this subject, whether from state or non-state actors equally. Conferences were organised, workshops were held, publications were issued and research papers were written addressing this one topic: reviving religious discourse. I do not intend to question the purpose of all those efforts, for they are both crucial and timely, I only wish to speculate about the efficiency and significance of those efforts as they relate to the notion of religious revival in its abstract sense.
Perhaps the most essential question to begin with is why are we talking about reviving religious discourse in the first place, and to what do we owe the sudden massive interest? It is no secret that the president has clearly stated the necessity to revive religious discourse last January before a group of religious scholars and Ministry of Endowments officials, and has reaffirmed this request last April. It is also no secret that in the present day as well as throughout the history of modern Egypt, state institutions do not exhibit this level of enthusiasm and engagement unless an executive recommendation and/or order form the head of state is issued; and that in itself is one of the major dimensions of the dilemma.
If reviving religious discourse is approached as a response to a politically motivated executive order, then it is highly unlikely that any tangible result will ever be reached. It is true that Egypt is facing a serious challenge from terrorist entities that use Islam as a foundational ground and an ideological framework, but the question is, to what extent is today’s pattern of terrorism a religious phenomenon rather than a political one? In other words, is modern day terrorism a matter of some radical interpretations of Islamic texts and jurisprudence that encourage a violent course of action in the name of religion, and therefore the solution is to re-examine the religious discourse in order to filter these violent and radical sentiments, or is it a matter of a closed political environment and a set of repressive legislations that incriminate peaceful political organisation and non-violent opposition, and therefore the solution is empowering democracy, transparency, accountability and civil rights? In fact, today’s terrorism is a bit of both, religious radicalisation and political repression, and hence, in order to effectively address the phenomenon we cannot detach one issue from the other. Therefore, asking why we are discussing reviving religious discourse at this specific moment goes a long way to explaining the how.
So how do we reach religious revival? It is important here to be aware of the significant difference between reviving religious discourse and reviving religion itself, or in other words, the difference between religion and discourse. Reviving the discourse does not entail any alterations of sacred texts, simply because the “discourse” is not merely what the text says, it is rather the body of ideas emanating from the text and the power dynamics of their implementation and enforcement. Therefore, the question of who is responsible for reviving religious discourse is closely connected to the question of how it should be revived.
Is religious revival the sole responsibility of religious institutions? The most spontaneous and common answer is “yes”. In fact, most Egyptians, regardless of how specialised they are in social, political or religious issues, will look to the Azhar as the institution with the most crucial (and perhaps the only) role in reviving Islamic religious discourse. But with all due respect to the institution that dates back centuries, its track record in dealing with new ideas and revival or modernising initiatives is not the most encouraging. The Azhar until today still revolves around the debate between heritage and modernisation, a conflict that Islamic scholars have entertained since ancient Greek philosophy was first translated to Arabic back in the 10th century. And it is indeed fine for that conflict to endure inside the Azhar, the same way it has endured in all religions and religious institutions, but can the Azhar manage to assume its role in religious revival while it lacks the independence to assimilate its own domestic differences and the open-mindedness to constructively use its internal debates and disputes? Only when religious institutions are no longer subservient to the state can they proceed with their role in reviving the religious discourse in its abstract sense, free from the grip of political considerations.
This is not an attempt to exclude the Azhar and other religious institutions in Egypt, whether Muslim or Christian, from the process of religious revival. On the contrary, the role of religious institutions in this matter is vital and imperative. However, the monopoly of religious institutions over reviving the discourse must be stopped. Reviving religious discourse is not the sole responsibility of religious institutions; it is a societal matter that requires joint effort and cooperation between religious, cultural, educational and even media institutions. The behavioural aspects so inherent within the notion of “discourse” itself cannot be detached from concomitant social, cultural and political dimensions. Therefore, if what we are looking for is a process of revival that goes beyond reinterpretation of the text, then all the previously mentioned institutions must play roles of equal importance and priority.
Reviving religious discourse must be handled separately as an issue related to society as a whole and to an ongoing long-term process of its improvement. But resorting to religious revival as a tool to face a set of political challenges will yield nothing other than futile debates and unpractical recommendations. Religious revival must be based on critical thinking rather than mechanical procedure.
Ziad A. Akl is senior researcher and webpage managing editor of the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies