Authenticity is a trait that almost all politicians like to claim one way or another. Whether it is an American presidential incumbent speaking of how he stands for real American values versus his opponent or here in Egypt where a liberal may speak of an Islamist’s lack of Egyptian authenticity by reasoning that Islamist ideas are actually a modern import from Saudi Arabia.
The search for authenticity is perhaps desirable by all humans, even in matters of culture pertaining to say, food. One would like to go to the most authentic Indian restaurant, rather than a restaurant that sprinkles a pinch of spices haphazardly on the food as it cooks.
Many social scientists have produced literature on the “politics of authenticity”. How it is produced and manipulated for political gains is interesting for any observer of political affairs. In Egypt there is a ferocious unspoken fight over cultural authenticity, especially when it comes to Islamists versus liberals.
Islamists perhaps have an easier time claiming this authenticity. Egyptians are Muslim and Islam is universal; it transcends time and place and yet is suitable for all times and places. There is plenty of primary (original) Islamic literature that all Muslims can refer to when a dispute or conflict arises.
But is there an Egyptian liberal authenticity?
Perhaps there are forms of it, though they are not as easy to argue for, as they lean on values and opinions more relative than Islam. This has propelled many opponents of Islam in political life to claim that Islam is also extremely relative to the point that its intrinsic meaning has possible interpretation beyond what collectively Islamists claim.
However people have not always been so gullible in post-modernising Islam. Ironically, in a recent poll on Al Jazeera Arabic website, 91 per cent of those surveyed thought “Arab nationalists, secularists and leftists” were hypocrites, while 8.3 per cent did not. The poll is still ongoing. Arguably this is not a poor indicator.
A few days ago in Maadi, Cairo, there was a “populist conference” by Al-Dostor party. Ironically, one of its leaders started by talking about prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and slammed the recent abusive video that caused the international fiasco we know about, and people chanted Allahu akbar, God is the greatest, as that man scolded those who insult Islam.
Geroge Ishaq, the founder of the Kefaya (enough) movement and currently a leader in Al-Dostor Party, later spoke and about how Shari’a is something that all Egyptians agree upon and cannot argue against. One of the attendees whom I spoke with told me he sent him a question (on a piece of paper) asking, what is the difference between you and Islamists if you both want Shari’a? George just folded the paper and ignored it after reading the question.
Today many liberals try to contest Islamist discourses of authenticity by claiming to support the very same principles and values Islamists advocate. This is clear in the ways many liberal figures spoke before and after the rise of Islamists in the post-revolution parliament. It would be interesting to have a conclusive comparative discourse analysis between both periods.
It seems however that it these embellished speeches are specious and when confronted in talk shows or debates can be elaborated with euphemisms or equivocations. Furthermore, it is doubtful that all of a sudden liberals have seen the light of Islam and want to submit before divine laws. At best, and to any observer, these tactics are Machiavellian. These tactics may bring short-term enthusiasts but in the long-run they will be very damaging to the credibility of those who use them.
Similarly, when Islamists try to root their discourses in concepts eccentric to Islam they usually fail. Part of the crises in Tunis stems from this paradox. While Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have been very smooth together, in Tunis secularised and liberalised Al-Ghanoushi has not been very fortunate with the Salafi movement there.
In plain and simple terms, authenticities are not always reconcilable; one cannot claim to be a secular liberal who also advocates for Shari’a as George Ishaq does, or an Islamists advocating for secular liberalism like Al-Ghanoushi.
Ironically, many Islamic preachers have referred to Al-Dostor Party as a party of antitheists. Before that Maadi conference I mentioned earlier, maghreb (dusk) prayer was led by a young man and the organisers of the conference prayed behind him. He recited the first verses of the second chapter in the Quran which mentions the traits of hypocrites. Adding to the irony, right after the prayer was done, the young man who leads the chants and the young ushers said, “get up you party of antitheists.”
The writer is a columnist at the Egypt-based Daily News, where this article was published on Sept. 30, 2012