“For those asking from Egypt: None of the choices in the referendum are sinful or in opposition to the sacred law, except voting for something that goes against your convictions in order to attain some worldly gain, or blindly following another person's opinion.” Al-Habib Ali al-Jifri, Yemeni Islamic scholar
It is not Christmas in Egypt this week. Most Egyptian Christians will celebrate Christmas on the 6th of January, as per the Eastern Orthodox calendar. Yet, as 2012 draws to an end, this week is, indeed, still a time when many in Egypt are thinking about religion. The reasons, however, are hardly in keeping with a joyful, holiday spirit. Religion is on Egyptians’ minds at present because they are angry at how it is being used – and how it may yet be abused in the year to come.
Perhaps it was foreseeable. After all, during the constitutional amendments referendum last year, Islamists in the ‘yes’ camp positioned their vote as a ‘yes’ to ‘Islam’. During the parliamentary elections later on in the year, Islamist parties deployed religion as a mobilization tool, and were rewarded by the electorate for doing so.
Nevertheless, something was different in the past few weeks. The reaction to the Egyptian president’s decree divided Egypt, with two very loud camps: those who were deeply opposed to his issuing of it, and those who were in favor. Political polarization is bad enough in any country, let alone one that just went through a revolutionary uprising that was truly a popular movement that was representative of all of Egypt. But this polarization was different – it was deeply sectarian, and on many levels.
In the ‘yes’ camp for the recently passed constitution, there were prominent figures from the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Mohammed Beltagi, arguing that a majority of protestors against President Mursi were Christians. As though that would somehow make a difference – after all, Christian Egyptians are as Egyptian as Muslim Egyptians are. But it was not true in any event: the majority were, as the majority of Egyptians are, Muslims. The point behind his statement, however, was clear: it was a message to declare that this is a Muslim versus Christian battle. Other preacher-supporters of the president, such as Sefwat Hegazi, took the opportunity at pro-Mursi rallies to send a ‘message’ to the Christian Church itself, issuing ‘warnings’. One can assume that his message was hardly a truly spiritually enlightened one; his warnings certainly didn’t imply so.
The sectarian attitude was not limited to Christian versus Muslim polemics, but deeper than that. Supporting the president, and the ‘yes’ vote, became an issue not only of politics – but religion and salvation. This was turned into a vote on ‘Islam’, where the ‘yes’ camp was supporting Islam and the Shariah, with their opponents being, obviously, against both. The most disturbing aspect of this was displayed during a funeral for some supporters of the president who had died in clashes outside the presidential palace. The president’s supporters were described as being in heaven – while the dead of their opponents were in hell. It’s a famous line, coming from the aftermath of a battle in the life of the Prophet, against people who were trying to kill him and destroy Islam. To ascribe the same line to a political skirmish between Egyptians in 21st century Cairo is concerning, to say the least.
But in the midst of this discord, there were also good signs – signs that more level headed and mainstream religious authorities could see potential dangers unfolding, and were taking steps to respond. The Grand Mufti of Egypt, for example, issued a statement where he emphasized “the role of the real religious scholar, which should not be a tool for partisan politics; but, rather, he places himself above these minor political gains and set the interest of the general public as his foremost priority.”
Others also issued warnings. Noted Azhar sheikhs expressed great dismay that Islam would be used in this fashion, and religious authorities further afield agreed. Al-Habib ‘Ali al-Jifri, the Yemeni scholar resident in Abu Dhabi who leads the Tabah Foundation, in response to queries and questions from Egyptian followers, has commented on more than one occasion in public on the worrying trend of irresponsible discourse from radical preachers in Egypt. The Grand Mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa, has also been quite pointed in his criticism with regards to the partisan politicization of religion in general, and has long warned against unqualified, radical religious preachers.
Nevertheless, Egyptians can expect more of this abuse to continue. The populist and sectarian abuse of religion that was so evident in 2012, stands set to continue in 2013. What may be different, however, is the awareness that ordinary Egyptians have in this regard. It will be down to them and civil society at large to engage and combat this phenomenon – for as yet, the government has not even identified it as a problem. Indeed, in many ways, the Muslim Brotherhood benefits from such preachers’ support, even though it might not be guilty of the worst of their discourse.
Religion is an indelible part of Egypt and of the wider Arab world. It will continue to be a part of it, as this revolution continues to unfold. Egyptians will be, in 2013, pushed to make their choices more manifest: do they want a religious atmosphere that is informed by a heterodox, sectarian, toxic, and in large parts, non-Egyptian discourse? Or do they want one that is more indigenous to the country of the Azhar, and to the sophisticated and broad-minded mainstream of its history? By and large, they clearly want the latter – but that will now have to be fought for.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution and the ISPU, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.