Last Updated: Tue Feb 14, 2012 18:30 pm (KSA) 15:30 pm (GMT)

Eman El-Shenawi: Prayer and Parliament ties brew religious chauvinism

Two episodes of parliamentary piousness in the United Kingdom and Egypt have resulted in a debate over prayer during cabinet sessions.  (File photo)
Two episodes of parliamentary piousness in the United Kingdom and Egypt have resulted in a debate over prayer during cabinet sessions. (File photo)

The practice of prayer – or even the odd, outlandish reminder to pray – during seemingly political, secular occasions has been the subject of much debate this week.

When an Egyptian member of parliament last week took it upon himself to recite the Islamic call to prayer while in a televised session, many questioned how far religion had infiltrated political thresholds in Egypt.

Actually, this had been questioned before, many a time, since the country’s recent parliamentary elections resulted in a sweeping majority of Islamist members being voted in at the start of the year. Liberals in Egypt have called it “Parliament with a beard,” in reference to the rows of bearded MPs belonging to Islamist parties.

Nevertheless, the incident jutted from Egypt’s political scene as a defiant show of religious commitment to prayer after the MP, Mahmoud Ismail, said he had called to prayer as a means of protesting the many times prayers are missed while parliament is in session.

And yes, it served as an example of how religious murmurings have been propelled to the surface in recent months across the Middle East in the post-Arab Spring era. But in recent weeks the Arab world has not been the only bastion to project the ever-intertwining religion-politics debates.

Across continents, and a few days later, a show of parliamentary piousness resulted in a United Kingdom government officials considering a ban on prayer during sessions. A law, which officially recognizes prayer at the start of each parliament session, came under scrutiny this week as an atheist ex-councilor said he was “embarrassed and disadvantaged” when prayers were said during council meetings.

During sessions within the country’s both Houses of Parliament, the chaplain begins his prayer with:

“Lord, the God of righteousness and truth, grant to our Queen and her government, to Members of Parliament and all in positions of responsibility, the guidance of your Spirit.”

This, in the words of Giles Fraser, former canon chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, was the creation of an “infectious … discomfort.” Having had to hold prayers before the council meetings himself, Fraser would question “how to compose prayers for a group of people, many of whom may be decidedly uncomfortable with the whole thing?” he wrote in The Guardian.

Religious chauvinism would be at the forefront of the debate here. Regardless of the wording of the prayer and the possibility that it could be used by people of other faiths also because, as Fraser mentions, “There is no Jesus mentioned [in the prayer],” it is time to think further afield.

A no-brainer outcome of prayer to God during session is the offence or discomfort to atheist members of parliament, as has been an argument in Australia; another liberal democracy influenced by Judaeo-Christian tradition and prayer is said in parliament. But more notably, it is the notion that religion somehow has a rightful place in the political practice that brews discord.

To discuss this is not to discuss the separation of church and state but the influence of religion on politics. The truth is that secular political practice will always welcome a religiously chauvinistic attitude from policymakers in non-secular states; dominant, outright beliefs will be said with confidence. While the value of prayer for its mention in parliament will carry both political and ethical weight.

In Egypt, the call for a religious interlude during a parliamentary session did not rouse a “tradition meets secularization” debate as much as it again bolsters a prevalent ideology among Middle Eastern and Western cultures alike that religion is a powerful argument to use in societal challenges. Playing the “right to religious practice” card is on par with more generally using the freedom of speech one, so it has materialized.

(Eman El-Shenawi, a writer at Al Arabiya English, can be reached at:

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