Egypt Must Confront Religious Fascism

A question: before the 1980s, were Egyptians less Muslim than they are today? On the contrary, most of them performed their religious obligations as Muslims and as far as possible behaved in a god-fearing manner. So Egyptians were Muslims before Wahabi propaganda reached Egypt. What’s the difference between the moderate Islam of Egyptians and the Islam of the Wahabi sheikhs? The difference is that all Egyptians thought that the essence of Islam lay in the great humanitarian values that Islam promotes: justice, freedom, and equality. But they never thought of using Islam as a political program for coming to power. All Egyptians, except the Muslim Brotherhood, treated Islam as a great religion, not as a political program. From the late 1970s, political Islam began to spread in Egypt with support from Gulf oil money (the price of oil increased several fold after the 1973 war).


Political Islam is promoted through three main ideas. First, the idea that there is a Western imperial conspiracy against Islam that obliges us to declare jihad against western “crusaders.” I disagree with this idea because although some Western governments are imperialist, Westerners are not necessarily so. We saw how millions of Westerners, including some Western governments, objected to the invasion of Iraq and most supported the Arab uprisings in varying degrees. Most Westerners as individuals are not hostile to Islam, and even the Western establishment is not hostile to Islam in itself, but only to anything that obstructs its interests. When Islamic governments act in line with the imperialist interests of the West, it will give them its full support, as in the case of the Saudi government, General Zia ul-Haqq in Pakistan, and the Taliban movement before the West turned against it.


Second, the idea that God’s laws are not being implemented and that we must enforce them, or else we would be infidels. I disagree with this idea because wherever justice is done God’s law is in force, and here we must not confuse sharia with fiqh, the jurisprudence of the sheikhs. Sharia is divine and permanent; fiqh is human and changeable. Specialists in fiqh have to use their intellect to adapt religion to the times to help people in their lives, not to make their lives more difficult and complicated. An example of that is that if the penalty for theft is amputation of a hand, and if the ruler finds that carrying out this penalty will lead to major problems (as happened in Sudan, leading to the secession of the south), doesn’t the ruler have the right to treat amputation as the maximum penalty and use imprisonment as a lesser penalty? Didn’t the caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab suspend the penalty of amputation during a year of famine? If there is a law that does not contravene the sharia and that serves the cause of justice, is not that law sharia-compliant? Doesn’t everything that brings people justice and other benefits enforce God’s law?


The third idea is that Islam imposes on us a particular form of government that we have to follow. Here too I disagree, because Islam laid down the principles for government but did not specify any one system. Let’s read the sermon that Abu Bakr gave when he took office as the first caliph in Islam: “People, I have been given authority over you, but I am not the best of you. If I do the right thing, then help me, and if I do wrong, then set me straight … Whenever any nation ceases to struggle for God’s cause, God reduces them to degradation, and whenever abominations spread among any nation, God always inflicts a scourge on them, so obey me as long as I obey God and His Prophet, but if I disobey God, you owe me no obedience.” This sermon contains the principles of Islamic government. The ruler is no better than the common people and he does not rule by divine right but by the will of the people, who have a right to hold the ruler to account and, if they want, depose him. These are the principles of government in Islam and they are same as the principles of democracy: freedom, equality, a rotation of power and the sovereignty of the people.


In Islamic history, these great principles were put into practice only for a very short period—from about 633 to 662, and about 721 to 723. After that the caliphate turned into a rapacious kingship: the great principles established by Abu Bakr were abandoned and a vicious and bloody struggle for power began. This is a historical fact but it does not diminish in any way the achievements of the Islamic state, because despotic rule was the prevalent characteristic of all states in that period and because, although it was an absolute despotism, the Islamic state made a vast contribution to civilization and was a pioneer in all the sciences and arts. But our pride in the accomplishments of the early Muslims must not lead us to reproduce the despotic system by which they were ruled. At this stage advocates of political Islam confuse history and religion and consider the Islamic caliphate (a human invention not prescribed by religion) as a religious obligation. This dangerous confusion has recurred in every country where political Islam has come to power, giving rise to despotic governments that flout all freedoms and rights in the name of religion. Democracy is the correct way to implement the principles of Islam. If we try to reproduce the political structure of the Umayyad or Abbasid, states we will certainly descend into despotism, however good our intentions.


Even if we differ ideologically with groups advocating political Islam, don’t they have a right to seek power through democratic means? Of course the answer is yes, but here we have to distinguish between democratic groups advocating political Islam and groups of religious fascists. Many supporters of political Islam believe that they alone represent Islam, consider anyone who disagrees with them as hostile to Islam, and are fully prepared to impose their ideas on others by force. Some of them have a long history of attacking churches and tombs, setting fire to video shops, robbing Christian shops, and murdering people such as President Anwar Sadat, foreign tourists, and innocent Egyptians. One only has to see how these fascists deal with Copts and liberals, how they hate and despise them, how they heap insults and accusations on them, and how these fascists talk about what they would do to Egypt if they came to power. There would be no music, no theater, no cinema, and no political parties for those who disagree with them. There would be no tourism and ancient Egyptian monuments would be covered up out of sight. There would be no great literature, because one leading religious fascist said that Naguib Mahfouz, one of the greatest novelists in the world, was responsible for the moral decadence of Egyptians through his indecent writings. Religious fascism threatens to plunge Egypt into total darkness, exploiting the religious sentiments of Egyptians to gain power. If you are an ordinary candidate for office, you try to convince your constituents of your electoral program, but the religious fascists do not offer a program: they tell people, more or less, “If you are Muslims, we are Islam, and if you don’t vote for us, you are secularists and infidels.”


The problem is that religious fascism is not a purely Egyptian creation: it receives masses of oil money. In an important article published in the Middle East Monitor in June 2007, American diplomat Curtin Winsor says that in 2003 it emerged in a Senate hearing that over a twenty-year period Saudi Arabia spent $87 billion to promote Wahabism around the world. To that we must add the billions of dollars spent by nongovernmental Wahabi groups across the Gulf. Wahabi Salafist groups are now spending vast sums in order to gain power, distributing hundreds of tons of foodstuffs at token prices. In fact, one of the Wahabi parties has opened more than thirty offices in the city of Alexandria alone in the last few months. Don’t we, as Egyptians, have a right to know who is financing these parties? It’s strange that the military council, which closely monitors the finances of civil society groups, has not once thought of inspecting the financing of Salafist parties.


The revolution, for which Egyptians gave their blood, faces two dangers: first, the conspiracies by remnants of the old regime to create chaos and obstruct change at any price, in order to turn the revolution into a coup that removed the head of state but left the old system in place; and second, the danger that the fascists will come to power through elections. Since the declared opinion of the Salafi sheikhs is that democracy is not Islamic, since they stood against the revolution and advocate obedience to the ruler, we can expect them to use the democratic system as merely a ladder to power, which they will climb up and then kick away so that no one else can use it. The noble principles of Islam can only be applied through a real civic state open to all citizens regardless of their ideology or religion.

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