Global Currents article

The Islamic Call for a Free Egypt

When the Arab Spring began earlier this year, first in Tunis and then in Egypt, many in the West felt sympathetic. It was people power, after all, that rallied against longtime dictators, asking for the very democracy that the West cherishes so much.

But What If the “Bad Guys” Take Over?

But other people in the West saw a risk in this historic moment: What if the initially democratic Arab Spring would be a midwife to a series of Islamist dictatorships? The deposed dictators of Tunis and Egypt were unmistakably authoritarian, but they were also secular, while their opponents included religiously motivated parties like the Muslim Brotherhood. So, what if these Islamists took advantage of democracy to establish their own dictatorships? What if these “bad guys,” as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reportedly put it in a recent meeting in Washington, emerged triumphant instead of the “good guys”?

I am very familiar with this democracy-is-dangerous-for-Muslims argument, for it has been used in Turkey, my country, for decades. The Kemalists, the ideological followers of Turkey’s secularist founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, found the imagined legitimacy of their authoritarianism in their secularism. In other words, a bit like the medieval “divine rights of kings,” we were subjected to the undivine rights of Kemalists, deriving from their supposed access to “science and reason.”

The people who buy this argument often make two crucial assumptions. The first one is that secular people and their parties, by definition, must be more liberal. But there is hardly any empirical evidence to believe so. (Just look at Turkey, and see how the Kemalists have behaved badly with regards to free speech or minority rights, as I explained here.)

The second, and perhaps more credible, assumption is that a political view inspired by religion, and particularly Islam, must be authoritarian. There are, of course, various examples to support that view, but there are examples to the contrary as well.

The Pro-Democratic Grand Imam?

One of the latter came recently from none other than Ahmed al-Tayyeb, The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Cairo, one of the top centers of Islamic learning in the world. In a news conference that made its way to global headlines, the grand imam called for “the establishment of a modern, democratic, constitutional state” in Egypt, based upon the separation of powers and guaranteeing equal rights to all citizens. He also urged “the protection of places of worship for the followers of the three monotheistic religions” and considered “incitement of confessional discord and racist speech as crimes against the nation.”

In the same declaration, Imam al-Tayyeb also said that the principles of sharia, or Islamic law, should remain “the essential source of legislation,” while Christians and Jews should have their own tribunals. (Perhaps like the “millet system” of the Ottoman Empire, in which various religious communities were subject to their own laws.)

I am sure that the advocacy of Islamic law here will ring many alarm bells. But it should be noted that Islamic law is already a part of legislation in Egypt. Moreover, there is no problem in deriving laws from a tradition (whether that be Islamic, Roman or “Common”), as long as the tradition is reformed to cope with modern human rights standards. So, Al-Azhar will perhaps need to revisit some problematic aspect of classical Islamic law — such as the bans on apostasy or blasphemy — for Egypt really to become a “modern, democratic, constitutional state” with shariah as its “essential source of legislation.”

Beyond the False Choice between Secularism and Islamism

Such a synthesis between democracy and Islam is not only possible. It is also the most promising path for the future of the Muslim world. To see why, the Westerners and the Muslim secularists who are obsessed about keeping the Islamic pious out of the game should understand that this very exclusion has led to more radical forms of political Islam.

In other words, the modern Middle East has been haunted by two fiercely opposing yet similarly illiberal trends: secular authoritarianism versus Islamist authoritarianism. Epitomized by dichotomies such as the Shah versus Khomeini, or Nasser (and Mubarak) versus the Muslim Brotherhood, these two extremes have created a vicious cycle, which blurred the evolution of democracy, in which natural aspirations of the Middle Eastern peoples, including those of the Islamic pious, could have been answered.

The key question is whether this vicious cycle can be broken, and whether Muslim nations can find their own way to freedom. Voices from the Arab Spring, such as that of Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb, and recent success stories such as Turkey, in which a party with Muslim values (the incumbent Justice and Development Party) fosters economic progress and democratic reform, are examples which claim “yes!” We just need more of them.

Mustafa Akyol
Mustafa Akyol is a Turkish journalist and the author of the books The Islamic Jesus (St. Martin's Press, February 2017) and Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty (W.W. Norton, July 2011).

One thought on “The Islamic Call for a Free Egypt

  1. Thank you for this insightful post, Mustafa Akyol. I am especially drawn to your recognition that the Grand Imam in Cairo supports both a constitutional democracy and the essential role of Islamic law within society. Your conclusion following from this that the synthesis is “the most promising path” seems right to me. As you point out, this will undoubtedly be a cause of grave concern for most Westerners whose conception of religious freedom necessitates the non-establishment of religion. But if one considers the development and struggle of religious freedom in the context of the United States, for example, it need not be so threatening. One finds that blasphemy laws and enforcement of Christian morals were very much indicative of the early debates as they are to some degree even today. The debate between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson thoroughly analyzed in John Witte’s God Joust, God’s Justice, offers an important point here. Adams, against Jefferson, supported a view of religious freedom for private citizens under a single public (or civil) religion that could better defend the moral robustness of a culture and avoid a kind of decadence that is not far from those criticisms leveled by Muslims (and Christians) against certain Western, secular values.

    Finally, your reference to the “millet system” as a possible multi-jurisdictional strategy to deal with the reality of legal pluralism is intriguing. I wonder if you have any thoughts about whether or not a system like that today might be operative in Malaysia. However, the key question for me remains: how are “heretical” Muslims going to fare under such a system?

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