Middle EastPolitics

To protect the revolution, overcome the false secular-Islamist divide

By Monday 10 December 2012 No Comments

It is impossible to exaggerate the significance of the momentous events that have drawn global attention to Egypt as its people continue to struggle with the unfolding drama of their revolution.

There are two evidently opportunistic events that have come together to signal a dreadful attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood to claim the entirety of the Egyptian revolution for themselves, pretty much on the same model that the Shia clerics hijacked the Iranian revolution of 1977-1979 – with the crucial difference that Egyptians in their tens of thousands have poured into their streets and are far more alert and vigilant to protect the totality of their revolution than Iranians were more than thirty years ago.

The first event revolves around President Morsi grabbing (and then rescinding) more power than he was granted by the free and fair election that – with a narrow margin – sent him to the presidential palace. The other is the draft constitution that a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Constitutional Assembly, the president’s own political allies, has hastily drafted and put out for referendum.

But the devil is in the details. What is it exactly that we are witnessing? A president that was freely elected suddenly reached for a power grab and placed himself above the rule of law. Egyptians who deeply care for the future of democracy in their homeland poured into their streets and opposed this move. Soon other Egyptians came to their streets too expressing their support and solidarity with their president and his decision which they insisted was only temporary and meant to overcome the obstacles that elements of the old regime were placing on his way to implement the will of the people, the whole point of the revolution. Clashes have ensued; some Egyptians have died in the protests, and many more injured. The blood of these Egyptians is entirely on the hands of Mohamed Morsi, who began this cycle of abuse and mistrust. But the historic fate of the Egyptian revolution is now far more urgent than engaging in a blaming game.

That President Morsi has now rescinded what he had illegally granted himself is a good sign and a victory for the Egyptian revolution. However, that he is proceeding with the referendum on this flawed constitutional draft – flawed so far as the process and thus the outcome is concerned – is a cause of continued concerns for the leading oppositional block who are rightfully suspicious of this half measure. Egyptians thus face Egyptians in a fateful moment in their history. What is the underlying cause of this unfortunate confrontation that if remains unresolved would potentially unravel the entire cause of the Egyptian revolution?

Egyptians versus Egyptians

Both these factions are Egyptians – both had come together to topple the old regime. It is constitutionally wrong to demonise one or the other of these two groups of Egyptians. Much of the US and European news coverage of the events in Egypt is drawing a demonic picture of Egyptians who support Morsi and a heroic image of those opposing him. Underlying this binary is the very old fashioned Islamophobia. The legitimate criticism of President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood and their factionalist power grab must not degenerate into Islamophobia. This is a nasty and debilitating divide, and Egyptians must not fall for it and must think beyond this momentary and false binary between lslamists and secularists.

But how, exactly?
Egypt’s Morsi rescinds controversial decree

The position of the judiciary is a key question here. But so is the nature of the constitutional assembly drafting the constitution, which had already been left by a significant portion of Egyptian representatives. The judges may indeed have had ulterior motives, for some of them may still harbour a nostalgia for the old regime. Being as it may, that assembly that drafted the constitution was not representative of all the revolutionary forces and thus was not democratic, and in fact illegitimate, and so is the constitution they have now put out for a referendum.

The Muslim Brotherhood, perfectly entitled to their fair share in a common vision for the future of Egypt, cannot manhandle an entire nation into voting for a constitution that a politically significant portion of whom have not been part of in its drafting.

The power grab and the draft constitution are being heatedly contested and debated not just in the streets and squares of Egypt but also by Egyptian journalists, essayists, legal scholars, constitutional experts, university professors, public intellectual, in and out of their homeland. Some Egyptians think the draft constitution fair and balanced and perfectly compatible with a democratic nation-state, though admit the flawed political process through which it was drafted, while other Egyptians are taking all sorts of substantive issues with this draft. One prominent Egyptian, the Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei, has already delegated this draft constitution to “garbage can of history”. The fact that ElBaradei is a liberal, or that the US and EU seem to prefer him to others, do not disqualify him and his supporters from their fair share of this revolution.

Morsi and his supporters say that his grabbing more power than he was granted by the people was a temporary measure – and only for a few months. But you cannot abrogate democracy to protect democracy for even a few seconds – no matter how corrupt the judiciary might be or peopled by the elements from the old regime. It is the body of the democracy, its formal structure, and its skeletal vertebrae that must by all means, on this ground zero of Egyptian democratic history, be protected. But why is this simple fact not seen, and what is the underlying cause of the mistrust of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood brothers that underlies all this bloody twist in the Egyptian revolution?

Who is a Muslim?

The battle between some Egyptians and other Egyptians is predicated on a phantom fear – of one group from the other – “lslamists” from “secularists”, and “secularists” from “lslamists”. This false and falsifying binary must be dismantled, immediately.

The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is a political faction, predicated on a political ideology, formed in the course of Arab and Muslim encounter with European colonialism and its domestic extensions, and just happens to have a name that claims Islam for itself. By calling themselves “secular”, the opposition is in fact granting the MB an exclusive claim on Islam, which they categorically lack. Islam, Quran, Sharia, al-Azhar, etc are all false flags raised by the MB to protect their class and ideological interests, thereby manipulating the inner sanctum of millions of Muslim Egyptians for their political purposes, the same (almost identically the same) way that Muslim clergy, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, appropriated the Iranian revolution of 1977-1979 entirely for itself, far beyond their own fair share.

Here at this historic juncture we must rethink Islamic doctrinal history and reconceive the notion of what it means to be a Muslim, to which Islamic law and Muslim jurists have laid a false total claim. Neither Muslim jurists nor Islamic law (with its own varied schools and normative tropes), and certainly no nativist Islamist ideology formed in the course of Muslim encounter with European colonialism, has any prerogative of defining or deciding what it means to be a Muslim. A Muslim philosopher is also a Muslim, a Muslim mystic is also a Muslim, though Muslim jurists have had a historic animosity towards those equally legitimate manners of being a Muslim, or to come to terms with that fact, particularly over the last two hundred years and under colonial duress when they have falsely assumed a disproportionate power and authority to define who is a Muslim and what is Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood today in Egypt is the final product of that colonial development, as the Shia clericalism was the beneficiary of the selfsame development in Iran, and now Egyptians have been given the historic opportunity once and for all to overcome it. By calling themselves “secular” – and even ever so imperceptivity partaking in Islamophobia – the opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood are paradoxically partners in preempting that overcoming.
Tarek Masoud comments on Morsi’s announcement

Muslims – the whole 1.3 billion of them scattered around the globe and affected by their class, gender, or racialised identity, and informed by the juridical, mystical, or philosophical aspects of their collective faith – decide what is “Islamic”, not Islamic law (let alone any clerical order in Iran or a Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – or their kindred souls among the professors of Islamic Studies on North American or Western European university campuses) deciding who is a Muslim. In the crisis that we are witnessing in Egypt these fateful days, we are witness to the dismantling of that misplaced question that has given the MB the false assumption that they are the only Muslims in town, because they aren’t.

In the current bloody battles raging in the streets of Egypt, the false and falsifying divide between the “secularists” and the “lslamists” is glossing over the far more critical issue of citizenship. It is the citizenship rights of Egyptians that are and will have to be debated, and not whether or not these citizens are Muslim or secular. Egypt, just like Tunisia, is on the cusp of overcoming this debilitating and flawed divide between “the secular” and “the religious” – a colonially manufactured divide that has for the entirety of the colonial and postcolonial history divided Muslims to rule them better.

To begin to think of the right of that prototypical citizen, we should not start with the misleading distinction between the “seculars” and “Muslims” but with non-Muslim Egyptians, with Copts, with Jews, and any other so called “religious minority”. That whole notion of “religious minority” must be categorically dismantled, and in the drafting of the constitution the rights of citizenship irrespective of religious affiliation must be written in such solid terms that there is no telling the difference between a Copt, a Jew, or a Muslim, let alone a so-called “secular”, who is also a Muslim under colonial disguise.

The false battle between “the seculars” and “the religious” is disguising the far more critical task of building a free and democratic republic based on the inalienable rights of non-Muslim Egyptians, followers of other religions, who must be the defining moment, the building block, the single most important unit of citizenship right in the new constitution, not that the rights of the so-called “religious minorities” are “recognised” by the magnanimity of the majority, but that the whole notion of majority/minority in religious terms must be categorically dismantled and overcome.

If the most vulnerable is most emphatically protected by the constitution then all citizens’ rights are protected. This is the real issue that the false battle between “the seculars” and “the lslamists” is disguising. The drafting of the constitution must start from the weakest of the weak and not from the most powerful of the powerful – exactly the reverse of what has happened in the writing of this draft constitution when the Muslim Brotherhood has suddenly found itself in position of power. While its presidential representative suspends judicial oversight and leaps to dictatorship, its rank and file parliamentary representative seek to smuggle a constitution that is to their liking and not to the benefit of the most vulnerable Egyptians.

Muslims are all Muslims

When we turn to Muslims as citizens, Muslims are all Muslims, but not all Muslims are Muslim Brotherhood, which has a false claim on being the only Muslims in Egypt, and which seems to forget that it does not even include their own “Sisterhood”.

Egyptians who consider themselves “secular” must in the name of the Egyptian revolution go and claim the mosques for the site of the public sphere and not allow the pubic sphere to be claimed as an extended definition of the mosque as the MB have claimed it. These mosques belong to all Egyptian Muslims – liberals, seculars, socialist, feminists, etc. They must go there and redefine that site, reclaim what belongs to them, and thereby overcome this nasty and debilitating divide between the figments of imagination “Islamist and secular” that we have inherited from our nasty and lingering colonial history.
Egypt divided: Wall being
built around presidential palace

Both sides of this fictitious and fetishised divide are to blame – equally. No one died and made the Muslim Brotherhood the custodians of Islam and the right to define what it means to be a Muslim. There are as many ways to be a Muslim as there are Muslims. The self-described “secularists” should also overcome this ghastly colonial construct and realise once and for all that they too are Muslims – Muslims can be socialists, feminist, nationalist, even atheists, or agnostics, if they so choose to identify themselves. The history of Islam is full of Muslim atheists, agnostics, etc. The term “Muslim” needs to be rescued from the ideologically manufactured, and politically violent juridicalism that defines the Shia clerics and Sunni lslamists alike. Egyptian “secularists”, like all other “Muslim seculars”, need to recognise and overcome their streak of Islamophobia.

Muslims, in the sanctity of their conscience, in the privacy of their heart and the publicity of their normative and moral behaviours will collectively decide what it means to be a Muslim. Egypt, along with the rest of the Arab and Muslim world, is going through magnificent historic changes – and it is the collectivity of Muslims who will eventually decide who and what is a Muslim. This historic eventuality is bound to happen, it is an inevitability, and it is happening as we live these historic days – but the collective and public recognition of this fact can spare much hardship and violence now marring the glory of the Egyptian revolution. Egyptians owe it to themselves, and they owe it to the rest of the Arab and Muslim world to lead the way in this critical moment.

Principled reasoning, not rocks

The only way out of this crisis and this damned bloodshed is dialogue – immediate and unconditional – and for that dialogue to begin, President Morsi’s decision to rescind the power he had granted himself was a necessary but not sufficient move. He must also immediately postpone the date of the referendum in order for the constitutional assembly to reconvene and include all Egyptian factions and resolve all the pending issues before it is sent to Egyptian people to vote. In that reconvened assembly, Egyptians who think themselves “secular” must abandon the false anxiety of that colonial designation and enter into a dialogue with their own Muslim brothers and sisters.

Meanwhile if Netanyahu and his Zionist supporters in Washington, DC think by bombing Gaza and tickling Morsi towards this power grab they have thrown a monkey wrench at the Egyptian revolution and the Arab Spring, they have another thing coming. Egyptians will triumph over this obstacle and will emerge stronger through it, and bankrupt ideologies – from the militant Islamism of Ayman al-Zawahiri to the violent Zionism of Binyamin Netanyahu – will not benefit from that triumph.

Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.  His most recent book is Being a Muslim in the World (Palgrave 2013).


Hamid Dabashi

Hamid Dabashi

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. His Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism is scheduled for publication by Zed in May 2012.