Do They Represent Islam or Only Themselves?

04/10/2012 11:33 am ET | Updated Jun 10, 2012

What would you do if found out that someone you've been dealing with is a liar? When he makes a promise, he doesn't fulfill it and when he says something, it turns out that the truth is the opposite of what he's said. The result is that you would completely lose trust in this liar. But if this liar were wearing a white gown, had a beard, bore a prominent prayer-mark on his forehead, and presented himself as an Islamic preacher working to establish God's law -- in that case matters would become more complicated. In that case the crime committed by this spokesman for God should be doubled -- once because he lied and again because he has set a bad example to Muslims.

In Egypt what happens is the opposite: those who speak in the name of Islam, however much they lie, break their promises or are implicated in scandals, will always find people to defend them and look for excuses for them. Their defenders are not idiots or stupid: they consider those who speak in the name of Islam to be part of Islam, so to talk about their mistakes or their lies would seem an unacceptable attack on Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood has broken all their promises. They gave a pledge to run for only a quarter of the seats in the People's Assembly and then ran for all of them, and during the elections committed all kinds of electoral irregularities, from buying votes to tarnishing the reputations of their rivals through malicious rumors and disputes of their faith. They gave a pledge to write the constitution in partnership with other political forces, and then they broke their pledge and monopolized the committee that will write the constitution. They repeatedly promised they wouldn't field a presidential candidate, and as usual broke their promise and chose Khairat el-Shater as their candidate.

In recorded speeches, many Salafists sheikhs stood against the revolution, called on demonstrators to go back home and declared disobedience to Hosni Mubarak to be haram. Some of them even declared democracy, elections and the rotation of power to be haram. But when the revolution succeeded they backtracked, changed their tune, set up parties and went into elections. This reversal of position, with no convincing basis in Islamic law, shows they were lying in at least one situation, either when they said democracy was haram or when they endorsed it in order to come to power. If any other political group had committed such ethical offenses they would have lost people's respect, but many Muslims think that the Brotherhood and the Salafists represent Islam and so find it hard to condemn them whatever mistakes they make and whatever scandals they are implicated in.

This spurious veneration of individuals has nothing to do with Islam, and is in fact the opposite of the Islamic injunction that all individuals, however exalted their status, should be held to account for their mistakes.

The first two caliphs, Abu Bakr and Omar ibn al-Khattab were among the most important and closest companions of the Prophet Muhammad, but people criticized them openly and vociferously. They took the criticism in good heart, tried hard to defend their decisions and were quick to apologize if they made mistakes. Perhaps the difference between the culture that allows criticism of the caliph and the culture that bans disobedience of the ruler and treats sheikhs as sacred and immune from criticism is the same as the difference between periods of renaissance and periods of decline in Islamic history; the difference between a true understanding of religion and a false one that comes close to revering individuals as infallible.

Exploiting the religious feelings of simple people has always been a tool in the hands of despots. In 1882, when Ahmed Oraby mobilized the Egyptian army to defend Egypt against the British invasion, the English advised the Ottoman sultan, as the caliph of Muslims, to issue a fatwa asserting that Oraby had violated the tenets of Islam, and unfortunately this fatwa influenced ordinary Egyptians and was one of the reasons why the Oraby revolution failed. In 1798 the French army came under Napoleon Bonaparte to occupy Egypt. Bonaparte was an atheist but he wanted to exploit the religious feelings of Egyptians, so he propagated rumors that he had converted to Islam. He wore Oriental clothes, led Friday prayers at the mosque and immediately on arrival in Cairo he issued an extraordinary proclamation to Egyptians, starting with "In the Name of God..." and other religious formulas. "Inhabitants of Egypt!" it said, "The French are true Muslims. Not long since they marched to Rome, and overthrew the Throne of the Pope, who excited the Christians against the professors of Islamism."

In this way the religious feelings of simple people have been exploited time after time in the interests of unjust and despotic rulers. A true understanding of religion does not confer sanctity on people, whatever their status: it entrenches the great humanitarian principles of freedom, justice and equality. History teaches us that when men of religion are revered and elevated above the rest of humanity, religion soon changes from a positive human force pushing societies towards freedom and progress, into a reactionary tool that leads to despotism.

Perhaps that's what Omar Suleiman, the vice president to deposed President Hosni Mubarak, understood when he drew up a plan to thwart the Egyptian revolution, a plan that the military council later carried out in full. Omar Suleiman allied himself early with the Muslim Brotherhood because he was confident they could exploit people's religious feelings and recruit them for whatever political objective the Brotherhood chose. On February 4, 2011, before Mubarak stepped down, Omar Suleiman had a meeting with the Muslim Brotherhood, after which Saad el-Katatni, who is now the speaker of the People's Assembly, came out and said that Suleiman had spoken objectively, there was a conspiracy to set the country on fire and the Brotherhood had a duty to help Mubarak's vice president tackle the conspiracy. Katatni said he had agreed with the vice president on ending the state of emergency and holding consultations with the demonstrators to clear Tahrir Square, amend the constitution and hold syndicate elections.

In other words, when the Brotherhood was reassured that it had served its own interests, it supported Omar Suleiman, ignored the demands of the revolution for a new constitution and showed it was ready to persuade the demonstrators to leave the squares. From the beginning the Muslim Brotherhood has put their political interests ahead of the objectives of the revolution. If any other Egyptian politician did that, public opinion would treat him as a traitor to the revolution, but the Brotherhood has found people to defend their deal because in the eyes of many they represent Islam and cannot be criticized.

Under the deal the Brotherhood and the Salafists worked on behalf of the military council and convinced people that endorsing the constitutional amendments was a religious duty for every Muslim. They claimed that rejecting the amendments would represent a plot against Islam, led by Copts and secularists, as well as communists who hate religion. So the referendum on the constitution became a religious battle between believers and infidels, and Egypt lost a historic opportunity to write a new constitution that would have ensured a democratic state built on sound foundations. The Military Council rejected the idea of a new constitution because it would have led to the overthrow of the Mubarak regime, which they have fought hard to defend. Unfortunately, since the revolution, the Brotherhood and the Salafists have become the political wing of the military. Many Egyptians approved the constitutional changes without knowing what they meant, as indicated by Article 28, which gives the commission supervising elections immunity from appeal and which will no doubt be used to rig the elections.

Many Egyptians are now objecting to this shameful article without realizing that it was among the constitutional amendments they approved in the referendum when they thought they were defending Islam. I remember that on referendum day I went to vote and because there was a long queue I got into conversation with the man standing next to me.

"Are you going to vote for the amendments?" he asked me.

"I'm going to vote against because after the revolution we have to write a new constitution," I said.

"I'm going to vote in favor."

"Why?"

"Because Sheikh Mohamed Hassan asked us all to vote yes."

Irritated, I said, "Forgive me, but you really should make up your own mind."

The man smiled and said, "Sheikh Hassan understands a hundred times better than me. Who am I to disagree with Sheikh Hassan?"

No doubt there are thousands of Egyptians who act like this. They turn off their brains (the opposite of what Islam advocates), and submit to whatever their favorite sheikh says. They become fiercely loyal to their sheikh and dismiss the opinions of other major clerics such as Mohamed Abduh and al-Ghazali if they contradict the views of their own. They even viciously attack anyone who criticizes their sheikh. Try going on the Internet and criticizing the views of one of the Salafi or Brotherhood sheikhs. The sheikh's followers will quickly hit back with a barrage of vulgarities and vile insults. The people insulting you are sincere Muslims and they may even be polite people in daily life, but they see you as simply an enemy of religion because you dare to criticize their sheikh, who in their opinion represents religion itself. In his Friday sermons Sheikh Mahallawi in Alexandria always says the liberals and the leftists are all enemies of religion, and when one of the people praying objected to this term the sheikh had him thrown out of the mosque (which is the house of God). Sheikh Mahallawi then stated his opinion clearly. "Anyone who hates me hates Islam, which I want to apply."

This mistaken concept of religion, which leads to the veneration of sheikhs, was the decisive factor in the deal between the Brotherhood and the military. Whether it's a matter of constitutional amendments, a presidential candidate or anything else, the Brotherhood and the Salafists will turn it into a religious vote. There will be the view of the sheikhs, which is necessarily the view of Islam, and the view of those who disagree, who are all enemies of religion. In that way a political debate becomes a religious conflict under an intense barrage of lies and fallacies, and the Military Council ensures the results it wants without having to fix the ballot boxes as Mubarak used to do.

But no one can deceive all the people all the time. The Military Council's alliance with the Brotherhood and the Salafists, now looks clearer and uglier than ever before. Egyptians have started to realize that the Brotherhood and the Salafists do not represent Islam, but only themselves. Islam calls on us to judge people by fixed principles, and not to let others define what is right. The Egyptian revolution, after all the betrayals and the conspiracies against it, has indeed faltered and foundered, but it is still strong and alive. The revolution continues and will triumph, God willing, to lead Egypt into the future it deserves.