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Egyptian Religion: A New Chapter?

Egypt has just seen its first Ramadan with an elected, civilian president. Political events aside (and there have been many, quite important ones at that), its been an interesting month to see the way that religion has interacted with the public sphere. In several ways, religion has been evident in the public arena in a way it hasn't quite been before.

As we look at all of that, it's important to keep a few things in mind. With regards to this president: he is, after all, an Islamist president. He comes from an Islamist political party that is not particularly discreet about being as such -- so, it's not particularly unusual that he would utilize religious discourse to engage the citizenry. Indeed, a third of his first 100 days in office were in the month of Ramadan, the most holy month in the Muslim calendar: for an Islamist president not to engage in religious rhetoric in some way during such a period would probably have been met with accusations of hypocrisy. The Muslim Brotherhood is not exactly known for being subtle about religion, after all.

Additionally, of course, many political leaders in democracies around the world do use religious discourse on occasion (including in the United States, most prominently). Religion in politics, it seems, is not peculiar or unique to Egypt, in and of itself.

Nevertheless, one might hope, based on the continual exhortations of the Muslim Brotherhood, religion advocates wisdom. Egypt is not simply Muslim, but Coptic Christian as well. That's a community that is part and parcel of the Egyptian fabric, and over the past year, has felt more and more targeted, particularly in the rise of purist Salafi political activity. It does not require much in the way of wisdom to perceive that delivering religious speech after religious speech on national TV, often in religious environments (like mosques or on religious occasions) might not exactly reassure them as to the equality of their citizenship.

One might also wonder about the engagement of the new Islamist presidency with the existing religious establishment: Azhar University, the office of the Grand Mufti and the Ministry of Endowments (which administers many of the mosques in Egypt). Egypt has historically been firmly attached to a particular Sunni religious heritage, exemplified in what is described as the 'Azhari approach.' It's an approach that is ecumenical, pluralistic, and is considered to be thoroughly mainstream within the Muslim world (unlike the purist Salafism that originates in Saudi). In the new governmental cabinet, selected by the newly appointed Prime Minister of President Morsi, there is a new minister of endowments -- and it seems there was a bit of a tussle for the position, which resulted in other than a representative of the 'Azhari approach' being selected. The first nominee was a hard-core, purist Salafi preacher, and then after pressure from Azhar, it seemed that a scholar close to the present Shaykh al-Azhar (the most senior scholar in the Azhari educational hierarchy) had been chosen. Hours before the swearing in of the cabinet, another scholar was chosen -- one who sits on the board of a Salafi charitable organization.

Why the change? Is this indicative of the country's new leadership aiming for a gradual top down change within the religious establishment? Is the next Mufti going to be, likewise, someone who takes Egypt away from its Azhari, mainstream Sunni heritage, and moves towards a more Saudi style of purist Salafism? Is the final target the office of the Shaykh al-Azhar, in which case, the repercussions affect not only Egyptians, but the many hundreds of thousands from around the Muslim world who come to study in Azhar?

Finally, there is the direct use of religion for clearly partisan and political ends. At a recent conference in Cairo, a preacher from the north east of the country, Imam Hashem, announced a religious verdict (fatwa) with regards to an imminent protest due to take place this week on the 24th of August. The protest, aimed at criticizing the new Islamist president, is being supported by several anti-Islamist forces -- Imam Hashem declared that those who participated in the protest would be guilty of high treason and brigandry, and ordered that the Egyptian people at large go out to oppose the protestors. If the protestors resisted, and there was bloodshed, then those who resisted would be in paradise, while the protestor's families should not be compensated.

Its not incredibly unsurprising that in the aftermath of his statements, the Ministry of Religious Endowments, as well as the Azhar University contradicted the preacher's claim that he had any connection to the Azhar University, beyond the fact that he is a graduate, and that his opinion was not to be given attention. The Muslim Brotherhood, to which President Morsi belongs, also rejected the fatwa.

In the aftermath of the delivery of this fatwa, I contacted a scholar at the Tabah Foundation in the UAE -- a scholar who had earned his specialist license to deliver fatwas from senior scholars in the Azhari establishment, including the Grand Mufti of Egypt himself. It was an interesting exchange, considering that this scholar, Shaykh Musa Furber, is not an Egyptian, and has no particular political partisan viewpoint on Egyptian politics. Throughout the conversation, he was concerned, as one might expect, with the standards of discourse in the community of his peers.

He did not seem particularly impressed. As we discussed the nature of the fatwa, how it was delivered, and what was contained therein, he made it clear that a basic understanding of the rules of issuing religious verdicts would have halted this preacher from delivering anything of this manner. Protests, in and of themselves, could never be considered as high treason or anything of the sort. Even if they were, the verdict would have to delivered, as non-binding advice, to the state authorities responsible for maintaining law and order -- not to the 'Egyptian people,' thus encouraging vigilantism. In issuing a statement in this fashion, the preacher was encouraging less law and order, not more, and civil strife. The 'fatwa,' as Shaykh Musa described it, was null and void, and the Azhar should consider re-evaluating Imam Hashem's credentials, if he had them.

The question that remains, however, is whether or not this is a good development, or a bad one? If we look at the glass as somewhat half full, then perhaps it is a good one, as that the Azhar and the Ministry of Endowments (led, as mentioned, by a Muslim Brotherhood sanctioned appointee) both rejected the statement, and are trying to bring in Imam Hashem for questioning over his views. As such, one hopes, such unsavory statements in the future posing under the cloak of religion shan't be left unchallenged in the new Egypt.

Of course, any individual can engage in discourse -- but statements that are akin to incitement to violence are generally not protected under the law. Moreover, when Imam Hashem spoke, he did so (wittingly or not) as a representative of the Azhar establishment -- an establishment that, whether it likes it or not, has a particular responsibility in the new Egypt. There is a consensus in Egyptian society, both on the grassroots as well as within political parties, that Azhar should be the reference point for Islam in Egypt (even while motivations for this may vary). If that is the case, then Azhar has a responsibility to protect its brand, especially if that brand is being used to promote political positions.

What is furthermore intriguing, however, is the response of the non-religious and non-Islamist in all of these episodes. It was, of course, predictable that many of the non-Islamist sections of Muslim society in Egypt were unimpressed with President Morsi's use of religious discourse to engage in the public arena. They're incredibly unenthusiastic about religion being used by the Muslim Brotherhood for partisan ends. But they're not consistently against the engagement of religion.

When the purist Salafi parties became more engaged in the political arena, many within these sections of Egyptian society were very vocal in their calls for the Azhar, as the mainstream Islamic viewpoint of Egypt, to engage more vigorously in Egyptian public life. Their response to purist Salafism wasn't less religion -- rather, it was more religion, but from a more mainstream perspective. There was no real attempt from any quarter to not even have, for example, a minister of endowments responsible for any religious administration, which you might have expected from hard-core secularists. When Imam Hashem made his comments, it was a committed anti-Islamist campaigner for Mubarak's last Prime Minister, who insisted the Azhar get involved in the fray. There continues to be no real political movement aimed at removing mentions of religion in the constitution -- only about how it is mentioned. The new center-left political party of al-Baradei, Hizb al-Dostour, which one might have assumed to be secularist in orientation, saw no contradiction in handing out flyers about its party at prayers.

That is Egypt. In fact, it is probably the Arab world. It isn't that the Arabs at large are Islamists -- they are not, and it would be a mistake to characterize them as such. Nevertheless, religion in Egypt in particular, and in the wider Arab region, is very important to the local population. It always has been, and it will doubtlessly continue to be so.

The question is, how is it going to be utilized, and how will people be mobilized along its lines? Will it continue to be utilized within the domain of identity politics? Will it impact more on legislation? How will different political groups and personalities react and engage with it? None of this is certain in the flux that continues to characterize post-Mubarak Egypt -- but it is clear that there are bound to be challenges to Egyptian notions of secular, liberal, secularism and liberalism, along the way.

Dr. H. A. Hellyer is a Cairo-based analyst is on the MENA region, and was previously at Gallup, the Brookings Institution, and Warwick University. Follow him on @hahellyer and hahellyer.com.