The secular state

Youssef Rakha plays the devil’s advocate

When news began to seep through cyberspace of a church burning in Imbaba, the workshop had already been planned. It was to be held at the Kotobkhan Bookshop in Maadi and presided over by May El-Telmissany, the Ottowa-based writer and academic who has been the topic’s greatest champion since Mubarak stepped down.
A two-day affair involving activists (to be) from various walks of life and a range of localities across Egypt, Telmissany’s Civil State Workshop would discuss ways to promote just that: the civil – v. Islamic – state as a constitutional touchstone and a governance model for Egypt. It strikes me in retrospect that ad-dawlah al-madaniyyah, the Arabic term used here as elsewhere to describe that philosopher’s stone of Arab politics, could just as easily be pitted against the military state, which is what we have had, de facto, so far.
The civil state has been one of the principal causes adopted by the predominantly secular intellectual community, whose interest in spreading the word about its importance may have more to do with where they personally stand than with any holistic vision for the future of the country – not that the country will be better off with any form of theocracy, of course, but that is not the point.
The workshop was intended as a brainstorming and procedural exercise on how to spread awareness of the civil state and why it is important to avoid mixing religion into politics while building the new, post-25 January Egypt. Depending on your response to a church besieged by Salafis following news of the Christian wife of a Muslim being held by her family in the vicinity, the workshop was either a lost cause or all the more urgent. But it was to ground my assessment of a debate raging in intellectual circles since 11 February that I decided to take part in day one.
Two facts, while not entirely overlooked, loomed over the proceedings, inevitably skewing the perspective somewhat:
First, Egypt had not been an Islamic state prior to the revolution; and whether or not it is seen as such, it was against the civil state of the Mubarak regime, which systematically excluded and brutally repressed agents of political Islam, that the revolution broke out in the first place. Islamists (Salafis as well as Muslim Brothers) may have been late comers to the protests but they did take part in the revolution; they did not or were not allowed to hijack it to their own ends, but due to the involvement of many of them in parliamentary elections in the past – a process that involved violence and clashes with the security apparatus and NDP militias – they were better equipped than the liberals who instigated the revolution to deal with threats to its survival. Many feel they were indispensable to its success.
Secondly – and this is a worldwide phenomenon – the failure of the national state in much of the Muslim world following the dissolution of European empires has driven many Muslims to believe in the reinstatement of the caliphate (or the imamate, or both) as the only means to safeguarding dignity, prosperity and a culturally specific way of life. That much of this energy was quickly channeled into young, theologically suspect and ludicrously reductive versions of the creed originating in Saudi Arabia – that much of it was, with myopic instrumentality, employed by the US and its allies against the communist bloc in the Cold War, only to backfire with horrendous force, eventually resulting in worldwide Islamophobia and the stamp of global terrorism – is really besides the point.
It is in the secular framework of the need for liberal democracy and opposition to the police state that the revolution broke out, but what it pitted itself against – much of which, incidentally, has survived it more or less intact – was equally, nominally secular. Paradoxically, through the 20th century secular formulations of national identity (which all across the Arab world with the possible exception of Tunisia under Bourguiba have preserved respect for the religious establishment and applied shari’ah in the legal arena of personal affairs, making a civil marriage practically impossible and restricting the personal freedoms of unmarried heterosexuals) have resulted in as much repression and as much conservatism as anything sectarian – not to mention political inadequacy, a complete collapse of basic services, and economic dependency on the west. Following the death of Sadat in 1981, what is more, the situation in Egypt was further complicated by the complete lack of an ideological basis for state control. Whereas Syria, for example, had a corrupt dictatorship, Egypt had dictatorial corruption. And in the incumbent absence of opportunities for education and interaction, it was only natural that Islamists should find a firmer support basis among “the people”, whoever the people might turn out to be.
This is one of many questions not even posed by the intellectual community:
How might a new secular state, which is what ad-dawlah al-madaniyyah is ultimately a euphemism for, respond to the aspirations of ordinary people to a better life? More to the point, why should a non-politicised (semi) illiterate person with no particular interest in politics and no understanding of knowledge beyond the alleged dictates of the divine believe in ad-dawlah al-madaniyyah? At one level that ordinary person is ignorant and irresponsible, but at another – perhaps more important – level, they are not as gullible as all that. They have seen one dawlah madaniyyah; if change must occur, why not try out something else?
This question, and the two points that have raised it, remain unanswered.
At the Kotobkhan, Telmissany proceeded with the task of formulating a set of questions-points with which to market the civil state, assuming the activist would have an ordinary person – perhaps influenced by Islamist discourse – for an interlocutor. I was there until the end of the first question, “What is the civil state?”
Each of five principal key words – citizenship, equality, democracy, the law, and religious freedom – were discussed, but in each case – not surprisingly – the discussion would devolve into a discussion of religious precepts: in the face of the divine, few can argue anything at all. Of course, much of the work centred on how to effect the necessary rift between religion and politics in the minds of ordinary people – voters in the parliamentary elections planned for September – but, while the experience of those present reflected a high degree of misinformation and misunderstanding that could benefit from such voluntary work, it remained unclear how promoting choice, freedom and other principles of the Enlightenment could stand up to the emotionally charged and systematic mobilisation of a group like the Muslim Brothers. Even from a secular standpoint – an agnostic or atheistic one at that – it is possible to show why the civil state would not be the best answer to the five questions to which the aforementioned key words give rise. The Mubarak regime shows just how.
Telmissany’s efforts are ultimately commendable and the activists involved in promoting the secular state all realise that it will take years and institutions to see results, but I feel it is equally important to realise that sectarianism in the context of Egyptian politics stands for a lot more than what it says. In a cultural-normalisation debate prior to the revolution, I had attempted to make the point that normalisation with Saudi Arabia (which remains, after all, the closest ally of the War on Terror and the purveyors of democracy in the region) is actually rather more dangerous to the future of Egypt than normalisation with Israel.
A good portion of the debate, for example, has focused on the second term of the old Egyptian constitution, which states that Islam is the official religion of the country. This has meant little in practise other than an opportunity for the state to play the sectarian card when it suited it. Rather than instating a cultural vision to counterbalance fundamentalism, what the Mubarak regime did with religious extremists bred by Sadat to stave off the socialist threat was to cut a deal with them: they would have free reign as far as social affairs were concerned, so long as they kept out of politics. For the longest time prior to 25 January, the result was an Islamic state ruled by seculars (or American agents and thieves) – no way out.
It is perfectly possible to imagine a state free of religious extremism with the second term of the constitution intact.
What remains lacking in the intellectuals’ discourse, notwithstanding the justice of their demands and their compatibility with religious faith, is a true vision. It is all very well to defend the rights of the Christian minority or enlist Copts in the fight for a civil state, but this does not come near the issue of Copts themselves being in the vast majority of cases just as sectarian as Muslims – their support for secularism being simply a response to the fact that they are a minority.
A vision for Egypt is, irrespective of activism, the work of intellectuals – of artists and writers and thinkers sufficiently immersed in society to work with as much of “the ordinary” constituency as possible and to work from within a legacy and a heritage hijacked by political Islam. A vision for Egypt should also involve an outspoken statement of secular and atheistic principles notwithstanding the “inherently conservative” nature of Egyptian society. Pressure groups should emerge, to counter the pressure of the Salafis.
Throughout the 20th century, the principal failure of the Arab intellectual has been his exclusive concern with the political, with a relation with power, coupled by divorce from society at large. And insofar as it is an attempt at re-establishing contact with the people in the absence of political agenda, the Civil State campaign is precisely what is desired. But it will take more than being proactive to be convincing. And the people have a right to be exposed directly and openly to what the intellectuals actually believe.

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