Esposito, Al-Ahram: The Real Questions for Egypt

Esposito, Al-Ahram: The Real Questions for Egypt

In an interview with Ezzat Ibrahim, John L. Esposito*, a leading American scholar of Islamic affairs, examines the aftermath of the upheavals of the Arab Spring and the rise of the Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia

What was your reading of the results of the first rounds of the Egyptian parliamentary elections?

A couple of things, I think. As many expected, the Muslim Brotherhood did well, and this was the case for a variety of reasons. You don’t have a strong multi-party system yet in Egypt, for example. I wrote earlier that in both the Tunisian and Egyptian cases, the Islamists could be expected to get around 40 per cent of the vote. However, what has surprised many people was the rise of the Salafis, which had been relatively politically invisible for many of us in terms of the political scene. I think that with the emergence of the Salafis, we have seen them emerging politically and there has been a sense that after all the years in which whenever one thought of the Islamist movement it was in terms of the ikhwan, the Brotherhood, now the Salafis have entered politics and the Nour Party has emerged and done relatively well in the elections.

I think that one of the questions that clearly will exist more for the Nour Party than for the ikhwan, because the latter has a much longer track record, is its platform on a number of issues, including the ultra-conservative rhetoric that has called for the imposition of Sharia Law, for example. The Nour Party has been trying to present a more accommodating platform on this. Some observers would say that there have been contradictions between the more recent positions that the Nour Party has taken up, which are accommodating, and what some of the individual candidates have actually been saying. I think the role of the Salafis in Egypt is to be contrasted with Tunisia, where you don’t have this phenomenon at all.

The Salafist movement is a new phenomenon on the political scene. Is it an extension of the Wahabi school of thought or is it more deeply rooted?

Talking about the Salafis, even the word is difficult because the term Salafi has meant so many different things. The most basic meaning has to do with the early followers or companions of the Prophet. Then, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, you had the great Islamic reformer Mohamed Abdu, whose movement was also called Salafi. Recently, the term has tended to be applied to people who are what I would call ultra-conservative, and it gets used at times interchangeably with wahabi. I think that there is something in common with the Saudi Salafis and the Salafis in the Gulf, because the Salafi movement extends over many parts of the Muslim world, including many Gulf countries. The Wahabi movement is a Saudi phenomenon that supports the Salafis wherever it finds them. However, the Salafis in different countries reflect the realities of the countries they are in.

Yet, there are two important distinctions that I often make. Some Salafis tend to be non- political: they are very conservative, very much followers of orthodox Islam, but they are non- political. There were many such groups in Egypt under Mubarak of this sort that were invisible. Then there are other Salafis who are political, and there is a third kind whom I would call militant Salafis, and I think all these groups need to be distinguished from each other. The militant Salafis are the people who are sometimes called jihadists when they engage in violence.

The political Salafis believe that they have a true vision of Islam and that their version of religion is the one that they practise and the one that other people should practise too in their personal lives. Moreover, they are working to implement this vision in society as a whole. In my experience, the terms are still being formulated, however, and the specific movements are still in a state of change. For many non-Muslims in recent years, first there was the term wahabi, which was seen as a kind of threat because it became associated with the export of a threatening kind of religion from the Arab and Muslim world and also with Bin Laden. Then the word Salafi came along, and because Salafis can be of very different kinds we have had a problem understanding who these people are and what they represent.

I received my training in a number of religions. I was trained initially in Christian theology, and I have worked on Islam for 40 years, but I have also studied other religions. What you see in Christianity is that you have some very conservative Christians, you see them in the US for example, many of them very conservative in their personal lives, and then there is the Christian Right in the US that is involved in politics, another kind of Christianity that tries to impose its own will on other people. In many religions, you have these kinds of ultra-conservative people, and you can’t expect a single definition. What surprised people in Egypt and outside was to see the kind of "quiet Salafis" turn into political players who have done well in the elections. In some areas they are not that different from the ikhwan, but in other areas they are quite different from them.

Some people think the elections are now excluding non-Islamists from the political arena. Do you think this is a legitimate concern?

I think there are dangerous trends afoot. I think that wherever things are going, the ikhwan have had a track record over recent years and they accept the electoral process. We have seen them developing a platform and responding to people in the elections. This platform has narrowed on certain issues, but they have this track record. For many people, when it comes to the Salafis, there is more nervousness. Who are these people? Where do they come from politically? Suddenly, with the fall of Mubarak, they have developed into a political party, and this has been attracting votes. But at the end of the day since they have no established track record, they are unknown quantities. In fact, if they want to establish a mediaeval understanding of religion, they will definitely see democracy as haram [forbidden]. Do they have a hidden agenda, and given the opportunity would they call out more people to demonstrate in Tahrir Square, basically calling for Sharia and for their interpretation of Islamic law to be imposed on society?

Which brings us to the question of how to accommodate religious traditions to modern democracy…

Many in the West, among them elite policymakers, and many in the Arab and Muslim world, bought into the notion that democracy was the model and that all models for development came from the West. When Egypt and other formerly colonised societies got their independence, such notions dictated that the model was to become secular and to have Western institutions, among them political institutions, social institutions, educational institutions, etc. What we are seeing at the moment is a number of things. First of all, if you look at the Western experience there has been a big difference in the way in which democracy has developed in America and the way it has developed in Europe. In America, we have the separation between church and state. We do have a mix of religion and politics, but institutionally there is a separation between church and state. In Europe, on the other hand, in Germany, in the UK, and in Scandinavia, you have a state religion, while you also have democracy. This means that the head of state has to belong to the state religion, and it often means that the state supports religious institutions, churches or schools, all of which by definition is not what American democracy looks like.

There have been many interpretations and accommodations of what we could call Western democracy, depending on the Western country concerned. The real question now is what is happening in countries today, and we are seeing the models changing. If you look at the Muslim world today, you see different forms of emerging democracies. If you look at Senegal and Malaysia, on the one hand, and Turkey on the other, for example. For many decades, the US has said that what needs to be promoted is Turkish democracy, but what was really meant here was the Turkish model of secularism, which was anti-religion. What this involves is a model that is appropriate for the Turkish experience, where a Muslim country and government have said that we are going to have secularism, in which the separation of religion and state means that there is a space for non-belief and for belief in religion. In Turkey, you have a Muslim country with a form of secularism in which there is respect and sensitivity for religion and there is now no attempt to marginalise religion. Previously under the secularists in Turkey, if you were seen as religious, or had gone to a religious school, you couldn’t get a job as a teacher in a university or in the military or state bureaucracy. All this is now changing.