- June 14, 2009
We must chart our own course on sharia
In Egypt, we start our morning with one of the daily five prayers, then we go out to work and a majority of the women we see on the street and at work cover their heads. We greet people and ask them to remember us in their prayers. We see car drivers clash with each other on the road then remind one another of God. People commit “sins” all the time, maybe major sins, but they usually won”t go public about them; a society full of religious taboos won”t accept it.
Many atheists and secularists might, therefore, consider Egypt hostile territory. But that would be similar to an Egyptian tourist in London getting offended at the sight of a bus ad saying, “There”s probably no God.”
Polled Egyptians also predominantly support sharia law as a source of legislation. Some might lament this as an obstacle in the path of democracy and modernity in Egypt. But Egyptians also vote for freedom of speech and western values of democracy. John Esposito and Gallup”s Dalia Mogahed write, in their book, Who Speaks for Islam?:
[W]hile acknowledging and admiring many aspects of western democracy, those surveyed do not favour wholesale adoption of western models of democracy. Many appear to want their own democratic model that incorporates Sharia – and not one that is simply dependent on western values.
So it”s unwise and unrealistic to aim at helping Egyptians become less religious or moderate in the sense that they become “non-practicing” Muslims adhering to secularism in strictly European terms.
At the same time, the west need not panic about sharia, as it”s not all about corporal punishment and stoning as mainstream media depict it. Inaccurate predispositions oversimplify sharia and reduce it to lashes and hudud, which are by no means the core of Islamic law – not to mention that their application today is unlikely, according to many leading scholars of Islam.
That the west should respect Egyptians” overwhelming support for sharia doesn”t necessarily mean encouraging the Muslim Brotherhood to come to power and establish a board of Muslim clerics to oversee the government, as stated in the group”s 2007 party platform.
The mistake that many western politicians and pundits make when it comes to sharia and democracy in the Muslim world is that they limit their choices to two extremes: either the theocratic model of post-revolution Iran or the unpopular western-like secularists – and sometimes non-practicing Muslims, who fit in the modernisation theory model and are often mistakenly labeled Muslim “moderates.”
There are also western attempts to support traditionalist Muslim Sufis, who rather distance themselves from politics.
But a wiser choice exists: support Islamic-rooted but non-religious political entities. Egypt”s Wasat party in great part resembles the experience of the western-friendly AKP, Turkey”s ruling party.
Abul Ela Mady, who broke away from the Muslim Brotherhood in 1996 and has since then sought licensing for Wasat as a political party, told Amr Hamzawy in an interview for Carnegie Endowment: “Our friends in the Party for Justice and Development in Morocco and Turkey are linked to the concept behind the Wasat.”
In another interview for Qantara.de, Wasat”s leading founding member affirms the important role that religion plays in Egyptian society. “No political project which neglects religion can be successful in Egypt. But we see Islam not so much as a religion – rather as a civilisation in which all social groups have a part, because they live within it.”
The party that has Christian members adopts the principle that a Christian can be head of state in a Muslim society. Islamic-rooted entities like Wasat represent a different form of “moderate” Muslims, who adhere to democracy and freedom but also value religion, religiousness, and sharia as integral aspects of Egyptian and Muslim society.
At the end of the day, it is understandable and justifiable that western countries seek to guarantee their national interests as well as their values and principles. By the same token, the west”s respect for Muslims” religiousness and Muslim incorporation of sharia law in the public square will increase western entities” credibility among Muslim masses and could lead to the rise of more western-friendly forces in the Muslim world