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Is a Secular System Right for Egypt?

This month, as reported by Reuters, the Egyptian government announced new measures to increase “supervision over all Egypt's mosques so that they do not fall into the hands of extremists and the unqualified.” The removal of thousands of clerics—numbering 12,000, according to the government’s statement—comes in the context of the ongoing struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military-backed regime. 

Outside observers of this struggle may be tempted to frame it as a contest between an Islamist theocracy and a secular state, albeit an alarmingly iron-fisted one. However, as revealed in a discussion of the future of Egyptian democracy by academics, journalists, and activists convened at The Immanent Frame, the situation is far more complex. 

While the government’s recent measures will strike many as draconian, they’re unfolding within an environment of established law, as presented in a fine-grained analysis by Amr Ezzat, a journalist and researcher on religious freedom with the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. By law, all sermons, religious instruction, and charitable activities taking place in and around the country’s mosques are subject to the oversight of the Ministry of Endowments, which seeks compliance with a “moderate” Sunni conception of the faith as represented by the intellectual orthodoxy of al-Azhar.


In his contribution to the Immanent Frame conversation, Georgetown professor of Islamic history John Voll argues that while the military regime has opposed Brotherhood domination, the alternative it supports is not secularism. Instead, he writes, the system “is one of state control over religious institutions, rather than separation of church and state.” 

To present this second contrast with secularism, Voll revives a colorful old term for the state domination of religion: caesaropapism, from the Latin and Italian for emperor and pope, respectively. This theory of the relationship between religion and state has its roots in the Roman imperial tradition, dating to Augustus, in which a single ruler acted as high priest and supreme civil authority at once—the pontifex maximus.

Rachel Scott, a professor of Islamic Studies at Virginia Tech, challenges the "religious-secular binary" itself, connecting it with what William Cavanaugh has called “the myth of religious violence,” or the assumption that religion is “inherently authoritarian, divisive, and predisposed to irrational violence.” Abandoning this assumption, she believes, will help us to see that “Western-style secularism is a contingent and local set of social arrangements and not a universal solution.”

Egyptian society would benefit, Scott asserts, from eschewing "a conceptual frame that constructs the constitution and political actors as either secular or religious," and talking instead of "an opposition between authoritarian and non-authoritarian institutions." Or, in the spirit of the 2011 revolution, "institutions and procedures that support justice and human dignity, and those that do not.” 

For his part, Ezzat sees the present legal structures as vestiges of the Ottoman model of an Islamic caliphate, the “state of Muslims” in which the congregation of Muslims was conceived as a unitary and uniform politico-religious entity. The alternative, he says, “is to abandon the Muslim state for a modern nation-state that fully embraces the concept of citizenship, which would entail the disappearance of political authority over religious affairs and open the door to religious freedom.” 

That sounds like secularism to me.

Is secularism a viable ideal for the current Egyptian context? And what would it mean for the future of religious participation in politics? In the coming weeks, I will take to this space to explore these questions.

RD contributing editor Austin Dacey will be writing a series of posts and essays in the coming months as part of a joint project between The Immanent Frame and Religion Dispatches made possible by the generosity of the Luce Foundation.

 Source: USC Annenberg