The Battle Between Tradition and Modernity in Egypt

>> 11 May 2015

Egypt is likely to witness further instability in the near future. The political outrage that erupted in January 2011 turned into religious and social outrage after the July 2013 coup. While the political revolution may be over, an intellectual one is clearly taking place. All the conventional pieties that Egyptians have revered over past decades have now become subjects of criticism and doubt. In recent weeks, a number of events and debates have exposed a deep rift between two camps of almost equal strength in Egypt: those who hallow their heritage and traditions, and those who champion of modernity, liberalism, and human rights. 

On April 6, Egyptians were incensed after learning that school officials in Giza burned books that they claimed incited violence while singing patriotic anthems—an incident recalling Nazi Germany. To make matters worse, representatives of the Ministry of Education were in attendance. Surprisingly, many of the books do not incite violence, such as Islam and the Foundations of Governance by Ali Abdul Raziq, one of the most important Islamic authorities to refute the concept of the caliphate and the existence of a system of governance within Islam. Abdul Raziq was one of the preeminent reformists in the Islamic world. 

Weeks later, Egyptian journalist Sherif al-Shoubashi called for a million-man protest in favor of removing the hijab. Shoubashi insists that the hijab has nothing to do with religion, and is actually a symbol of theocracy and political Islam. Shoubashi’s call sparked a debate between those who oppose the hijab on the grounds that it symbolizes the suppression of women, those who defend it as an Islamic prescription, and those who believe that women should be free to dress how they choose. 

Around the same time, on April 17, hundreds of thousands Egyptians watched television preacher Islam Beheiry argued with two Muslim sheikhs on air over several controversial matters in Islamic thought. According to Beheiry, books containing hadiths attributed to the Prophet Muhammad should not be considered as sacred. They also debated the permissibility of marrying minors, the punishment for apostasy, and the right of those who have not graduated from religious institutions to discuss religion. President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi recently said that religious reform should come about through state institutions. Taken together with the campaign to silence Beheiry, Sisi’s comments reveal a deep conflict between Egyptians who believe that religious discourse should be dictated by religious institutions, and those who think the state should dictate it. 

Unfortunately, the security-first mentality of the United States and its allies has made the world unable to see anything in Egypt but violence and militancy. In reality, however, there are a number of individuals and organizations that may help shape and modernize the mindset of the Egyptian public. The ideological battle taking place in Egypt offers both opportunity and danger. On the one hand, it offers a chance for Islamic enlightenment, one that puts an end to the isolation of Muslim societies. On the other hand, should the reforms fail, the religious fundamentalists may prevail. The world must choose whether it will stand on the sidelines and watch this conflict unfold, or play a role in it.

* This article appeared first in English and Arabic on Fikra Forum.


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