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Tuesday, July 5, 2011
Egypt Needs A Neutral State
It is not possible to fully separate church from state in Egypt. A secularism that respects all religions is needed
By Salma El Shahed
Mohammed Badie of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood speaks to the press outside a polling station Cairo on 19 March 2011. Photograph: Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty
The question: What is secularism?
I am a Muslim member of Egyptian society. I will vote for a government that protects a civil society, where creed, sex or colour do not determine our standard of living or how people treat one another.
The main reason I want a secular state is to limit the power of government. History shows that politicians play the religion card for their own purposes. For Egyptians the clearest example is Anwar Sadat's reintroduction of the Muslim Brotherhood into public life to rally support among the people in face of the leftist socialist opposition. Using the people's attachment to religion he portrayed himself the pious leader as opposed to the secular commies. Although the Muslim Brotherhood was still banned from operating in public life while Sadat made use of it in this way, the fact that the Egyptian people uphold their religious beliefs strongly made his plan work.
One lesson to draw from this is that prevention is better than the cure. Extremists are an irregularity in every creed; they will always be present in public life and will always have some sort of support. A secular political scene would not allow extremism to gain momentum. There is nothing wrong with being religious, but politicians should not be allowed to capitalise on it.
On paper, the Arab Republic of Egypt has a secular constitution now, which is not based on any religious scriptures: no law dictates that the prime minister has to be of a certain faith. Every man and woman that is a member of this society has the freedom of worship, and in no way will be persecuted against because of his or her religious beliefs. But there are laws that violate this, such as those requiring approval from the head of state to build a church, or not mentioning religion on official government identification cards.
In a civic state, society must accept that people have the god given right to freedom of worship. However, Egyptians are a pious people. To an overwhelming majority, a marriage is obsolete if a man of God is not present to mark it. Inheritance in Muslim families is settled by sharia, and so are divorce settlements. But sharia cannot govern laws of international trade, or the laws of the Egyptian Football Association.
My secularism would prosecute a drunken man for driving under the influence rather than just drinking, and stop the construction of a church or a mosque because the construction site happens to be on a natural preserve. My secularism will ignore my choice to cover my hair or not while running for office, but pay attention to my actions and qualifications as a member of this collective society.
As a Muslim member of Egyptian society, I cannot adhere to the usual definition of secularism as a complete separation of church and state. My culture is too interwoven with religion: it is almost impossible to exclude religion from civic laws. But a state that is truly neutral between religions is something that we desperately need. One must make the distinction between religion and church. When a government abandons a church, it abandons the church's view of religion, rather than the religion itself.
I must live with the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is today the largest and most organised political party in Egypt. But if they form the government, I want secular principles to limit its power. Although sharia law guarantees civic rights to non-Muslims, extremists can infiltrate the perhaps idealistic programs of spin-off parties such as the newborn Freedom and Justice party. Previous religious leaders have proposed imposing the jizya poll tax, which is unheard of in a civic state. Egypt needs a secularism that will respect religion(s) but protect all its citizens.
-This commentary was published in The Guardian on 05/07/2011
- Salma El Shahed is a student at the American University in Sharja