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. In his important analysis (published in Arabic by Jadaliyya in coordination with The Immanent Frame), Amr Ezzat, a journalist and researcher on religious freedom with the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, provides a fine-grained picture of these legal and administrative structures.

There is a traditional Islamic discourse that takes pride in the fact that there is no central religious authority in Islam—no church, no priesthood, no clerical class to govern the religious (and certainly not political) lives of Muslims. . . . The problem is that Islamic doctrine, jurisprudence, and historical practice do, in fact, both assume and fundamentally rely on the existence of a single Muslim polity with authority over Muslims’ religious affairs and the religious scholar class.

Ezzat diagnoses this circumstance as a vestige of the Islamic caliphate, the “state of Muslims” in which the congregation of Muslims was conceived as a unitary and uniform politico-religious entity.

The refusal to recognize diversity within Islam and the efficacy of diverse Muslim congregations managing their affairs with relative autonomy—because this might entail the division of Muslims into “churches”—has legally and politically circumscribed religious freedom for all Muslims under the authority of a single church. In essence, the state functions as the church, relying on the Ministry of Endowments, state-linked scholarly institutions such as al-Azhar, and the security apparatus to monitor and maintain politico-religious loyalty.

For Ezzat, the struggle of the present moment in Egypt belongs to the larger search for “the church of Islam.”

RD contributing editor Austin Dacey will be writing a series of posts 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. Click here to read posts on Egypt and secularism.