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Religion and Society

Islamic Fundamentalism and the Tyranny of the State

There is a link between the growth of renewalist or fundamentalist thought and the political situation of a country. Where there is freedom in public space, fundamentalism is more successfully countered. But where dictatorship prevails, even if hostile to the Islamists, fundamentalism prospers.

The project of religious reform of Muhammad ‘Abduh was based on three pillars: the first consisted of the liquidation of the Islamic tradition at the time prevalent in al-Azhar, to put an end to the rival juridical schools in favour of a unitary representation of Islam, and in particular of Sunni Islam; the second pillar required this single Islam to be founded on a synthesis of the good that was to be found in early Islamic law and the opening of the gates of interpretative effort: the third element concerned the direction of reform: this single Islam had to be open to dialogue with the West or modern civilization and directed towards rationalism.



By means of such change, reform opened the way to three new currents. The first was made up of people in favour of religious renewal (mujaddidûn), who all moved in the same direction but on different levels. Think for example of Sheikh ‘Abd al-Mut‘âl al-Sa‘îdî or Sheikh Amin al-Khuli (Amîn al-Khûlî), who proposed to read the Qur’an as a literary text. The second current was formed by the fundamentalists, whose response to the challenge of the West consisted in presenting a single Islam, obtained by means of mobilization and fighting under the banner of jihad. The third trend consisted of the Salafis, who were trying to make such a unified Islam fanatical from a social point of view. In other words, the reform of Muhammad ‘Abduh gave birth to many positions that were in conflict with each other. Although they all adopted, consciously or unconsciously, the approach of ‘Abduh above all with respect to the elimination of tradition, they did not necessarily embrace his practical solutions. But if religious reform can be developed in different directions, at times contradictory ones, what are the conditions that make the victory of a precise current over its rivals likely?



This article proposes the thesis that one of the most important elements in answering this question is to be found in the nature of the public sphere, and in particular the political sphere, in which religious reform gravitates. Reform is an intellectual response to pressure on the part of hegemonic modernity and its derivate. The aim of Reform is to bring about a Renaissance capable of competing with modernity. A current such as the civil and secular one, inasmuch as it is a response to religious reform, can take two directions: democratic and autocratic. The first one was oriented towards internal reform, to achieve what contemporaries considered to be the essential features of modernity, while the second moved in the direction of mobilizing the community, as proposed by Jamâl Al-Dîn al Afghânî (the master of Muhammad ‘Abduh), to confront the West and remove its influence preventing the colonization of the region (but with the use of what it considered to be modern ‘means’).



According to this logic, the predominance of one of the ways of religious reform over the others is tied to general cultural and intellectual political developments (both in an authoritarian and democratic direction), as a result of internal power struggles and external pressures parallel to them. In an age of liberal democracy the logical of renewal predominated, while the fundamentalist logic, in its diverse violent forms, is prevailing with the increase of authoritarianism.



The reformist ideas (in the direction of renewal and not mobilization) had their moment of success with the growth of modern liberalism in Egypt at the beginning of the 20th century. They were reinforced by the 1919 revolution, which made it possible for the various political forces of the Egyptian people to participate in government despite the survival of colonialism. The revolution provided a stable political and cultural climate that favoured, in principle, freedom, social, intellectual and political vitality. This was the general atmosphere in which the theoreticians of renewal, the secular currents and their great writers shone. The guiding thought of this tendency was the possibility of elaborating a modern culture in Islamic mode or at least in a way not opposed to it. Islamic works produced by experts in Islamic thought and law did not want to restore the Islamic past, but rather embed modern values into Islamic culture. One of the principal objectives of renewal was to change the consciousness of the world and Islam, and to spread the spirit of responsibility for reform and development, while seeing the cultural backwardness and the traditional understanding of Islam as elements of weakness that had made the country vulnerable to colonialism.



On the other hand, the fundamentalist movement began to develop in the 1930s, crystallizing around the Muslim Brothers, in addition to other organizations. This happened within the context of the development of an authoritarian climate favorable to its theses, on the global level (fascism) and locally. New political forces emerged which affirmed that the liberation from colonialism and the realization of the Resurgence and the conquest of power etc. were tied to the recovery of a lost identity (national, Arab, Islamic etc.) and that therefore the principal question was not reform but liberation from foreign ‘intruders’. After this, regeneration would arrive automatically, provided that the people allowed itself to be guided by a single leader, the defender of identity. Only elements foreign to the nation could have refused to follow him. Examples of these forces were Young Egypt and other Arabist groups, in addition of course to the Muslim Brothers. There was also an alliance between these movements and the royal palace, united by a common objective: the elimination of multi-party democracy, which in their view was the cause of the fragmentation of the nation.



With the ascent to power of the Free Officials and the consolidation of their authority, the situation changed radically. The nationalist authoritarian ideology prevailed, completely closing the door of the political space. They took control of the organizations of civil society, the trade unions, associations, clubs etc. In this authoritarian climate the radical Islamic discourse emerged, through the agency of several thinkers, among whom the most prominent was Sayyid Qutb, who at the end of the 1950s proposed the idea of the ‘league of believers’ or ‘vanguard of believers’ (this very phrase being current in the texts of the regime and his rhetoric). Qutb embraced the idea that the word of God prescribed a system of government and that there is no government other than God’s in the sense that this vanguard of believers had to take the power to apply the sharia (with some developments and updates according to the situation). For him, law was the essence of Islam. And as far as conflict is concerned, ‘Islamic political theology’, which deals with how the league of believers is to assume and monopolize the power, represented the heart of Islam. Sayyid Qutb, in response to the ‘Pact’ launched by the government in 1962 as a guideline to the country, presented a book more or less of the same size, entitled Milestones, as a sort of declaration of the principles of jihadist Islam parallel to and concurrent with the regime vision.



The system of July 1952 lasted almost sixty years as an authoritarian system and neither the economic opening (infitâh) nor a purely formal multi-party system changed it. In addition to the failure of the ideological system and restrictions imposed on society, this fact created the conditions for the rise of the fundamentalist discourse and its forces, to the detriment of the discourse on renewal. It became a commonplace to say that reform in itself was a form of unbelief, and this led to a series of persecutions.


This led not only to the growth of Takfiri currents, but also to major changes in the organizational structure of the Muslim Brothers. In the reorganization of the seventies or later ones, they renounced the use of weapons, but adapted the principles of Qutb to achieve a paramilitary system (although without weapons) on the model proposed by Qutb and based on intensive ideological education with explicitly authoritarian objectives.



It may thus be concluded that there is a link between the growth of renewalist or fundamentalist thought, within religious reform, and the political situation of the country. This means that the conflict of fundamentalism is of necessity tied to the measure of vitality, of renewal and the freedom of the public sphere, culturally and politically, while the dictatorship, even if hostile to Islamists (as Nasser was), in fact sustains the fundamentalist movements since, among other things, it shapes the public sphere in such a way as to favour authoritarian ideas.




This article was published on Al-Ahram.