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Middle East and Africa

Islamic Thought and Fear of the Future

The new Egyptian Constitution and the newly-elected president, the role of the Salafis, the division between the ulema and the intellectuals: in a conversation without filters, in an exclusive interview for Oasis, Salah Fadl, a great expert on Arab literature and an intellectual in dialogue with the shaykh of al-Azhar, comments on recent developments in his country.

Interview with Salah Fadl (with Wael Farouq)

 

 

Professor, what is your opinion of the new Constitution? Does it meet the wishes of those who carried out the revolution?

 

 

First of all I would like clarify that I am not extraneous to this new Constitution. I took part in the drafting of almost all of its articles and I believe that it is one of the best Constitutions that has ever been produced in Egypt, and for a series of reasons. First of all it guarantees a ‘civil’ State (madanî) in line with the character of the Egyptian people, and closes the fissures that had been opened up with the previous Constitution. The Constitution of the Muslim Brothers was a document drawn up in a hurry and a number of articles were placed in it that opened doors to hell, transforming the nature of the Egyptian State. Secondly, the new Constitution assures a high level of freedom (of religion, of thought and expression, of scientific research, and of artistic and literary creation) to an extent that was unknown in the previous Constitution. And it meets many of the hopes of the revolution of 25 January in the field of social justice: it establishes the right of Egyptians to receive education of a good standard and it raises the school leaving age to eighteen. It makes health-care insurance obligatory and forces the state to reconsider the question of informal neighbourhoods and the housing needs of young people. It also establishes a balance between the three powers and limits in many ways the Executive through a better protection of the legislature and the judiciary. Lastly, it is relatively fair as regards women and seeks to impede all forms of discrimination against them, as it does in relation to marginalised categories, such as the inhabitants of the frontier regions or the Nubians, who are mentioned for the first time.

 

A number of doubts have been raised about the relationship between the state and the army, but I believe that those who have made these objections have not understood or have not read these texts which prescribe that every accused person should be judged by the ordinary magistracy, with the exception of clearly indicated specific cases, in essential terms crimes of aggression against the army, a law that is necessary given the waves of terrorism that seek today to destroy the army and the state. Those who oppose these sections of the Constitution are not aware of the stage that Egypt is now going through and of the need to protect the institutions of the state.

 

 

As regards fundamental freedoms, the prohibition of the film ‘Noah’ in Egypt and in other countries of the Middle East and Islamic countries has provoked a strong reaction.

 

 

I believe that there is a real problem with the two councils on which al-Azhar bases himself to take decisions, that is to say the Council of the Great Ulema and the Supreme Council of Islamic Research. They went and found old fatwas of very many years ago, in large measure ones that are hyper-conservative, if not simply retrograde. They think that to portray the prophets in cinematic works is an attack on their holiness and a form of contempt for them and they justify this with ridiculous explanations, of the following kind: the actor who plays the prophet this time in a subsequent film could play the part of a drunk or a thief and people could think that the prophet has committed sins, that the prophet has become a thief…That is to say they are unable to make a distinction between the physical person and the artistic portrayal. And then they say that the holiness of prophets (a subject where they exaggerate greatly both as regards Islamic personalities and those to be found in the Bible) makes their portrayal not advisable. But the truth is that they are afraid of any new vision in the way in which the history of the sacred is presented; they want only to conserve the stereotypes and the visions that have been handed down for thousands of years. They cannot bear any change, even perhaps change that benefits religious discourse itself because they fear that this will open the door to evil and to thought. But, generally speaking, they are the enemies of thought.

 

 

Is it literally like that?

 

 

Literally, and I will add another element. The real tragedy of Islamic religious thought is that it has lost its spirit of initiative and a capacity to look for new solutions to today’s questions. Its aim is to satisfy the masses and ignorant public opinion thereby avoiding all clashes, rather than looking for what could work in favour of the rooting of a true religious spirit. As a consequence, a major fracture has been produced, a ditch, between the ulema of Azhar and intellectuals. It is not a question of some accident here or there, the fact is that they greatly want to limit the concept of artistic freedom and subject literary and artistic works to a religious criterion. This is something that is unacceptable, for the Islamic religion as well: the muslim legal scholars have always refused to subject poetry to the criteria of faith. But they do not accept this and they defend their empire, as though they were the guardians of the kingdom of God. And yet those who think that they can limit artistic creativity are completely wrong because during the epoch of Internet and satellite channels if you forbid something you do nothing else but provoke people’s curiosity, much more than if you remain silent. The effects are the opposite to those aimed for. They need a large injection of cultural awareness and contemporary thought to really be up to the challenges that face them.

 

 

Is there anybody developing renewed religious thought?

 

 

Very few.

 

 

For example who?

 

 

There were personalities like Hasan Hanafî who developed renewed religious thought but I would like to observe that Hanafî has retracted his ideas as they were and has become more conservative, more royalist than the king. Naturally, the religious groups that aim at political action draw near to the crowds with increasing rigidity, backwardness and ideological putrefaction and condemn everyone else as infidels. I place no hope in these people because they have become terrorists and criminals.

 

For everyone else the religious discourse has passed them by, it is of no importance to them, they live in a natural and automatic way in line with the rhythm of the contemporary outlook. Ordinary people are between two fires: on the one hand artistic works, if they are liberating, sate their desires and their instincts. But, on the other, they declare that this is contrary to faith and morality. However they care nothing about faith and morality: they prohibit their children and their women what they grant to themselves in private. They are hypocrites and their discourse is duplicitous. This is one of the problems connected with the weakness of the public conscience in Islamic societies.

 

 

The phenomenon of the Salafis in Egypt: nobody imagined that they had such an electoral following. Why have they spread to this point? Is it possible to work with them, for example in relation to the Constitution?

 

 

The Salafis took part in the drafting of the Constitution and in my view constituted the biggest obstacle, but this obstacle was overcome, thank God. With respect to all the most relevant passages of the Constitution they lined up against them, but there were very few of them, one or two on a committee of fifty. They came on a number of occasions with their leaders to meet us and we spent tens of meetings and hundreds of hours trying to set in motion a dialogue, but it was useless: their mentality does not accept any form of dialogue.

 

Personally, the burden of these dialogues with the Salafis was unbearable. I have to say that they, also, could not bear me – and that’s well and good, our hostility is mutual, explicit and declared. I agree with what you said, that they are an unforeseen and spontaneous phenomenon and one without logic. They are not in the least a product of the intellectual, religious and social movement in Egypt. They are linked to the attempt of the associations ‘for commanding good and prohibiting evil’ and of the Wahhabi Saudis to impose their vision. They have profited by taking advantage of the poverty of the poor and have been very opportunistic in exploiting the idea of the application of the sharî‘a and zeal for religion because ordinary and ignorant people are sensitive to these subjects. However in reality they have no connections with the sharî‘a or with religion, they are agents at the service of a foreign power that moves them, that is to say Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, in the first instance.

 

 

But then how do you explain that Salafism, and then Wahhabism for export, supported the change of 30 June 2013?

 

 

It was an obvious political ploy. I do not believe that the Salafis supported the revolution of 30 June thinking about the Egyptian national interest. Those who pay them imposed this on them. It is clear that Saudi Arabia perceived the Muslim Brothers as a grave threat (because in Saudi Arabia they form a part of the opposition) and for this reason it decided forcefully to support the revolution against the Muslim Brothers. I believe that it gave explicit orders to the Salafis, whom it finances, to adopt this stance. I do not believe that the national spirit all of a sudden took possession of them. Simply their master gave an order.

 

 

But just as it gave an order, so it can give a counter-order. In the future, in a few months time, they could leave the government.

 

 

It is absolutely possible, I exclude nothing.

 

 

Is it true that they have rejected the use of violence?

 

 

That is the only positive feature that they have. If they do have a quality, it is that of not allowing themselves to be dragged into the use of violence, apart from a few members.

 

 

And the Brothers, what is your political judgement on them?

 

 

Their authentic tragedy is that they are Qutbists, followers of Sayyed Qutb, and thus Takfiri. They declare that others are unbelievers. They allowed themselves to be seduced by the power of the organisation which has an enormous material capability. That the United States of America collaborated with this organisation was a tragedy. This was something that demonstrated the narrowness of the horizons and the selfishness of the United States in its policy. To use the international mass media at the service of the Brothers was one of the saddest scenes ever witnessed.

 

 

But the new government does not seem to be doing any better. The death sentences for the leaders of the Brothers is unacceptable.

 

 

I believe that it was a very grave error and a purposeless explosion of anger. There are two things that have to be clarified. The first is that it was a lower court sentence and those who handed it down know that it cannot be carried out because it will be subjected to two levels of appeal: the Mufti of the Republic who will refuse to approve it and than the Court of Appeal. The first-level sentence was used to terrorise these people who destroy the state and spread corruption on the earth, arguing that others are unbelievers and that only they are true Muslims. The result has been exactly the opposite. As intellectuals we strongly criticise these sentences, we know that they are not valid from a legal point of view and that they cannot be carried out. Secondly, one cannot blame an entire large-scale association for the errors committed by individual members without studying clues or looking for evidence with due calm so as to identify and condemn those who are really guilty. Both the guilty and the innocent were taken. But the real problem is that in Egypt there is no authority that can intervene in the decisions of the judicial system. This seems incredible, but such is the case. Whatever the case, these sentences provoked a major reaction not only abroad but also in Egypt and personally I forcefully opposed them.

 

 

How do you see the new President, Sisi?

 

 

He is the best personality today for the presidency because he is decisive and can restore a little security to society. People love him. Since the time of Nasser the Egyptian people has never been so linked to a figure as it is to him.

 

 

And yet, to express the point with a joke, it appears that just as the Shiites invented the ‘guardianship of the jurist’ (wilâyat al-faqîh), so the Sunnis have patented ‘the guardianship of the General’ (wilâyat al-farîq)…

 

 

That is a good joke. But there are two elements that reduce the danger. The first is that the General in question does not want to exercise ‘guardianship’ but is forced to do so. These are things that are known, inside the country. The second thing is that he has striven in every way to present a revolutionary and reforming programme that will meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people.

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