Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Egypt: perils and possibilities

I think enthusiasm over what is happening in Egypt needs to be tempered by who is likely to gain and who is likely to lose, especially if the regime of President Hosni Mubarak is toppled prior to elections scheduled for this September. As a result of the popular uprising against his 30-year rule, Mubarak announced that he will not run in the upcoming elections, which, with the assistance of the international community, will be much more free and fair than any elections in the history of the modern state of Egypt. It is in the best interests of everyone to have a smooth transition of power in Egypt and not the collapse of a stable government that plays a very strategic role in the world's most volatile region.

Without a doubt the Muslim Brotherhood is waiting in the wings with a plan to make a power grab, especially should the government topple prior to elections. This would mean an even more difficult plight for Egypt's Christians, most of whom belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church. Coptic Christians comprise approximately 10% of Egypt's more than 80 million people. Even now, Coptic Christians are severely under-represented at all levels of government in Egypt, even in places, like Alexandria, where they are concentrated. So, as euphoric as we tend to get when we see popular, democratic uprisings, our euphoria must be tempered by reality, which is what keeps it from turning into the opposite of what we'd all like to see. Another crucial factor to consider when thinking about political change in Egypt, not to mention Jordan, where King Abdullah seems to be panicking, is Israel.


Nonetheless, even on the religious front there is, to quote the title of Sandro Magister's most recent Chiesa article, A Glimmer of Light in an Egypt in Revolt. Specifically, on 24 January there appeared on the website of an Egyptian magazine- Yawm al-Sâbi (i.e., The Seventh Day), something called Document for the renewal of religious discourse. Accordng to Magister, by the night of 24 January this document appeared "on more than 12,000 other Arab websites."

This document bears the signatures of 23 important Egyptian Islamic intellectuals, including Nasr Farid Wasel, former grand mufti of Egypt and Gamal al-Banna, brother of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. The document is concise, consisting of 22 bullet points that lay out an ambitious plan for reforming Islam, seeking to counter those who have turned it into a religion of "superficial and external practice." The goal of the signatories is not to accomdate Islam to modernity, but make it truer to itself, that is, more authentic.

Magister provides a translation made by the Egyptian-born Jesuit Islamic scholar, Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, for the Vatican-operated Asia News:

1. Reexamine the collections of the Hadith [the sayings traditionally attributed to Muhammad] and the commentaries of the Qur'an, to purify them.

2. Subject to analysis the political-religious vocabulary of Islam, for example the gizah [the special tax required from the dhimmi, the non-Muslim minorities subjected to limitations].

3. Find a new practice of the concept of interaction between the sexes.

4. Clarify the Islamic view on women and find convenient forms for marriage rights.

5. Islam is a religion of creativity.

6. Explain the Islamic concept of jihâd [inner and outer holy war], and specify norms and obligations that regulate it.

7. Stop the invasion of external religiosity and the extraneous practices that come to us from nearby countries.

8. Separate religion from the state.

9. Purify the heritage of the first centuries of Islam (Salafism), eliminating the myths and aggressions against religion.

10. Give adequate preparation to the missionary preachers, and in this field, open the doors to those who have not studied at the university of Al Azhar, according to very clear criteria.

11. Formulate the virtues common to the three revealed religions.

12. Give guidelines on Western customs, and eliminate incorrect behaviors.

13. Clarify the relationship that must exist among members of the different religions through schools, mosques, and churches.

14. Modify the presentation of the biography of the Prophet in a way adapted for the West.

15. Not keep people away from economic systems with the interdiction of dealing with banks.

16. Recognize the right of women to become president of the republic.

17. Combat sectarian claims, [emphasizing] that the flag of Islam [must be] one.

18. Invite the people to go to God through gratitude and wisdom, and not with threats.

19. Make the teaching of al-Azhar evolve.

20. Recognize the right of Christians to occupy important positions [including] the presidency of the republic.

21. Separate religious discourse from power, and re-establish its connection with the needs of society.

22. Improve the connection between the da'wah [the call to conversion to Islam] and modern technology, the satellite channels and the market for Islamic recordings.

Each of these points are discussed in detail by the signatories of the document, which makes Fr. Samir's analysis for Asia News a must read for anyone who is interested in what is happening. None of these reforms is a given, especially in a chaotic overthrow of Mubarak's government, which would find the Muslim Brotherhood well-positioned to seize control. This would be an utter disaster on many fronts.

Stated simply, we need to be careful before draping the mantle of righteousness over a movement that might yet spell disaster, especially for Egypt's Christians.

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