Sunday, December 9, 2012

Lessons from Egypt


                                                                Maryam Sakeenah

Given a similar baggage from the past, the social spectrum in Egypt and Pakistan is built on ideological polarization as a result of political decisions- on both domestic and foreign policy- by leaderships unrepresentative of the public sentiment. These were unguided by understanding of social reality, creating a gaping split between religious and secular-liberal extremes over ideology, opinion, identity, worldview, lifestyle and affiliation: both strongly entrenched in passionate ideological commitments, feeding off one another and unwilling to budge.

Both nations suffered years of unscrupulous authoritarian rule directly or indirectly supported by the United States and allied Western nations. In Egypt, the resentment this created boiled over in the Arab Spring last year. Heartening and exciting, yet it also was in many ways a detonation of pent-up feeling with little organized political planning behind it. That should not however, take away the deep admiration the resilient protesters at Tahrir Square inspire. However, a huge question stared in the face: where to, and what now?

It still haunts the mind. While the Muslim Brotherhood has won an historic electoral win, for many the options were limited between a pro-Mubarak military man and the Brotherhood’s candidate. The vote was more against the continuation of a dictatorship many had given blood sweat and tears to defeat, than in favour of what the Brotherhood symbolized. Ruling over a populace so diversified in level of religious affiliation, Morsi faces huge challenges to bring to fruition the Brotherhood’s Islamist dream. The opposition against the attempt to increase presidential powers and the eventual success of the referendum approving the  draft-constitution by an Islamist-dominated council resonates with vital lessons Islamists in Pakistan have much to learn from. 

For starters, governing a society divided between the fiercely secular and the warmly religious is to have a hand in the hornet’s nest, unless one realizes that as human beings we all share in common the need for justice and basic freedom, for dignity and a decent life and two square meals a day. And if rulers set about delivering these, schisms and ideological affiliations do not stand in the way of achieving the common human good. The secular-liberals and the conservative Islamists are united by their basic human need for a dignified existence. In fact, for a government aspiring to rule by Islam, providing bread and rights is not about expediency, but a primary moral responsibility.

The Muslim Brotherhood with its well articulated prioritization of economic welfare, egalitarianism and social justice seems to have reached political maturation. In his first address after the referendum, Morsi said,"The coming days will witness, God willing, the launch of new projects ... and a package of incentives for investors to support the Egyptian market and the economy,"

Islamic political groups in Pakistan and abroad have made the mistake of putting the achievement of political ascendancy as their prime goal while ignoring the social project that must accompany it. Groups calling for a return to the Khilafah believe the establishment of Islamic government is the panacea, while religious parties often claim that the promulgation of the Shariah law shall crystallize a veritable Utopia. This runs contrary to the  precedent we have from the sunnah of the Prophet (SAW) whose epic spiritual and social mission preceded the establishment of the Shariah.

Both law and political policy are means to greater ends. Religious political groups make the mistake of seeing them as ends in themselves. The Shariah of Islam is the guarantor of the maqasid e Shariah, the guardian of Islamic values by which life is to be lived. Similarly political power is a means to establish an order that guarantees rights indiscriminately. Islamist groups in Pakistan have not so far proven themselves here. The talk of Shariah and the dream of Khilafah cannot be sold to a public writhing in the throes of poverty, ignorance, oppression, disease.  

Before launching a political struggle, Islamist parties need to embark upon the social project to mend a broken society, moderate between the dangerous ideological polarization and address social injustice. Such an effort can act as a secure launching pad for a political movement and a support base for a stable government. Without demonstrating this ability, political struggles of Islamic groups will be stillborn.
So far, an intellectually robust discourse mediating between the ideological polarization has not emerged from Islamic scholars in Pakistan. A comprehensive strategy to address the real problems has not been presented. 

As long as polarization between the religious and the secularized exists and grows, any religious group winning power will have to deal with stiff opposition leaving its hands tied.  That is the lesson from Egypt’s dilemma which the ruling Islamists seem to have dealt with skilfully. With a council including sizable diverse groups like Coptic Christians, leftist social activists and women, the draft constitution referring to the centrality of the Shariah managed to scrape through. The president has assured that the concerns have been taken seriously and that the constitution offers protection for minorities. The decision to put the draft to vote by a public referendum demonstrates the Brotherhood’s commitment to democratic process and its inclusive vision. Opposing groups quit protests in the wake of the Brotherhood’s conciliatory gestures, settling for a ‘wait and see’ approach.

Most ordinary people protesting in Egypt’s streets in 2011 and now have always been more interested in liberty, equality and rights than Shariah or the lack of it. Those calling for a return to the Shariah or actively opposing it will always be at the fringes, even if loud. The mass man wants things more tangible than legislation. As long as religious parties fail to take on social ills, they will remain unattractive to the man in the street.

Putting the cart before the horse by making Shariah law precede the provision of basic justice has proven disastrous. When the letter of the law is imposed without first actively promoting the value it exists to protect, this becomes brutal and spiritless. The experiment with the Hudood laws in Pakistan in the 80s allowed Islamic law (or the pretense of it) to fail by not creating the necessary conditions for it to work. Such disasters are likely to be committed by those seeking to win legitimacy by appealing to religious sentiment.
Islamic groups must also be conversant with modernity. Both freedom and democracy are part of the inevitable modernizing process in societies today. Egypt is livid over what is perceived as Morsi’s attempt to curtail both these hard-earned gifts. While the democracy package bred in Western society may certainly not be suitable for Muslim societies, the values of governance by popular will, decision-making involving public participation and accountability before the public and the law are values Islam vigorously promotes. Certainly, the intricacies of how these democratic values can best be ensured is something scholars and leaders have to work out given their social contexts. Other than that, the implementation of laws must be done in a manner that does not encroach upon personal liberty. While an Islamic society will facilitate and promote the values of Islam, it must not call for moral policing that trespasses the line between the public and the private. Individual morality in an Islamic system is promoted through education and gentle ‘dawah’ and no imposition is acceptable in the private lives of individuals as that is between a man and his God. Islamic groups in Pakistan are still unclear and uncomfortable with both these aspects of modernity and what these mean to them: freedom and democracy.

The Muslim Brotherhood seems to be learning the right lessons and growing in the right direction. Josh Rogin writing for Foreign Policy terms the Egyptian government an ‘honest broker in the Middle East.’ Morsi’s aide Essam Haddad makes it clear that the Muslim Brotherhood does not want to create a theologically based state in Egypt, but that it does want shariah to inform governance and law going forward. The Brotherhood's religious leader, Mohamed Badie, tweeted on the eve of the referendum approving the constitution by a 64% vote: “Let's start building our country's rebirth... men and women, Muslims and Christians."

Their Pakistani counterparts, while in awe of their victory, still have a long way to go- with a good deal to be unlearnt and a good deal to be learnt.