On Sisi’s plan for religious reform

The instrumentalization of religion for political ends is a common temptation, across political trends

H.A. Hellyer
H.A. Hellyer
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Today, Egypt’s president is in the UAE, on his first official visit to one of his country’s most important backers in the international community. The visit comes shortly after Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has been particularly prominent in the world’s media, in the aftermath of the disgraceful attacks in France. Only days before those attacks, a speech of Sisi had emboldened an image of him as an ‘Islamic Reformer’ that is inspiring an ‘Islamic Revolution’ to overcome narrow-minded thinking among the Muslim faithful. It is understandable why some might be looking for a figure to be the ‘Muslim Martin Luther’ – but it’s probably not the best of ideas.

From the outset, let us put aside the actual track record of the Egyptian presidency in the field of upholding fundamental rights. While many might consider his anti-Islamism to be of benefit in any type of ‘Islamic Reformation’, most international human rights organizations have levelled a long litany of criticisms against the Egyptian authorities since Sisi became president, and against the military establishment that Sisi has led between 2012 and 2013. One would presume any 21st century Islamic reformer would gain the support of institutions, such as civil rights groups, that seek to protect more vulnerable sectors of societies – that is certainly not the case in this situation. But, again, let us put that aside.

The notion of seeking a Muslim ‘Martin Luther’ is not a new one. In recent history, the label has been applied to the likes of Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss-Egyptian intellectual and academic, and Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish educationalist. It is likely there will be more ‘candidates’ for this position – a rather dubious one to be sure. Martin Luther’s work heralded the Reformation in Catholic Christianity, leading to a series of religious wars that culminated in decades of conflicts and devastating much of the population of Europe. One suspects the Muslim world has more than enough strife already, and then some.

As a side note, incidentally – Luther had a somewhat negative view of Islam as a religion, anyway – but let us put that one aside as well. (Side note number 2, by the way: Islam is not a hierarchical, ecclesiastical faith that admits of a church or the same type of clerical class as Catholicism, which makes a ‘reformation’ somewhat difficult to achieve by a ‘figure’ in this way. But we can put that, and the temptation to graft Christian religious references onto other faiths, to the side too.)

If Sisi is, indeed, a ‘Martin Luther’ figure – on what basis are we making that assessment? His own speech was hardly indicative of that. Indeed, his speech earlier this month on the subject of religion does not really add anything new to his previous statements relating to the subject. When taken in its proper context, he was asking the scholars of the Azhar University and the wider religious establishment to do what even the majority of the Azhari establishment has calling for, for years. That relates not to an ‘Islamic Reformation’, but simply to the updating of how religion is taught, and being more efficient in promoting a quietist form of the Azhari approach to religion in society at large.

There have been forces in Egyptian society that have wanted something different. Islamist forces, such as the Muslim Brotherhood on the one hand, and Salafi religious forces on the other, have been after certain types of ‘reformations’ in the past. Both of these groups come out of specific ‘reformation’ exercises within the Muslim world, after all. The intellectual antecedents of the Brotherhood, through Hassan al-Banna, Rashid Rida, and others, were also interested in another type of ‘revolution’ – but, again, it’s not clear that those who were so excited about Sisi’s speech are after a repetition of that kind of process either. The Brotherhood and the Salafis hoped for certain changes, in terms of religion, on the one hand, and the utilization of the Azhar, as a vast establishment, in terms of propagation on the other.

That is unnecessary in today’s Egypt for the new political dispensation. The instrumentalization of religion for political ends is a common temptation, across political trends – albeit in different ways, relying on different interpretations of faith. In this case, Sisi was not calling for a ‘revolution’ in Islamic thought, good or bad though that may or may not be. The ‘statist’ interpretation of traditional Azhari religion serves well the existing power dynamics, tremendously.

In any case – a genuine religious revival within Muslim religious institutions would probably have to begin with establishing genuine independence for those same institutions. No-one with a modicum of power in Egypt has been interested in that, even if there could be a guarantee that the type of religion that would become independent would be sophisticated, healthy and expansive. After all, independence of thought means critical thinking – which leads to criticism. At the very least, it leads to speaking truth to power.

Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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