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Haroon Moghul on Why the Egyptian Revolution is not Islamist

Via the Huffington Post, an insightful and nuanced analyses from Haroon Moghul. Hopefully people will start to listen.

4 Reasons Why Egypt’s Revolution Is Not Islamic

The following is reprinted with permission from Religion Dispatches. You can sign up for their free daily newsletterhere.

Just as in the case of Tunisia, we’ve been caught off guard by the rapid pace of events in Egypt. Commentators are having a difficult time understanding the dynamics of the Arab world and especially the role of religion in this latest apparent revolution. Many wonder why this isn’t an Islamic Revolution, and are audibly breathing a sigh of relief that it isn’t — assuming that somehow Egypt would follow Iran’s rather unique trajectory in 1979 and thereafter.

So why isn’t Egypt’s revolution an Islamic one? And what sets Tunisia and Egypt apart from Iran? Due to the quickly shifting nature of events, I’ve recorded four reasons why Egypt’s uprising isn’t an explicitly Islamic one.

1) The political Islamism that ended up triumphing in Iran was a much more authoritarian interpretation of Islam. It specifically embraced political power and preached a narrative of resistance, though its victory in Iran paradoxically ended any chance of victory elsewhere. That’s because when elites and other, non-religious ideological forces in neighboring Muslim countries saw the purges of prior elites taking place in Iran, they immediately became skeptical of working alongside Islamists in their own country.

Islamic challenges to regimes in Tajikistan, Algeria and Tunisia, among others, were violently supressed even though they pursued their goals democratically. Most Islamists learned from this brutal experience and grew from it; Egypt’s most powerful Muslim group, the Muslim Brotherhood, was one such group. It’s probably safe to say that Iran was the only victory for this style of Islamism, and now, some 30-plus years later, its moment has largely passed. The geopolitical, economic and social reasons for its emergence have disappeared.

2) Iran’s Islamist opposition to the Shah was shaped by the peculiarities of Shi’a Islam and Iranian history. Shi’as have a more organized and powerful clergy than Sunnis, and Iran’s clergy, unlike Egypt’s, were much more independent of the state. In Egypt today, among the main trends in Islamic practice are a quietist Salafism, which seeks a rigorous but non-political personal morality, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

And while the Brotherhood is an incredibly large and powerful organization, it is today a product of years of suppression, torture, and intimidation. While it seeks to change society, it does not pursue an explicitly political agenda. Rather, it believes that an ideal politics will be achieved once society is Islamized — in other words, enough introduction of Muslim values into popular culture, and society will simply reform itself — and that includes the state. So while they have political ideals, they certainly don’t have an explicit political program.

That said, it’s no surprise that the Brotherhood weren’t out ahead in the recent protests: They’ve largely eschewed street politics (it ends with their members electrocuted in jails). It’s also worth considering, although this is still conjectural, whether the Brotherhood declined to play a more public role even after they caught up to events on the street precisely because they know a more prominent role for themselves could draw negative attention. I’m sure the Brotherhood knows that Mubarak would love to have Islamists to blame for the uprising. It would make our government support for his crackdown that much easier to obtain.

3) People who study Iran know how vexed the relationship is, and has been, between Persian cultural identity and Islam. While many Iranians before the revolution were religious in a non-political way, the country’s elite tended to see Islam and Persianness as mutually incompatible. On the other hand, Egypt is a proudly Arab society (hint: the Arab Republic of Egypt) which has never seen Islam as incompatible with their specific ethnic and national project.

Arabness and Islam are hard to pull apart, such that the late Michel Aflaq, the founder of the Arab nationalist Ba’ath Party — he was a Christian — praised Islam as an achievement of the Arab cultural genius. (Many Muslims wouldn’t take too kindly to such a reading, but there you have it.) That difference in dynamics between Egypt and Iran needs to be stressed.

While Iran’s Shah campaigned against Islam and sought to erase its role in Persian history and culture, Mubarak never attacked Islam with anywhere near the same vehemence. He’s far more concerned with preserving power for himself than he is with rewriting Egyptian history (unfortunately for his prospects of remaining in power, he’s concerned with himself–and not even for Egypt’s advancement, unlike other Third World dictatorships, which do emphasize and achieve real economic growth). And this brings us to the most important point…

4) Egypt’s revolution doesn’t have to be Islamic because Islam isn’t at the heart of the problem on the ground. In fact, the non-political Egyptian Islam of the last few decades has succeeded in deeply Islamizing Egyptian culture, making Muslim piety interwoven with the everyday rhythms of Egyptian life. We saw this in the protests after the Friday prayers today, in the spontaneous congregational prayers that took place in the heat of demonstrations–and we can see it in the number of Egyptian women who veil (though many don’t and still strongly identify with Islam, whether culturally or religiously, personally or publicly).

Egypt’s society is a deeply Muslim one, and the very success of this non-political religious project has negated the need for a confrontational Islam. Egyptians know their religious identity is not under threat. ElBaradei, for example, joined in Friday prayers today before going out into the streets. Whether Egyptians identify with political Islam or secular democracy, their Arabness and Islam tend to be mutually supportive, and certainly not incompatible.

Where there is a danger is that if the United States does not come out explicitly in favor of the people, subsequent events will become more confrontational, and may even see the introduction of a more cultural and civilizational rhetoric. The Shah monopolized power and sought to erase a culture. Mubarak, for all his brutality, has had no such grandiose presumption.

As an aside, I might also add that Muslim societies often have flourishing religious institutions and practices, organic and varied. But in the case of Iran, the regime paradoxically undermined that popular and organic religiosity when they sought to enforce faith through the state. This is an argument for keeping religion and politics separate in the Muslim world: in the interest of defending both from the negative effects of the other. Egypt’s “secular” dictator, who didn’t meddle too far into his people’s religious life — he was no Shah, and no Ben Ali — hasn’t created a sharp cultural divide in his country (the economic one is something else altogether). So why would Egyptians need, want, or stress, an Islamic Revolution?

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  • Babak Irani

    Haroon Moghul’s first 3 points were largely right but the last one was completely wrong (with regards to iran)

    ‘As an aside, I might also add that Muslim societies often have flourishing religious institutions and practices, organic and varied. But in the case of Iran, the regime paradoxically undermined that popular and organic religiosity when they sought to enforce faith through the state.’

    NO! the revolution and the succeeding regime was a RESPONSE to the shah’s suppression of the organic and flourishing religious practices and institutions.
    This writer (Haroon Moghul) completely ignores the fact that the shah tried to westernize iran through what ayatollah khomeini described as ‘westoxification’ and tried to re-introduce ‘pre-islamic persian culture’ as an alternative which greatly threatened islam (organic and political).
    This is similar to how ataturk tried to re-introduce ‘pre-islamic turkish culture’ as an alternative which also threatened islam. This wasnt exagerrated by islamists in turkey because the result of this ‘turkification’ was the removal of sharia and enforcement of secularism, changing of the turkish letters from perso-arabic script to latin script, forced removal/discouragement/ban of islamic dress (either fez, hijab, niqab, turban, beard etc.), secular education, changing from islamic to western gregorian calendar, introduction and legalization of haram acts (adultery, alcohol, pork), etc.
    This is in contrast to Egypt’s Mubarak who regularly praised and affirmed islam and sharia (although he kept it away from politics). He did not try introduce ‘ancient pre-islamic egyptian culture’ as an alternative to ‘arab islamic culture’.
    you even mentioned that arab egypt ‘has never seen Islam as incompatible with their specific ethnic and national project’. this is in contrast in iran where many elites ‘tended to see Islam and Persianness as mutually incompatible’.
    when turks saw the incompatibility between the arab islam and Turkish culture they tried to turkify islam by replacing gods name ‘allah’ with ‘tengri’ (turkish for god), and at one point tried to change the azaan and prayer language from arabic to turkish. many turks and Kemalists today continually complain that islamists will try to reintroduce arab islamic culture and laws by turning back clock to 7th century arabia of muhammad. And they use that justification for supressing islamists and islamic culture/islam while enforcing secularism. If it wasn’t for the iranian revolution, Iran would have had its own version of kemalists today. the islamic revolution saved islam rather than endanger it as you claim.

    The writer Haroon Moghul goes on to claim:

    ‘In fact, the non-political Egyptian Islam of the last few decades has succeeded in deeply Islamizing Egyptian culture, making Muslim piety interwoven with the everyday rhythms of Egyptian life.’

    This is largely because Egyptian culture is closely tied to arab culture (i.e. arab republic, populated with arabs, arabic speaking, arabic music and food, arabic literature), which in turn is closely tied to islam (ghoran is in arabic, hadiths and duas are in arabic, etc.). This is not the case in countries like turkey or iran or afghanistan or pakistan or indonesia etc. all these countries have non-arab populations that cant speak or understand fluent arabic or have arabic culture which is why they have to rely on mullahs and scholars (who study arabic and ghoran/sonnas and get an islamic education) to teach the ignorant masses. one of the reasons why you saw the taliban and other islamists gain power and prominence in pakistan and afghanistan is because you have much of the population as uneducated/illiterate, these countries have largely patriarchial and feudal societies where mullahs have a large influence among the population. This is why since the people of afghanistan/pakistan cant afford education/literacy they let the madrasah and mullahs educate their youth, thats when some mullahs/scholars transmit their perverted version of islam to the students/talibs which leads them to become radical extremists who implement a version of islam the arabs (like egyptians) never heard of.

    ‘Egypt’s society is a deeply Muslim one, and the very success of this non-political religious project has negated the need for a confrontational Islam.’

    that’s because Egyptian society is a largely arab one (compared to iran which is not arab), which in turn leads to a more muslim one. It must be remembered that even the largely successful and extremely secular rule of ben ali wasn’t able to remove islam from the tunisian arab society, so how could the rule of a more moderately secular mubarak remove islam from the largely conservative arab society of egypt? finally, the confrontational islam didnt emerge as a large force because the non-political islam was largely left alone to influence society (hence the reason why islam wasn’t a problem in egypt’s revolution but was in iran’s one). It must be remembered that one of the major reasons for iran’s revolution was the westernization/secularization of the conservative islamic society in iran.

  • i am going to have to pretty much disagree with everything being said in this article while agreeing with Dinokaiser in his assessment of el-Baradei

    Allhu A’lam

  • This accusation that this democratic revolution is tied to religious extremism is largely from the same ilk that believes in the myth that Islam is an “ideology that is incomparable with democracy and freedom.”

    Also read the Religion Dispatches article by Sarah Posner: How the Conspiratorial American Right Is Spinning the Egypt Protests – http://www.religiondispatches.org/dispatches/sarahposner/4134/how_the_conspiratorial_american_right_is_spinning_the_egypt_protests/

  • Dinokaiser

    * he would not have come to Egypt had he not considered whether it would be successful as it is the biggest protest in years.

  • Dinokaiser

    People should not support El-Baradei, all the news medias outside of Egypt are lying as to what he is; he is not an opposition leader (unless he is made one, which has not happened yet), yet the western media and Al-jazeera is pretending like he is the only/main one, this is very strange to me.

    All but one of the opposition leaders have condemned Baradei for trying to pretend like he has anything to do with these protests and he has the cheek to say that he will be “leader if people want him to be one”, infact many of the people who oppose him now were strong supporters of him before.
    They said that “this revolution was not by the opposition parties, but by the youth of Egypt and that he is just trying to ride this wave when he has not been there for the Egyptian people before” (something to that effect).
    Incase no one remembers, this is also similar to what Baradei said last week when he said he wouldn’t come; “ElBaradei announced his support for the protests set for Jan. 25, even though he would not be taking part in them. “I don’t want to steal their thunder,” ElBaradei explained”. Yet he is doing just that, he came to Egypt when he realized that he could use the revolt to his own political advantage. He was not the one who led any of the protests, it was the Egyptian people and the Egyptian youth who did, he is irrelevant and he would not have come to Egypt had he not considered.

    He has openly commended the fires that have been set by thugs against police stations (the fires resulted in the homes of police officers being burned, killing innocent people). He is a hitchhiker in this revolution and is also every bit as much of a US puppet as Mubarak, why should we support him?

    As for the article, just point #4 would have been enough to point out that this is not an Islamist revolution (which was obvious in the first place).

  • Ash

    Whats the fear? If Egypt what Islamic rule its their country and the will of the majority is what matters, who cares what the state of israel or the usa wants, they have bullying the world for far to long.

  • Mosizzle

    Well that ends the irrational fear that people (mostly Americans and Israelis) have that this revolution is going into “Iranian mode”.

    Insha’allah, there will be a democracy that is fair to the Muslim majority and the Christian minority.

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  • NassirH

    Haroon Moghul has an interesting blog. I especially thought the following was interesting.

    http://avari.typepad.com/avari/2011/01/an-invitation-to-write-about-islam-paid-opportunity.html#more

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