Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has earned numerous accolades, domestic and international, for his repeated calls for religious discourse away from extremism. Sisi has expressed the conviction that the proclivity to radicalism and conflict is not inherent to Islam, but is the product of the sacralization of texts and the uncritical acceptance of early scholars.
At a public event in January 2015, Sisi called on the scholars of Al-Azhar, Egypt’s main religious institution, to review their curricula and that of national religious education, which they oversee. A reconsideration of religious education in public schools, in form and substance, has indeed been initiated in order to ensure that materials are unlikely to foster extremism. Al-Azhar has also announced the launching of a public information campaign on the Islamic values of tolerance and acceptance. Sisi has underlined that the intended reform will protect and respect religious feelings and will thus proceed at a careful pace.
Yet Sisi’s “religious revolution,” if not properly managed, may lead to counterproductive results.
Sisi’s denunciation of radical jihadism resonates with much of the Egyptian (and Arab and Muslim) public in its outrage at the horrors being perpetrated by the Islamic State (ISIS) in the name of the faith. Egypt is engaged in a dual combat against ISIS operatives, on its own territory in Sinai in the east, and in Libya, where many Egyptians still reside and work, to the west. ISIS has displayed exceptional brutality against Egypt, graphically killing Christian Egyptian workers in Libya and Egyptian soldiers in Sinai. The Egyptian national consciousness would normally provide the government with the opportunity to leverage ISIS’s terror against it. Egypt, however, is suffering from a political crisis that has widened fault lines, thus compromising the national unity that is needed to battle ISIS effectively.
This political crisis arose after the public protests against Muslim Brotherhood (MB) President Mohamed Morsi in June of 2013 and his ouster by the military in July. The ouster ignited a protest and dissent movement by the Brotherhood. The government declared the MB a terrorist organization, jailed thousands of its members, and continues to undertake repressive measures against its members and other political dissidents. Under current conditions—the futility of a protest movement that is crushed by force, indifference to the Brotherhood in influential world capitals, and an official narrative that conflates the MB with ISIS—there is a real risk that MB supporters will increasingly resort to more radical and violent means.
This situation in Egypt, in which the MB feels incapable of backing down to the new order, is a predicament with serious cultural and national ramifications in which religious versus secular, Muslim versus Christian, urban versus rural, and cosmopolitan versus parochial compete for claims to authenticity.
While the criticism of the political authority has now been restored to a forbidden taboo, a space for seemingly unscripted freedom of expression has been allotted to challenge religious narratives—ostensibly as an anti-MB measure. The printed press and the Internet have witnessed the emergence of a new sector of critical religious exploration. The main thrust of the activity, however, is conducted by private television stations, with debate and opinion programs offering converging perspectives on the responsibility of sclerotic religious thought for the country’s lack of progress. This effort, already saturated by polemical, and at times deliberately offensive, revisionism presented as progressive thought, has been boosted by Sisi’s call for religious revolution and has witnessed a noticeable upswing in the exposition and discussion of previously untouchable topics. Leading the anti-religious establishment campaign is the vocal and prolific Islam el-Behery, who questions the credibility of the sources of the Prophet's sayings.
Thus a deeply pious society has been exposed to media tirades debasing its religious heritage and denigrating its practices as medieval. Described by Behery and sympathizers as “shock therapy,” the discourse leaves large swathes of the general public uneasy. Behind the illusion of the opening of new venues for free thinking lies the reality of further polarization and the alienation of segments of the population vulnerable to radical recruitment.
This apparently unintended but potentially costly consequence might have been worthwhile if the malevolent religious discourse were to be replaced by an enlightened alternative. Instead, however, the two propositions competing to replace it are reincarnations of historical narratives that have failed and that have been replaced by nativist and incrementally radicalizing religious discourse.
The first, entrusted to Al-Azhar to reformulate and promote, draws on the progressive Islamic theology of the twentieth century that seeks to align the faith with universal values while stipulating a loyalist and quietist political stance. Its intellectual foundations, however, have suffered severe depletion in the past decades; it may be reinstated as an official religious narrative, but it is unequipped to challenge the elaborately constructed endorsement of activism and dissent embodied in the increasingly dominant radical Islamic theology.
The second proposition, led by public intellectuals and media personalities, is presented as an attempt at deep reform à la Martin Luther by jettisoning burdensome texts and rulings and returning to the Qur’an as the foundation. This proposition has little traction and intellectual heft to counter the radicalization of the more religious. In fact, its irritant effect may constitute a further incentive to radicalize.
The 2015 media scene in Egypt, when compared to 2011, displays a noted migration from discussions of social and economic justice to arcane religious debates. Malevolent religious discourse exploits and exacerbates, but has not created, the dilemma. Defeating it, and ushering the emergence of a benign alternative, requires the Egyptian government to succeed in addressing the fundamentals. The challenge is immense.