Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Why a secular party is not allowed in Egypt?

Ahmed Fouad's article in Al-Monitor Is Egypt ready for a secular party? is about a recent attempt to form a secular party in Egypt. It is called Egyptian Secular Party (الحزب العلماني المصري). The article also traces three previous attempts to start such a party in Egypt. All of these attempts failed as Fouad explained:

  1. In 2004, Mohsen Lotfi al-Sayed and other intellectuals submitted incorporation request for a secular party Hizb-Masr al-Um (Mother Egypt Party). This request was rejected by the chamber of political parties’ affairs. After removing the reference to secularism from the incorporation charter and changing the name to Al Hizb al-Masri al-Liberali (Liberal Egyptian Party), another request was submitted but it was also rejected by the Mubarak administration.
  2. In 2011, novelist Alaa Hamed claimed that he wanted to start a secular party but was attacked by some Salafi leaders of Zifta city. Zifta residents denied his claim but no party was established. Fouad informs that Hamid was convicted of blasphemy in 1990 because of his book, The Void in a Man’s Mind: God’s Trial,
  3. In July 2013, after President Morsi's ouster in a coup, Shiite leader Bahaa Anwar called for the establishment of a secular Fajr Party and demanded disbanding of all religious parties. The name of the party was later changed to Secular Egypt Party but again no party was registered.

Egyptian Secular Party is formed by a group of people, most well-known of which is Hesham Ouf. Ouf is an Egyptian businessman and his previous political experience is limited to owning a marketing research firm that worked for Mohamed ElBaradei’s and Amr Moussa’s campaigns in the 2012 presidential elections. Egyptian Secular Party, according to New secular party to 'challenge religious dominance', wants to separate religion from politics, abolish religious education, and limit the power of Al-Azhar University that according to the party has become a state within a state.

Egyptian Secular Party formation has been widely criticized. Its leaders have been called crazy, atheists, extremists and collaborators and its agenda has been declared unconstitutional and against religious values of the Egyptian people. The charge of unconstitutionality is based on two grounds. First, secularism is a termed a religion (as Islam, Judaism etc.) and as Egyptian constitution bans all religion-based political parties, it is declared that a secular party is also unconstitutional. Second, secular party is deemed unconstitutional because it is against sharia, which is a part of the Egyptian constitution.

Fouad is not very enthusiastic about this latest attempt to establish secular party because of the lack of support from the Egyptian state:

The chances of establishing the party remain remote, especially in light of the lack of a clear position by the state. Establishing the party anytime soon could be difficult, given the question of its constitutionality and opposition from those who consider it a violation of religious beliefs.

With it strong stance against political Islam and religion-based parties, it appears strange that Sisi's administration is not only not promoting this party but also reluctant to register it. Registering this party would have paid dividends outside Egypt as many Western governments would have more inclined to consider President Sisi a liberal and support him. However, the attitude of Sisi administration is non-committal. Why governments against political Islam are not supporting secularism when it also helps them improve their international standing and prospects of aid?

The main reasons appear to be an increasing mixing of Islam with nationalism and a general anger against the Western governments in the Muslim societies. These reasons can also be considered as a form of nativism that rejects the Western influences (but accepts its technological, scientific accomplishments) and searches for authenticity. Secularism, in this discourse and environment, is linked with the West, extreme liberalism and atheism and thus becomes illegitimate on two grounds. First, it is wrong because it is linked with the West which is termed as source of most of the troubles; hence the use of terms collaborators and traitors for secularists. Second, it is castigated because it is against Islam that is considered a 'native' religion and an Arab religion. Both these arguments are obviously false as there is a rich tradition of secularism in Islam and one can be a deeply religious Muslim as well as a secularist.

Muslim/Islamic secularism appears to be an oxymoron but it is not. Nader Hashmi in Islam, the State, and Political Authority: Medieval Issues and Modern Concerns (edited by Asma Afsaruddin) talks about a Muslim secularism which accepts (political, not philosophical) secularism 'while still maintaining a commitment to the principles and rituals of Islam.' This indigenous secularism is authentically Islamic, based on Islamic precepts, but is functionally secular. State is not against religion and religious groups are allowed in the public/political sphere but civil rights of minorities, women and others are rigorously protected.

Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im in his book Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari`a  goes further and claims that secularism and secular state are more consistent with Sharia and history of Muslim societies than Islamic state and Sharia enforcement as a state law (p-268)

Despite criticism, Ouf is hopeful that his party would be registered:
The Constitution bans religious political parties, yet there are religious political parties operating. Why would the (government) committee then ban a secular political party, established in accordance with the Constitution?

Monday, July 20, 2015

Is religious nationalism rising in South East Asia /ASEAN ?

Is religious nationalism increasing in South East Asia? Michael Sainsbury, a Bangkok-based journalist, certainly thinks so. While explaining the Thai junta's decision to repatriate hundreds of Uighurs refugees to China, he argues in his article, Understanding the plight of the Uighurs:

Yet this action is one more example of how politics in Asia is unintelligible without factoring in the significance of religion. The common frequently focus is on military, trade and national rivalries that culminate in decisive and dismaying actions. But increasingly religion tied to national identity is integral to the events....
It’s the latest visible example that religious fault lines and an emerging trend of religious nationalism is now beginning to appear right across the region. It is one that poses a fresh threat to the ambitions of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Economic Nations Community that will come into being on December 31, 2015.

He mentions increasing Buddhist nationalism in Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar; Muslim nationalism in Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia; and Hindu nationalism in India.  

However, decision to repatriate Uighurs, as Sainsbury also acknowledges is more to do with Thai military junta's need for allies than to rise in religious nationalism in Thailand. Moreover, in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim-majority country in the world, last year elections results showed that religious nationalism is stagnant, if not in retreat (See Indonesian Elections: A Victory for Pancasila Nationalism)

In Bangladesh too, although it is not in South East Asia like India, religious nationalism is losing to ethno-linguistic Bengali nationalism (See Bangladesh's secular nationalism asserts itself). Similarly, religious nationalism suffered a defeat when Philippines government agreed to accommodate concerns of Muslims in the Southern islands last year. 

Moreover, like Thailand and Cambodia, Muslim-majority Malaysia also deported fellow Muslim Uighurs to China in 2013 ( See Malaysia Hit for Deporting Uyghurs). More recently, both Malaysia and Indonesia (along with Bangladesh) were reluctant to accept fellow Muslims Rohingyas, who were fleeing worst kind of religious persecution (See Malaysia's Duty to the Rohingyas), making a mockery of Muslim brotherhood and Muslim nationalism. Only after international pressure, some rohingya refugees were accepted.

So, religious nationalism is South East Asia presents a mixed picture. It is rising in some countries but losing in others.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

One Nation under God

One Nation under God:How Corporate America Invented Christian America by Kevin Kruse appears to be a fascinating book on how religion/Christianity was promoted in the US by the corporations in the second half of twentieth century. Ronald Reagan was, thus, not the first President supported whole-heartedly by the newly invigorated religious right. Eisenhower and Nixon were both successful, partly due to the support from the pulpit, a support financed by the American business.

Recently, we have seen a strong alliance developing between religious-right and business communities around the world. In many countries, this alliance has delivered amazing results. We have seen it in Turkey, where Anatolia tigers (conservative businessmen from Anatolian heartland) allied with the AKP and ended the almost ninety years rule of secular establishment. We have more recently seen it in India, where corporate India supported religious-right party BJP, under Narendra Modi, to comprehensively win in 2014 elections to form first single party government in India in more than two decades.  

The US seems to be an outlier in terms of church-state relationship. As discussed in a previous post (see American Secularism: A historical view of separation of the Church and the State in the US), the US is the only country of the world that keeps religion and state strictly separate. The practicing of minority or majority religions is neither restricted nor regulated. However, it was not always so. In the 18th and 19th centuries, while church-state was separate at the federal level, at the state and local level, there were laws that discriminated against minority religions, including Christian sects such Catholicism. It was only in the 1940s that Supreme Court imposed the strict separation of church-state.

Kruse informs the readers that it was about the same time that corporate America and religious-right came close. Both of them realized that they are under threat from the federal government; religious right was threatened by judicial branch while corporate America was being threatened by the executive branch (Roosevelt's New Deal). General Eisenhower's victory in Presidential elections in 1952 was the first national success for this alliance.  A new national motto (In God we trust), the addition of 'under God' in the pledge of allegiance and appearance of national motto on all banknotes soon followed.

Here are two reviews of the book, one by the Wall Street Journal and the other by NPR, to savor before you buy the book.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Does more democracy mean more Islam? A look at Pakistan’s constitutional history

Writing about post-invasion Iraq, Feldman and Martinez (2007) argued, 
as the constitutional process became increasingly participatory and democratic in the period from the fall of Saddam Hussein to ratification, the constitution itself became increasingly Islamic in orientation and detail…To put it simply, more democracy meant more Islam. 

If one reviews the political developments in other Muslim-majority countries (MMCs) during the last few decades, more democracy means more Islam (hereafter Feldman’s aphorism) seems to be true. Democratic advancement has resulted in more Islam in Jordan, Indonesia, Turkey, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. Recently, Hamid (2014) also contended that democratic openings in the MMCs might lead to more Islamization and not to a more liberal polity. This blogpost reviews Pakistan’s constitutional history to see whether democratic progression in Pakistan has also led to more Islamization. It concludes that during the first thirty years of Pakistan (1947-77), more democracy did lead to more Islam in the constitutions but since then, Feldman’s aphorism is no longer true.  

Rest of the blog can be read at Calgary Centre of Global Community here