December 8, 2011
Stating the Religious in Egypt and Elsewhere
— Benjamin Schonthal
The current political jostling in Egypt between the Muslim Brotherhood and various individuals and organizations grouped under the title "Salafis" should give pause to those who view the "Arab autumn" primarily as a contest between Islamists and secularists. In Egypt, as in many parts of the world, the most important choices that voters make about the future of religion and the state are not choices about whether states should be religious or secular. Rather, they are questions about what features, both institutional and legal, that a "religious" state should have.
The recent electoral results in Egypt show that the question of whether Egypt should be an Islamic state is not the only—or even the main—question being wrestled with by politicians and voters. The more important issues under consideration are how the state should protect, promote and/or regulate Islam: Should Egypt's new constitution declare the country an "Islamic state" or classify Islam as the "state religion"? Should Shari'ah be a source of law or the source of law? Should Egypt's new government seek to reform society according to "Islamic values"? And, if so, what would those values include? Who should have the final authority to interpret Islam in Egypt: government agents, religious clerics or some hybrid institution such as a state-appointed religious council?
This concern with how to organize a religious state (rather than whether to do so) is not a feature of law-making only in Muslim-majority countries. It is also true of the Buddhist-majority countries of Southern Asia, such as Sri Lanka, Thailand and Cambodia. In post-independence Sri Lanka, for example, the most politically salient questions concerning religion have not been how to implement a "secular" (Sinhala: lokayatta) political order, but how government should best support the island's Buddhist monks. On one side of the argument are Buddhists who insist that in order to preserve the "purity" and coherence of Sri Lanka's many different Buddhist monastic fraternities, the government must have the power to standardize monks' education, to implement and enforce monastic codes of conduct, and to audit how monks use the extensive property and assets of Buddhist temples. On the other side are Buddhists who argue that government agents should not be given the authority to intervene in the religious lives of clerics (who, after all, are their spiritual superiors); rather the state should recognize the monks as "embodiments" of Buddhist teaching and direct to them special institutional and financial privileges without any regulatory "strings." Thus, as in Egypt, Sri Lankan debates over the relationship between Buddhism and the state are not debates over how to separate the two, but debates over how to (correctly) link them.
The descriptive binary of "the religious" and "the secular" enters into politics in Egypt and Sri Lanka not so much in the process of envisioning constitutional arrangements or building state institutions, but in the process of criticizing the arrangements and institutions proposed by others. In Sri Lanka, traditional Kandyan monks oppose state interventions into monastic affairs by characterizing such interventions as improper attempts to place "religious" (sasanika) authority in the hands of "secular" government agents. In response, those who favor greater state oversight over monastic affairs accuse Buddhist monks of resisting government reforms out of purely "secular" interests, such as a desire to preserve monks' access to temple wealth. In Egypt, the discourses of "secular" and "religious" have also been used to criticize political rivals: Salafis characterize the policies of the Muslim Brotherhood as being insufficiently Islamic, just as pundits in America accuse the Muslim Brotherhood of being insufficiently secular.
In the end, the events unfolding in Egypt should remind us that, in most places in the world, secularism is not a self-evident political virtue, as we seem to treat it in America. In many cases, it is seen as an unworkable and undesirable governing ideal, indicating the state's disregard for (rather than benign neutrality towards) the moral lives of citizens. As one follows the news in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere, it is important to bear in mind that in many countries (not only Muslim-majority countries) the crucial debates over religion will likely be over how (and not whether) the state should be "religious."
David D. Kirkpatrick, "Egypt's Vote Puts Emphasis on Split Over Religious Rule," New York Times, December 3, 2011.
Benjamin Schonthal is a Ph.D. Candidate in History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School.