Contrary to the fears of some western observers, Islam has had a strong tradition of rule of law and religious and political freedom. There is no reason for concern about the electoral success of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt
Almost a year on, the developments following the Arab Spring bring the attention of the western political elite to Islam’s political ambitions in a very precarious part of the world. Francis Fukuyama’s ‘end of history thesis’ postulated Islam as a mere irritant in the west’s path to cementing secular democracy as the pinnacle of man’s social and political achievements. Such a prediction however, seems to have received a contending voice in the religiously inspired politics captivating the Egyptian political scene, where the murmured fear is that much of the Muslim citizenry possess an end of history thesis themselves, albeit ending in a slightly different crescendo of perfection to the one predicted by Fukuyama.
Amidst the quandary which is Egyptian politics in the post-Mubarak era, the Muslim Brotherhood have announced themselves as the main actors in deciding the nation's domestic and international relations, having gained a majority of votes in the recent parliamentary elections. Much has been made of the discord between the Brotherhood’s old and new guards, with the younger, modern educated segment objecting to the ultra-conservatives’ authoritarian practices1, indicating to many that we are passing through a nascent post-Islamist Middle East. Yet we cannot afford to ignore the overwhelming recourse to Islam as a way of steering the trajectories of parties like the Brotherhood and the Salafi Al-Nour party. Despite the absence of a soundly delineated political agenda from either party, far from sidelining religious teachings to the peripheries, it would appear Egypt is on the brink of a model of government where Islam is touted as the de facto solution to the country’s social, economic and political woes.
While the appeal to religion as an adequate panacea for a country’s regression is unthinkable in western political circles, the insulation of Islam from the political sphere has been actively reversed by the political aspirations of Muslim Egyptians and their support for a cross-fertilization between religion and politics has been made patently clear. So how should interested observers in the western world - many of whom, are deeply troubled by the religious players at the forefront of the post-Mubarak regime - react to what many have prematurely labelled an ominous impediment in Egypt’s transition from authoritarianism to pluralism?
Well firstly, it may help to remind some of our less informed and unenlightened ‘Islamistphobes’, that history bears witness to the successful application of governing systems steeped in Islamic law. One need only look at the Abbasid Caliphate, Muslim Spain and the Ottoman Empire as identifiable epochs in the political history of Muslims, where the machinations of just government, effective judiciary and requisite checks and balances were all hallmarks of the Islamic body-politick. The perception generated by Orientalist scholarship, that Muslim societies have unvaryingly produced politically incompetent leadership, autocratic governments and weak legal structures may be true when we take a cursory glance at the despots and monarchs ruling the Muslim world in the past century, though it is arguable whether the culpability for this rests with the inability of Muslims to effectively dictate their political destiny or the aggressive colonialism of western powers. However, the view that this was an ineradicable Muslim tendency from the gestation period of Islam until the end of the Ottoman Empire is only advanced by those uncritically receptive to the commonplace demonization of Muslims and Islamic history.
Those who are cynical about the efficacy of judicial institutions administered by Islamists only need to consult fourteenth century Islamic court practices, where hierarchical appellate structures and systems of successor review were trademarks of Islamic legal theory.2 In this can be seen a vindication of Islamic Law’s commitment to human rights as conceptualised today. For instance, Article 14 (5) of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states: “Everyone convicted of a crime shall have the right to his conviction and sentence being reviewed by a higher tribunal according to law”.3 In fact, this right of appeal to higher tribunal, so flagrantly dismissed during the Mubarak regime’s wrongful conviction of many political dissidents, was a customary practice of Abu Yusuf, the Chief Justice during the Caliphate of Harun al-Rashid, in eighth century Baghdad.4. The secular liberals who have sounded the alarm at the prospect of Islamist Egypt signalling the demise of constitutionalism and rule of law, have failed to recognize Shariah Law’s functional equivalent of a higher court reviewing the decisions of a lower court.
This revision and appeal of judgements is contained in the Islamic legal principle of ‘murafa’ah’ and should be favourably received in an Egypt which for too long has witnessed political opposition quashed into silence and post-trial rights aborted. We should welcome the prospect of such formal legal and constitutional structures being reintroduced in Egypt. Islamic legal dispensations can easilymake a contribution to the development of a free and independent civilian judiciary which can render the politically repressive and authoritarian methods employed by Mubarak’s military regime a relic of a bygone era.
Another source from history which Islamistphobes are well advised to consult is the central, most animating figure of Islamic history himself: Muhammad. Exactly how much of his life and statesmanship is familiar to the average western politician remains unknown but if the time-honoured European hostility towards Islam and Muslims is anything to go by, it is probably very little, or certainly subverted by medieval Christian polemics on Muhammad which were informed with a crusading zeal. Concerning the westerners who remain ambivalent at the prospects of an Islamically governed Egypt, it cannot be too much to ask to appeal to their goodwill to look beyond a hate-filled scholarship which is detrimental to reasoned judgment. Doing so will open up the intellectual space to engage with the biographies and predominantly Muslim accounts of Muhammad, so that lessons and practices from his lifetime which speak directly to the Egyptian political predicament may be identified. This can help bridge the gap between the much played out conundrum between Islamic Law and international human rights law.
For example, it is often alleged that the formal introduction of Shariah law into Egypt’s state machinery will sound the death knell for Christian Copts, minorities and non-conformists who depart from the state-sponsored orthodoxy and this has raised doubts about any impending government pursuing Islamization. Take for example, the ‘civil death’ incurred by Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, whose call for the revision of conventional approaches to Quranic hermeneutics 5 was treated as apostasy. Or the instances of harassment voiced by Egypt’s Coptic population whose insistence on a separatist existence is largely due to their sense of being the direct targets of planned provocations by the status quo during the Sadat and Mubarak years, where censorship of the Coptic press and persecution by state security forces 6 was quite routine. These cases have left a considerable voice amongst Egypt’s religious minorities feeling at best, uncertain about Islamist guarantees of rights under international human rights law.
Yet many Muslims would argue that such discrimination is not only in violation of international legal norms, but contradicts the Prophetic model, which enshrines the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and entitles all faith communities to defend themselves from any seditious provocation.7 We need to ask ourselves whether any wisdom may be extracted from Muhammad’s interactions with others that can serve as an instructive and educative principle for social organisation in Egypt. Perhaps the ‘Sahifat al-Madina’ is a starting point. Popularly referred to as the ‘Mithaq al-Madina’ it has been described by some as the first constitution in human history 8 and is entirely accredited to Muhammad and the Islamic faith. Dr Robert Dickson Crane, a former foreign policy advisor to Richard Nixon writes:
“When the various tribes living in Madina invited the Prophet Muhammad to become their leader as a means to overcome their inter-tribal rivalries and bring peace, prosperity and freedom, there was no such thing as a state in the modern sense. In fact, such a modern concept was not invented until more than a thousand years later, even though there were empires, like the Persian, Chinese, and Incas, based on the modern concept of might makes right. In the Covenant of Madina the various autonomous tribes were incorporated in a single confederation with common rights and responsibilities. The Prophet called this confederation an umma or single community composed of different ethnic and religious ummas as sub-groups.” 9
The Madinan charter carried the force of law and was drafted with the intention of effecting better relations between groups and tribes in what was a heterogeneous social composition. Muhammad’s diplomacy then can be perceived as being relevant to the circumstances obtaining in an Egyptian society, where the successful integration and status of different religious communities, ranging from Jehovah’s Witnesses to members of the Baha’i faith, have to be carefully negotiated. One of Muhammad’s aphorisms pertinent in the current context is “Whoever violates the rights of the People of the Book, I will complain against them on the Day of Judgement” - surely a sufficient Islamic guarantee against the dissolution of minority religious communities.
With the granting of asylum to those requiring protection and the formation of alliances with Jewish and Christian minorities a prevailing characteristic of Muhammad’s statesmanship in Medina, contemporary critics of political Islam should look with a degree of optimism at the prospect of an Egypt which far from accosting its religious minorities, can embrace their potential value to the wider Islamic polity, in a parallel manner to Muhammad’s interplay with religious and ethnic minorities in seventh century Arabia.