What do Egyptians really mean when they say ‘sharia’?

One of the major themes in GetReligion posts about Islam over the past decade has been our emphasis on the fact that there is no one monolithic Islam, no one simplistic way for journalists to approach that faith.

For millions, Islam is truly a religion of peace. For millions of others, Islam is not — when it collides with minority religions and the modern world — a religion of peace. There is no one Islam.

This theme also applies to coverage of stories linked to Islamic, or sharia, law. When Muslims say that they want to see their land governed according to sharia law, journalists really need to stop and ask them what they mean when they use that term. Journalists need to ask specific questions about specific issues, so that readers are not caught, once again, in simplistic assumptions.

Take, for example, the fascinating Washington Post story that just ran under the headline, “Among many Egyptians, a dramatic shift in favor of the military.”

The key question that everyone is asking: Many Egyptians backed the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood party at the polls, then a year later took to the streets to call for the removal of President Mohamed Morsi. Why? What’s the logic? Is this really just about a bad economy?

Read this section of the story carefully:

The military has portrayed its takeover as a bold stroke to save the country from terrorism. But the public’s rejection of Morsi is rooted in the wildly high hopes that ordinary Egyptians had for the Arab Spring — and their bitterness at how democracy failed to deliver jobs or social justice.

When Egyptians revolted in 2011 against Mubarak, it reflected their disgust with his government’s corruption, police abuses and inability to provide jobs for the swelling population. In the lead-up last year to the country’s first free presidential elections, candidates offered not so much policy proposals as visions of a new country.

“Islam is the solution” was the Muslim Brotherhood’s pledge. Working-class Egyptians such as Mohammed Abdul Qadir, 43, took that to heart.

“I only wanted one thing: to be ruled under sharia,” or Islamic law, the cabdriver said. “But this didn’t happen. There was only more injustice.” By “sharia,” Abdul Qadir didn’t mean a ban on alcohol or a requirement that women wear veils. He meant the creation of a broadly just society, the kind promoted in Islamic teachings.

One can only assume that the last two sentences in that paragraph are based on paraphrased information taken from that interview with the cabbie.

So he wanted sharia law, but he was not insisting that all aspects of Islamic law, or one interpretation of Islamic law, be enforced as the law of the land.

So, is this Egyptian on the street in favor of sharia law or not?

You can sense some of the same conflict in the following material from the same Post story:

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Got news? Egyptian Copts tortured for some strange reason

Yes, I know that we’re talking about a report on Fox News. That fact alone, for many readers, will mean that GetReligion is once again venturing into the world of alternative, niche, “conservative” news.

I recognize that. However, I still want to know why this event is getting little or no coverage in the mainstream press here in North America.

Let’s start at the top, which includes the first hint of what, for me, is the most interesting and important element of this hellish report:

Islamic hard-liners stormed a mosque in suburban Cairo, turning it into torture chamber for Christians who had been demonstrating against the ruling Muslim Brotherhood in the latest case of violent persecution that experts fear will only get worse.

Such stories have become increasingly common as tensions between Egypt’s Muslims and Copts mount, but in the latest case, mosque officials corroborated much of the account and even filed a police report. Demonstrators, some of whom were Muslim, say they were taken from the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in suburban Cairo to a nearby mosque on Friday and tortured for hours by hard-line militia members.

“They accompanied me to one of the mosques in the area and I discovered the mosque was being used to imprison demonstrators and torture them,” Amir Ayad, a Coptic who has been a vocal protester against the regime, told MidEast Christian News from a hospital bed.

As I have said many times (including this all-but-MIA GetReligion post about human rights, public rapes in this case) my starting point in reading coverage of Egypt is that there is no one Muslim point of view on these kinds of hot-button issues, such as the freedom of the nation’s religious minorities to practice their faith and be active in public life.

If you assume this to be true, what are the most important words in this news story?

How about the fact that some of the abused demonstrators where Muslims, along with the statement that “mosque officials corroborated much of the account and even filed a police report”?

Now, I do not read Arabic. Is there a GetReligion reader out there who can read the actual document (pictured above) to which the Fox Report links via URL? Click here to see the document itself.

Journalists often hint that they hesitate to cover stories about persecuted Christians — as well as Jews, Baha’is and members of minority forms of Islam — because they turn into emotionally loaded and one-sided debates, the political equivalent of “he said-she said” fights.

That does not appear to be the case this time around:

Officials at the Bilal ibn Rabah Mosque said radical militias stormed the building, in the Cairo suburb of Moqattam, after Friday prayers.

“[We] deeply regret what has happened and apologize to the people of Moqattam,” mosque officials said in a statement, adding that “they had lost control over the mosque at the time.” The statement also “denounced and condemned the violence and involving mosques in political conflicts.”

So what does this mean?

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Some journalists waking up to Egyptian realities?

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Day after day the news from Egypt seems to get darker and more confusing. This morning, in The Los Angeles Times, things were summed up like this:

CAIRO – Anger between Egypt’s rival political camps erupted into street battles Wednesday after Islamist supporters of President Mohamed Morsi tore down tents belonging to antigovernment demonstrators, raising the possibility of widening violence over the nation’s proposed constitution.

Pro-Morsi factions overran about 200 protesters camped outside the presidential palace in north Cairo. The clashes came after the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party called thousands of its members into the streets in a counter-demonstration to drive opposition movements from the presidential palace.

Shoving and punching spilled down a boulevard as hurled stones, swinging sticks and firebombs filled the dusk in one of the capital’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Pro-Morsi contingents, including Brotherhood followers and ultraconservative Salafis, chased opposition activists, shouting: “God is great! The people support the president’s decision!”

Through the years, I have heard journalists who work in these kinds of environments make one statement over and over: It doesn’t matter what a nation’s laws say about free speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, etc., if the police will not stop a riot. Rioters often make their own laws and hold instant elections and the majority usual wins.

What we are seeing, on one level, is the collapse of the whole Muslim Brotherhood-as-moderate influence template that has driven so much of the mainstream news coverage in recent months.

While there have been stories that stressed the strategic differences between Morsi and the more traditionalist Salafis, the reports we are seeing now are united in their emphasis that, on the crucial question of Islamic law being codified into the new Constitution, the leaders of these two Islamist camps are merely arguing about a few details, not the big picture. Many journalists are responding with a kind of, “Oh my gosh, who knew?” wonder and awe.

It is also crucial for reporters and editors to realize that Egypt, as a whole, is not conflicted on the big questions. Believers in religious minorities are truly at peril, according to the numbers in a very important — but largely overlooked — Pew Forum survey a year or so ago. Writing for Scripps, I summed the numbers up like this, in the midst of a discussion of that vague and often meaningless term “fundamentalist.”

Take Egypt, for example, a nation in which conflicts exist between multiple forms of Islam and various religious minorities, including the Coptic Orthodox Christians who are nearly10 percent of the population. Recent surveys by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project tried to find defining lines between political and religious groups in Egypt, after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.

“Egyptians hold diverse views about religion,” stated the report. “About six-in-ten (62%) think laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran. However, only 31% of Egyptian Muslims say they sympathize with Islamic fundamentalists, while nearly the same number (30%) say they sympathize with those who disagree with the fundamentalists, and 26% have mixed views on this question.”

Meanwhile, on two other crucial questions: “Relatively few (39%) give high priority to women having the same rights as men. … Overall, just 36% think it is very important that Coptic Christians and other religious minorities are able to freely practice their religions.”

So while only 31 percent sympathize with “fundamentalist” Muslims, 60-plus percent decline to give high priority to equal rights for women and 62 percent believe Egypt’s laws should STRICTLY follow the Quran. Also, only 36 percent strongly favor religious liberty for religious minorities. Each of these stances mesh easily with alternative “fundamentalism” definitions offered by experts.

To add more complexity, 75 percent of those surveyed had a somewhat or very favorable view of the Muslim Brotherhood’s surging role in Egyptian life — a group long classified as “fundamentalist” in global reports, such as historian Martin Marty’s “Fundamentalism as a Social Phenomenon” in 1988.

So, how pragmatic and “moderate” has Morsi turned out to be?

Some mainstream journalists are starting to ask that question. This remarkable essay by NBC’s Jim Maceda stumbles through the wreckage and makes some rather bracing concessions to the reality of majority rule:

The era of the Muslim Brotherhood appears to have arrived. President Obama has hailed the Brotherhood’s President Mohammed Morsi as a pragmatist who helped end the Gaza crisis. Egyptians here think the Brotherhood has conned Washington, just like it conned them.

“President Obama is supporting a terrorist,” a man told me amid chants of “Leave! Leave!” in Tahrir Square and “Down, down with the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader.” Before, it was “Down, down with Mubarak.”

Egypt was torn in half … when Morsi made himself more powerful than Mubarak ever was, and the kings before him. Morsi declared himself above judicial oversight, his decisions final and unassailable. He made himself, according to critics, a new pharaoh on the Nile. Imagine if, after five months in office, an American president announced that he could pass any law he pleased regardless of Congress or the U.S. Supreme Court. Imagine if he said his decisions were final and inspired by God.

And the bottom line? Read it all, including this sobering passage:

Protected by the president’s new-found supreme and unquestionable powers, Morsi ordered his Islamist allies to finish writing the constitution and get it on his desk by the end of this week. They did it, even though many independent legal experts, Christians and opposition politicians boycotted the drafting process. The Brotherhood called the new constitution “a jewel.” Many Egyptians say it leaves too much room for the implementation of Shariah law.

The constitution also empowers the people and government with a duty to uphold moral values, a vague clause that could pave the way for vigilante morality police. The constitution barely mentions protecting women’s rights. According to women who were originally involved in the drafting process, and who subsequently left because they felt they were being ignored, clauses specifically demanding that women be protected from violence and sex trafficking were dropped because Islamists feared it would conflict with their desire to allow child brides.

Journalists and others involved in researching these topics need to parse the Pew Forum numbers again. Are the current events surprising? Is the reality that Morsi represents a powerful majority that, with no need for the approval of the West, can proceed to act on its convictions? How will the American press deal with these realities, including the clear threats now looming for the large Coptic Orthodox minority, secular liberals, progressive Muslims, feminists and members of other religious minority groups?

Is the existing news template being crushed under the feet of the rioters?


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