Islam in Egypt and Freedom of Conscience

Today’s New York Times (April 29, 2012) reports that Egypt’s most conservative Islamic groups have announced their support for the most liberal candidate in the upcoming presidential election: an ex-Muslim Brotherhood leader; Mr. Aboul Fotouh. He is known for saying that the Quranic injunction that there should be no compulsion in religion means that governments cannot and should not enforce religious law. Indeed they should support freedom of religion. This runs contrary to the Islamist vision of a government based on enforcing Islamic law, but is, in his view, perfectly Islamic.

So why would the radical Islamist support him? If the Time’s article is correct it is because these Islamist groups want their freedom of religion. Their major opponent and the single most powerful party in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, probably won’t give it to them. It is known for enforcing uniformity in Muslim ranks. If they are to continue to be themselves, and persuade others to follow them, they need the freedom Mr Fotouh appears to offer.

The situation in Egypt is fascinating and instructive. First it should remind Americans, and we need to be reminded, the Islam is not monolithic. More importantly in these unfolding political events, like those elsewhere across the Muslim world, we see Muslims discovering that when a modern state seeks to support a religion it can never support that religion generally. Ultimately it must enact specific laws dictating public behavior, and inevitably the laws that some Muslims want will not be agreeable to other Muslims. Someone will be left out. Someone will be oppressed. When religious people hold the reigns of government, and seek to impose their religious views in the public square, the result is never good for freedom of conscience or indeed freedom generally.

This isn’t just a matter of so-called “secularists” being opposed to “Islamists.” Too often we Americans buy into the idea that secularism is opposed to religion. Nonsense. The concept of the secular arises from the difference between Christians who fulfill their Christian vocation outside the church and those (called ‘religious) who fulfill their vocation in the church. History shows that the freedom to fulfill your religious obligations outside the church, in “secular” society, may need to be protected from the power of the church and even more from a religious government that is beholding to the church.

Freedom of conscience isn’t just the freedom to believe whatever you want to believe. It is the freedom to act out your beliefs in daily life. And all too often both churches and governments have the enemies of freedom of conscience.

That is why a Christian citizen, or a Muslim citizen, might not want a religious government. Not because they are against religion, but because they know that religious governments have historically been the enemies of acting out one’s religious faith in public: in secular society.

Tunisians, Libyans, Egyptians, Yemenis, and Syrians (as well as Pakistanis, Afghanis, Malaysians, and Indonesians) are beginning to take responsibility for democratic government and the shaping of the political framework in which they will be faithful to their religion. It is probably unwise to predict the decisions they will make. But there is good reason to believe that for many Muslims the only acceptable political framework is one in which the responsibility for being faithful to the teaching of Islam belongs to the individual Muslim, not to the state. And that will be good for non-Muslims as well.

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