There’s more to Egypt’s pain than secularism vs. religion

There’s more to Egypt’s pain than secularism vs. religion July 1, 2013

Many GetReligion readers have, I am sure, spent some time today following the urgent news bulletins out of Egypt, where some of the largest protests in the history of the world have been taking place.

It’s hard to know, precisely, what is happening — because there are so many different groups involved in the coalition that is revolting against the nation’s first democratically elected leader.

As I write, this is the latest from The New York Times:

CAIRO — Egypt’s top generals on Monday gave President Mohamed Morsi 48 hours to respond to a wave of mass protests demanding his ouster, declaring that if he did not, then the military leaders themselves would impose their own “road map” to resolve the political crisis.

Most reports earlier in day pivoted, as usual, around one crucial, but still undefined word — Islamist. It’s clear that religion is playing a crucial role in these events, but mainstream journalists continue to struggle when it comes time to define the differences between the goals and the beliefs of the competing Muslim camps in Egypt.

For the most part, journalists are saying this is a battle between liberal secularists and the Islamists symbolized by the Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Now, these liberals — are they Muslims? What are the beliefs that define them and separate them from Morsi & Co.?

How about the military leaders — are they Muslims? They represent the old guard, which offered its own approach to Islam. What defined that version of Islam?

And Morsi, of course, leads a group that, only a month or two ago, was being called the “moderate” Islamist party — since the Salafi Muslims are to the president’s cultural and theological right. At some point, will the Salafists turn on Morsi? If so, what are the defining beliefs and policies that separate these two camps?

Then there are various religious minorities who play a crucial role in Egyptian life, led by the Coptic Orthodox Christians (who, with other Christians, make up about 10 percent of the population).

That’s a pretty complex landscape. Yet in the main Los Angeles Times story today, readers are — once again — told about a simple contest between secular liberals and Islamists, with the military (religious affiliations, unknown) looming in the background. Here is a key slice of that:

The battle for Egypt lies between these two poles, divided by sectarianism and driven by economic despair. These emotions were evident at anti-Morsi protests in Tahrir Square and the presidential palace, and amid prayer rugs and open Korans carried by Morsi loyalists in front of one of Cairo’s main mosques.

“Egypt is our country, the land of the Nile that carries us all, and it’s our duty to protect it without violence or committing assaults,” Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, whose Christian minority has been increasingly persecuted by Islamists, said on Twitter. “The blood of every Egyptian is precious, please participate, but respect others.”

And that is pretty much that.

The New York Times team, led by the omnipresent David D. Kirkpatrick, briefly attempted to hint at divisions INSIDE the Islamist world, cracks and schisms that clearly are threatening Morsi and the future of his government. Here is some crucial material more than halfway into the summary story earlier in the day:

Shadi Hamid, a researcher at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar who studies the Muslim Brotherhood closely, said: “The Brotherhood underestimated its opposition.” … Mr. Morsi and Brotherhood leaders have often ascribed much of the opposition in the streets to a conspiracy led by Mubarak-era political and financial elites determined to bring them down, and they have resisted concessions in the belief that the opposition’s only real motive is the Brotherhood’s defeat. But no conspiracy can brings millions to the streets, and by Sunday night some analysts said the protests would send a message to other Islamist groups around the region in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

“It is a cautionary note: don’t be too eager for power, and try to think how you do it,” Mr. Hamid said, faulting the Egyptian Brotherhood for seeking to take most of the power for itself all at once. “I hear concern from Islamists around the region about how the Brotherhood is tainting Islamism.”

What is the content of the criticisms levied against Morsi by these other Islamists, other than the fact that he made political mistakes?

Once again, there appears to be little time or ink in which to explore the content of these disputes.

The religious issues are there and everyone agrees on that. The religion factor is powerful. It is ultimately complex. Nevertheless, it appears that, for far too many of the journalists covering these events, the religion factor has no intellectual content. In large part, this is because the divisions inside Islam — the doctrinal disagreements that end up affecting life on the streets and in law — are hard to portray in a few sentences.

The result: More labels. Clearly, this “secular” label — whatever that means — is good and the same goes for “liberal” and “young.” Does that mean that “Islamist” is bad? Are people trying to use, enforce and practice Islamic laws and traditions good or bad? What are the key issues there?

However, there are researchers trying to find out what various groups in Egypt — not just the Egyptians who live in urban areas near elite newsrooms — think and believe. I would, once again, urge journalists to check out the survey material collected by the Pew Research Center team back in 2011. There are nuances in these numbers that simply must be taken into account when attempting to cover what is happening in that tense and divided land. Click here to head over to the information.

The key question: Are Egyptians, as a whole, really poised to reject the Islamists? Really? Do you see that in the Pew numbers?

Soon after that study was released, I noted these currents in the data in a column for Scripps Howard (focusing on attempts to define “fundamentalism” in this context):

… (S)urveys 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.

So, at that time 62 percent of those polled thought that Egypt’s laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran. Is that a nation that is likely to revolt against Islamism? If so, why? Is this Egypt as a whole or the young in the cities?

At some point, journalists are going to have to describe the actual issues involved in these “sectarian” divisions. Otherwise, all we have is banners and shouting.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!