A new debate about religion and politics after Libyan tombs razed

The relationship between the religious establishment and the state will be vital to the future of the new governments in the Arab world.

For years, public policy and religion were fairly dull issues in most parts of North Africa. Modern political Islamism was born in Egypt, and the overwhelming majority of the population are socially conservative, but religion was not very useful in explaining governance and politics.

Public policy was not created with real reference to religion - the Egyptian, Tunisian and Libyan regimes engaged religious themes to varying degrees, but not as a core reason for policy. Islamism in all of its various forms was kept on the margins of these societies, and almost any engagement between religion and public policy was assumed to be a form of Islamism.

That has changed now. Since last year, but especially in the last two weeks, radical Salafis have been desecrating graves all over Libya. Armed groups, motivated by an ideology rooted in a religious perspective, represent a direct challenge to the authority of the Libyan state.

The body of a famous 15th century scholar, Ahmad bin Zarruq, was exhumed, and his tomb destroyed. Many other burial sites have shared the same fate. Desecration, in this regard, isn't the spraying of graffiti - it's the bringing in of bulldozers, guarded by men with automatic weapons, facing off against state security forces.

Their argument is that the graves spread irreligious ideas among "good" Muslims in Libya. Never mind that for hundreds of years Libyan religious scholars didn't seem to think so.

These issues are not about to go away. Egypt, Libya and Tunisia - and almost certainly Syria after the Assad regime falls - are going to see constitutions that have two core principles. The first will be a notion of sovereignty vested in the people; the second will be that Islam is the religion of the state. Neither of these principles is necessarily new. But after autocratic dictatorships in these four countries, these principles now actually mean something.

The question is what do they mean, particularly when taken together. If Islam is the religion of the state, then how is it expressed? There's no Catholic papacy for Muslims. So how will Islam be represented? Through educational institutions, such as Al Azhar University in Cairo? In that case, who will pick the leadership of a publicly funded university? Should it be independent of government intervention?

Once all of that is sorted out, how does the relevant institution engage with the state? Purely on symbolic occasions, or on substantive issues of legislation?

And finally, what Islam are we talking about? This is not a rhetorical question. Islam is a single religion, according to the scholarly establishment of the ulema, but it is also one that includes different approaches and perspectives.

For example, take the recent destruction of graves in Libya. That sort of desecration would be considered wholly sinful, regardless of whether it was carried out by the government or by private entities, according to Al Azhar's approach, and by the understanding of Libya's scholarly establishment. That mainstream approach, which considers the different schools of law to be equally valid, would never have allowed the razing to take place.

In the past two weeks, Libya's mainstream religious establishment has made it clear that these tombs should never have been touched. The various statements that came out of the UAE, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere rejected the idea that such tombs were the focal point for aberrant mysticism that interfered with monotheism. This response argued that Islamic theology is sufficiently robust in the minds of Muslims to counter idolatry.

The radical Salafis who destroyed the tombs, however, were obviously informed by a different understanding. It's an understanding that is often chastised by more mainstream scholars, but it does exist and cannot be ignored, particularly as its proponents continue to receive support.

When it comes to public policy, which understanding is going to be accepted? Regardless of how religious establishments engage with the state, they will have some sort of effect, and what religious school of thought has influence will have an effect on policy decisions.

Egypt represents an interesting experiment on these questions. The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis have clear aims for what they want to achieve, and other, non-Islamist parties have reacted but without much creative engagement. That debate does not come naturally to the non-Islamist parties because secularism in the Arab world has been constrained in the presence of autocratic dictatorships and Islamist organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood.

But this is a new era for these countries. The autocratic leaders are gone. Religion, however, is not going anywhere, and neither are the Islamists. Neither, however, are the secular parties, and the more mainstream religious establishment. On these questions about the interplay of religion, politics and policy, these other groups need to develop answers at this critical time. Otherwise, the answers will be provided for them.

If all of these groups choose to engage, however, the debate may provide answers that are to the benefit of all - Islamist and non-Islamist, Muslim and Christian. It would be the first time they would have that debate for real.


Dr HA Hellyer is a Cairo-based analyst on the MENA region

On Twitter: @hahellyer


Editor's note: This article has been edited to replace "secular parties" with "non-Islamist parties".

Published: September 3, 2012 04:00 AM


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