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A Religious Spring

Professor Malika Zeghal of Harvard University
Professor Malika Zeghal of Harvard University
Professor Malika Zeghal of Harvard University

Malika Zeghal is the Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal Professor in Contemporary Islamic Thought and Life at Harvard University. She is a political scientist who studies religion through the lens of Islam and power and is interested in Islamist movements and the institutionalization of Islam in the Arab world. Before her appointment at Harvard, Professor Zeghal was associate professor of anthropology and sociology of religion at University of Chicago’s Divinity School. She earned a PhD in Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies from the Institute d’Etudes Politiques in Paris in 1994.

The Majalla: What role did religion play in the Arab Spring? How did this differ from country to country?

Tunisians and then Egyptians rising up in the winter of 2010-2011 were not expressing religious demands, but rather demands for a radical political change, and access to the political and economic arenas. They did not demand the establishment of an Islamic state, and did not represent a particular religious group or organization. Members of Islamist parties and groups participated individually in the protests, but avoided any ideological slogans in the early weeks of the protests. For instance, in Tunisia, the strategy of Al-Nahdha (the renaissance) party, which was illegal at the time, was to keep a low profile during the uprisings. They knew they could be used as a pretext for more repression, since the regime had used the threat of Islamism for years to avoid relaxing its grip on society and to avoid political reforms. Al-Nahdha had also been extremely weakened by Ben Ali’s regime, and its aim was first of all to survive during this revolutionary period. This does not mean that the demonstrators did not use religious expressions and formulations or did not express ideas related to religion. This was most conspicuous in Egypt: the Muslim Brotherhood also kept a low profile early on, but they quickly ended up participating as a strong political force. Expression of collective religious piety played a role in the geography of protest in urban Egypt, as shown by the sermons and prayers organized on Tahrir square: their retransmission on cable channels all over the Arab world and the participation of sheikh Qaradhawi gave to this type of event a truly global reach with a religious language that gave the demonstration even more appeal.

What was also quite impressive in Egypt was the expression of unity between Copts and Muslims during the demonstrations on Tahrir Square and other large cities. However, after the departure of Mubarak, during the referendum campaign, the old contentions about the rights of religious minorities reappeared, especially around the debates about the Egyptian constitution’s article two, which states that “Islam is the religion of the state. Arabic is its official language, and the main source of legislation is sharia.”

Q: What are the changing impacts of religion in the short and long term?

If one wants to think about the role of religion in the Arab revolutions, it is important to make a distinction between the particular moment of the uprisings—during which unity prevailed—and the longer and more complex transition periods during which old lines of political demarcation reemerged, among them religion. The point has often been made that these were ‘secular’ revolutions, in order to differentiate them from the Iranian revolution of 1979. However, if one looks at the beginnings of the 1979 revolution, it is quite clear that it was born from a coalition of secular and religious forces. In Iran the clergy eventually took over, which gave the Iranian revolution its ‘Islamic’ character. In Tunisia and Egypt, the Sunni ulama have no political ambitions as a professional body represented respectively by the Zaytuna and Al-Azhar. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Al-Nahdha in Tunisia insist on the fact that they envision the state as dawla madaniyya, that is as a civil state. They also both underline that the state cannot be theocratic in Islam. For them, however, Islam provides principles that should shape governance. For some, it means implementing sharia. For others, Islam is simply seen as a ‘reference’ for policy making.

Depending on the new forms the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes will take, and depending on the political force each Islamist party, as well as other Islamist forces, will represent in both countries, we might see governments including Islamists, which will certainly impact policy. However, we should also keep in mind that the Middle Eastern revolutions are taking different turns in each country, due to their historical and institutional differences and that religion might become more salient in some cases, and that its role might take different meanings.

What all the protests in the Arab world seem to have in common is that the demonstrators are making demands for access—to the job market, education, housing, political expression—and more profoundly for a radical change of the authoritarian political systems that have long blocked this access. Those who usually lack access have been at the forefront of the protests, even if they are not the only ones.

Q: Could you compare the Muslim Brotherhood in its Egyptian and Tunisian forms? Is there a difference in values, agenda, and degree of social support?

The Nahdha movement in Tunisia was not legalized until March 2011, and has been repressed since its inception in 1981. Hence it was never part of the legal political arena. Their popularity seems to be significant: during a short honeymoon period with the regime of Ben Ali, they won around 15 percent of the votes in the 1989 legislative elections (they participated as independents), after which their members were repressed again and the movement was annihilated. Today, polls give them from 20 to 30 percent of votes, but we know little about their electoral basis. Their history is hence quite different from that of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood who were not legalized as a political party until this year either, were repressed too, but had some space for political activity and participated several times in electoral competition as independents, which allowed them to gain seats in the Egyptian parliament.

Both movements have decided to create political parties after the revolutions. Al-Nahdha has already launched a dynamic campaign for the October 23 election of the constituent assembly, mobilizing its constituency while trying to reassure secularist elites who are extremely critical of the party’s religious identity. Both parties keep a large association that hosts potential party members and ideological debates and that may work as a refuge if the parties were repressed again. They will have to change their whole perspective on politics, since they now might be given an opportunity to govern.

Instead of presenting themselves as merely oppositional actors, they will have to craft socio-economic programs that can respond to the demands and anxieties of Tunisians and Egyptians. They will have to think in strategic terms about future alliances with other parts of the political spectrum.

Differences within the Islamist sector:

Also, there are differences between liberal and more conservative Islamists within both formations. In Tunisia, these differences are kept vague for the moment and will probably crystallize after the elections of October 23.  One can envision a possible fragmentation within Al-Nahdha as well as within the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. They might also present themselves as the only viable alternative in contrast to the newly emerging salafist movements.  Both parties see their state as civil and generally accept the framework of national politics. They are also both embedded in their own political context. Al-Nahdha does not speak of implementing sharia law and officially accepts many of the modernist reforms made by Bourguiba through statutory law, such as the 1956 Personal Status Code that made polygamy illegal, even if the Nahdha’s leaders criticize the fact that these reforms were imposed authoritatively by the state. This is why even though Al-Nahdha was and still is a staunch critique of Bourguiba and Ben Ali’s regimes, its narratives often remain embedded in the history of these regimes’ policies.

The Muslim Brotherhood have included the idea of implementing sharia law, and are not entirely at odds either with the larger Egyptian context, since article two states that sharia is the main source of legislation, a statement that is not present in the Tunisian constitution. My current book project Sacred Politics:  Political Islam and the State in the Middle East precisely examines how Islamist movements of opposition are in great part shaped by the very authoritarian regimes they oppose. I explore the subtle affinities between governmental conceptions of Islam and politics and Islamist groups’ ideologies. These affinities, of course, do not contradict the fact that states and Islamists in the Arab Middle East have long been political adversaries. I am also exploring the consequences of the current revolutions on political Islam, new state narratives on religion, and religious authority more broadly defined, in continuity with my works on Al-Azhar and on Moroccan political Islam.

Q: To what extent does the king have ultimate religious authority in Morocco, formally and informally?

The Moroccan monarchy started political reforms in the 1990s, under Hassan II, who understood that his regime needed to liberalize in order to survive given the serious socio-economic crisis it was going through. Through these reforms, the Socialist party and the Islamist party (the Party of Justice and Development) were integrated into political competition, and the monarchy was able to present itself as a constitutional monarchy. In reality, however, the monarchy has kept its exclusive power to govern. The current constitutional reforms are made with the same objective, that of the survival of the monarchy, through the crafting of a renewed pact with Moroccans. However, the difference with the first wave of reforms is that this time the monarch initiated these changes under the pressure of Moroccans in the street who demanded a radical political change.

Q: How do the constitutional reforms in Morocco impact Muslim religious life in the country? Do Muslim religious leaders support it as vigorously as the king?

Some Islamist groups, in particular the illegal movement of Abdessalam Yassine, have attempted to ride the latest wave of protests. They converge with the February 20 demands, since for them the monarchy has never been legitimate. The legal Islamist party (PJD) on the other hand, has expressed its satisfaction with the constitutional reforms. Also, in the constitution, the king remains “the commander of the faithful,” and his person is still “inviolable,” which continues to make the monarchy the most powerful political actor, and the central religious institution. One innovation however is striking in this reform: the mention that the King presides over the Ulama Councils, which is the only instance habilitated to pronounce official fatwas (article 41). Contrary to Republics such as Tunisia and Egypt that have administrative posts for Muftis, this is not the case in Morocco. This aspect of the reform reinforces the religious authority of the king from an administrative point of view, but does not limit the legitimacy of other religious authorities. Through this article, the King associates more formally the ulama to his own religious authority.

The impact of reforms on Moroccan citizens:

It is difficult to know at this point in time if these constitutional reforms will make a real difference in the political lives of Moroccans. Will they really be applied? What is sure is that before the Tunisian revolution, the Moroccan monarchy, despite all its faults, appeared as the less authoritarian regime in the Maghreb. In the context of the Middle East uprisings however, the constitutional reforms appear tentative at best. The regimes of the Middle East are now confronted with two options: reform or revolution. For some of them, such as monarchies that are not rentier states (Morocco and to a certain extent Jordan), reform is part of their history, and this choice might help them survive in the long run. For rentier monarchies, reform could be an option too, but the structure of their economy might help them buy time through rent redistribution. The authoritarian republics seem to be the ones that were most prone to revolutionary change, since they stalled reforms for such a long time.  However, the fact that Ben Ali and Mubarak were ousted by the street does not mean that the regimes of Tunisia and Egypt are necessarily on the path to democracy. What will count in Morocco, as well as in Tunisia and Egypt, is the depth of the political reforms, their ability to provide access to their societies’ members, and their ability to answer the people’s demands.

Q: Your first book focused on the relationship between Al-Azhar University and Egypt’s authoritarian regime.  Could you comment on how this relationship evolved in the 1990s and more recently as well as in the immediate context of the Arab Spring? Were Muslim religious leaders affiliated with Al-Azhar involved with and supportive of the demonstrations in Tahrir Square? Or did they view the potential fall of the regime as a threat to their authority?

The ulama of Sunni Islam have always had an ambiguous partnership with the men governing them. The ideal religious scholar is often portrayed in the Islamic tradition as a courageous man of learning and piety, who denounces injustice and dares to speak truth to tyrants. Nonetheless, pragmatism has also been at the core of the Sunni ulama’s relationship with political powers, along with a deep pessimism about the grim realities of politics, which they often hope to escape.

In the Arab Middle East, modern politics has redefined the ulama’s place in society. It caused them to submit to the state, such as in Egypt, in a process that was engaged in the nineteenth century and culminated in Nasser’s ‘nationalization’ of Al-Azhar in 1961, a policy that many ulama resented but accepted. Since then, the official ulama have usually followed the directives of the regime and have had narrow margins of maneuver.

Critiques of the regime by Grand Imams are rare—Abd Al-Halim Mahmood and Gad Al-Haq being notable examples of more independent Grand Imams. However the domestication of Al-Azhar by the state has not prevented less official ulama from playing a significant public role nationally and beyond. I showed in my work that the ulama of Al-Azhar expressed a desire to work independently of the control of the state, but that they did not necessarily formulate a political project. Their vocation is that of da’wa, or to call to Islam, and often to weigh in moral matters that interest society at large, rather than directly craft policy or govern. Because they are contesting authoritarianism, the Middle Eastern revolutions may very well put into question this relationship between religious institutions and the state.

Q: How are Muslim religious leaders involved today in the political and social changes underway in Egypt?

During the 2011 Egyptian revolution, some young Azharites have participated in the Tahrir Square protests in small groups. This Azharite presence, as well as the images of Muslims and Copts protecting each other during prayers, called to mind the narrative of the 1919 revolution. That revolution was one of the last great public protests in which Azharites participated as a professional body alongside more secular groups, representing Al-Azhar as a popular and national institution.

Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyib, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar since 2010, was cautious in his statements regarding the protests, calling for restraint on the parts of the demonstrators and the regime. He asked demonstrators to go home after Mubarak’s departure, adding that protest is “illegitimate in Islam.” His line of reasoning echoed a classic position in Sunni Islam: namely, that obedience to the state, even to a tyrant, is better than fitna, or dissension.

The Azhar Document:

The so called Azhar document of June 21, 2011, produced at the initiative of the Sheikh of Al-Azhar and through discussions with intellectuals and activists beyond Al-Azhar shows a renewed engagement of the leadership of the institution with politics. The document, which was read on national television by sheikh Al-Tayyib, pleads for a “democratic civil constitutional state,” in which “sharia is the principal source of legislation.”  Azharites also protest against corruption within the administration of Al-Azhar, and more generally want to “liberate” their own institution from authoritarian politics and clientelism.

Al-Azhar seems to be participating at all levels of its administrative hierarchy and more than ever in large political debates. It also seems that state establishment of religion will continue to be the rule, since article two of the Egyptian constitution has not been put into question by the amendments to the suspended constitution. In Tunisia too, the constitution’s article that states that Islam is the religion of the state will most probably remain, since beyond all the quarrelling going on between secularists and Islamists, there is a broad consensus about it.

However, the challenge is in the details: what will the structure of such a religious establishment be? What degree of freedom of expression will the ulama obtain in the post-revolutionary regimes of Tunisia and Egypt in their administrative and educative functions? Will they be appointed by the state or elected by their peers? After January 14, 2011, in some neighborhoods, Tunisians replaced their imams, who had been appointed by the regime of Ben Ali. The religious institutions are experiencing a broader transformation that other institutions are also living after the revolution, that of a redefinition of the relationship between the citizens and their state institutions.


Interview conducted by Noam Schimmel

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Noam Schimmel is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics as well as a London-based researcher and human rights practitioner with extensive development experience in the field. He has worked in India, South Africa, Tanzania and Rwanda, and publishes research in a wide range of academic journals including the International Journal of Human Rights and the >em>International Journal on Minority and Group Rights.

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