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Islam and Civil Society

Dr. Nadia Mostafa is a professor of international relations and the director of the Program for Civilizational Studies and Dialogue at Cairo University. A devoted Muslim, she shared her thoughts about building and developing civil society in Egypt. The conversation began with Dr. Mostafa’s efforts to discover at bit about me and how I had come to visit in her office. While discussing briefly my association with Arab West Report she also asked about my education, and I answered stating at the end my master’s pursuit in Islamic Studies. She was intrigued, and we talked about this for a while. Within this subject we talked about her friendship with, but not membership in, the Moral Rearmament Association, a local Egyptian non-governmental organization, as well as her participation in multi-party efforts at civil society construction.

Dr. Mostafa admires the work of groups like the MRA for seeking to craft an ethical basis for civil society. This is a good and worthy endeavor, but she hesitates to commit herself to their effort because, being a political scientist, she cannot accept their indifference to political aspects. In taking this civil stance they still are making a political decision. Morality is an important part of civil society discourse, but there are realities of power which must be addressed, both nationally and internationally. Specifically, she takes aim at the Egyptian government for stifling political debate within the country. All groups, whether Communist, Socialist, or Islamist, should have full political participation in shaping public policy. The failure to include them results in the increase of violent protest as well as the lethargy in public political participation in general.

Dr. Mostafa also commented that though she freely and eagerly cooperates with non-governmental initiatives to strengthen civil society, she also takes issue with many of their presumptions. First, she mentioned that nearly all of the groups working on behalf of this shared goal were Christian or Western. Islamic groups tend to exclusively work in charity, and she implicitly criticized Muslims for neglecting this important task, while qualifying this is due to the constraints and pressures the authorities put on their activities. Second, the Christian and Western groups which rightly aim at strengthening civil society tend to view Islam as the problem which needs to be addressed. While partnering extensively with Muslims, they see Islam as deficient in promoting a worldview of tolerance, acceptance, and diversity. This, however, is faulty; Islam has proved a source of human rights more than any other thought or religious system. On an international and national government plane, this bias is utilized within the human rights discourse to exclude a priori any Islamist participation in politics. Though this is not the stated goal of non-governmental Christian and Western groups, they are often aligned with the government in pursuit of a secular order, which they label a “civil state”. Islam, however,  though rightly understood as more than a religion by the West, is also more than a political system. Islam promotes a strong human ethic and social justice commitment which admits plurality and the legitimacy of difference. The Islamic world view does not challenge the West as such, but the materialistic, hegemonic faces of modernization and globalization. Therefore, “civil society” should not be addressed as the opposite of religion or as having a religion-free frame of reference. Islamic visibility in the public sphere is not a threat to multiculturalism and civility.

At this I looked to probe a little deeper, and I referenced our earlier discussion about my Islamic studies. I highlighted that one aim of my research was to demonstrate that what is called ‘liberal’ Islam, that is, a Western preference for Muslims who also favor principles of democracy, tolerance, and human rights, etc., has a legitimate connection to Islam as a religion. It is often seen that liberal political Muslims may also be seen, perhaps by the more conservative faithful, as also being liberal religious Muslims, in that they have moved away from aspects of their faith. My claim was not to assert that either conservative or liberal Islam is the proper interpretation, only that liberal political Islam does not need to be seen as apostate – it may be embraced as a faithful expression of interpretation in the modern world.

Dr. Mostafa appreciated this line of study, but I asked her perspective on areas where I am still lacking. In defense of Christian and Western civil society proponents, while their bias may be evident, can it be understood, and perhaps justified? Specifically, the goal of civil society is to create the principles of citizenship. Many, however, see within Islam a call for dhimmitude. Admitting that the dhimmi system was superior to Western treatment of minorities for much of history, it is clear that the principles of the system do not equal the principles of citizenship. Proposing the question, is dhimmitude a necessary part of Islam, or is it a historical divergence from the religion?

Dr. Mostafa responded by speaking of the true persecution suffered by minorities under dhimmitude during certain epochs of history, but related this to Muslim-Christian geopolitical struggle, which then rebounded upon the Christians within Islamic territory. When Muslim nations have been strong, however, she stated that minorities were treated well. While her analysis was correct, I wondered if it contained an essential defense of the system. She distinguished between dhimmitude as a principle, norm and value, and dhimmitude as a system of procedures that organizes the state of non-Muslims. The earlier reflects a religious Muslim recognition of other previously revealed religions. So their adherents should be respected and fully protected as human beings who enjoy complete religious freedom. The latter is not fully described in Quran; it has been influenced, positively or negatively, according to the national or international context, but the negative one was an exception in history. Currently, when prominent Islamist thinkers and activists talk about citizenship, their ijtihad (reasoning) is not taken seriously by secular or by Coptic extremists. These stress Islamic visibility in the public sphere as a threat to their citizenship rights, which is fully wrong.

In a similar manner Dr. Mostafa had earlier criticized President Obama’s speech in Cairo in a slight way. While his delivery was good and positive, it was incomplete, for it presented only a peaceful, largely personal vision of Islam, in accordance with Western appreciation for religion in general. He avoided, she said, any reference to jihad, which though widely misunderstood as forceful imposition of personal belief, is part and parcel of true Islamic thought, and should not be apologized for. Jihad is incumbent as armed defense of their faith when Muslims are under oppression and occupation. Though this confession was clearer than that of dhimmitude, Dr. Mostafa revealed, openly and proudly, her Islamic core.

Yet at the same time, Dr. Mostafa denied that dhimmitude is a necessary expression of Islam in the modern world, and lives out this belief by her enthusiastic participation in crafting civil society. Islam, she believes, is open, tolerant, and accepting of others, and is not a clerical system like that found in Iran. Instead, the caliphate has always been a political phenomenon, and politics is subject to change. While she never issued an absolute claim that dhimmi status categorically is against the principles of Islam, she gives strong assurance to Christians and proponents of human rights that Muslims and their religion share equal goals as equal members of a society to be built upon the foundation of citizenship.

These Christian and Western groups, however, often go too far, specifically in their demand to cancel article two of the Egyptian constitution which establishes Islam as the religion of the state and the principles of Islamic Sharia as the main source of legislation. Every society has its order which defines the state, and by attacking the constitution in this way some extremist Copts are attacking the order of society.

Furthermore, Christian and Western groups do more harm than good as they constantly discuss civil society in terms of overcoming religious sectarianism. Religious relations in Egypt are healthy and strong; this over-focus only highlights the aberrant incidents, and communicates they are more prominent than in reality. As a consequence, civil society is weakened as accusations are exchanged across religious lines, rather than seeing these incidents as usually non-religious in their origin.

As we progressed we were conscious of the time, and I thanked Dr. Mostafa for sharing her views and helping my Egyptian education, but I also wanted to discuss some aspects of our work. I spoke of her colleague who informed me of the reconciliation sessions held in the Dar al-Ifta’ for Muslims who find themselves in personal conflicts with each other, be it business, family, or otherwise. She tracked with me in that if such a sheikh could be paired with a respected representative of the church, perhaps such reconciliation meetings could also be held between Muslims and Christians. She suggested, however, a different source of information. She told me of the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services, who arranges extensive interreligious dialogue and cooperation. She believed they might be a better path to arrange inquiries about our peacemaking efforts. I agreed this was a good idea, but that our sources, unfortunately, are already primarily Christian, and it would be good also if she would not mind helping to arrange a meeting with the sheikh.

She did not mind, and gave me his phone number also. The man in question is the director of training in the Dar al-Ifta’, and she has worked with him previously, though not currently. She, with others, had assisted in helping imams expand their knowledge base from simply Islamic jurisprudence and Islamic studies to also include awareness of culture, politics, and society. Apparently, somewhere along the way this program was scaled back, so that this aspect of it no longer exists. Dr. Mostafa was not currently aware of what the remaining training program entailed, or for whom it was designed. In the past however, it was not just for aspiring imams before their appointment, but included even the imams of prominent mosques.

With this I thanked Dr. Mostafa once more for her time and assistance. Though we did not speak extensively of the subject for which I came, she did supply me with the requested reference, and I had opportunity to make a relationship with one who is often mentioned as a sympathetic supporter of our organization.

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