Reality of Egyptian government’s campaign for a ‘renewal of religious discourse’

A few weeks after the September 2001 incident, the Egyptian authorities began an appeal for what they called "the renewal of religious discourse". As usual on such occasions, Egyptian officialdom intervened to take the directive to the extreme. Parliamentary hearings were held, and deputies called for a "Supreme Council for Religious Discourse" to be established, while the officially-appointed religious scholars and ‘leaders’ vied with each other to claim that they were doing their best to renovate Islamic religious discourse and bring it into line with official requirements. No mention was made of Coptic Christian religious discourse, and leading ulama made it clear that the Copts were not the target of the renovation drive.

In a few months the matter fizzled out, although similar calls for modernisation or renewal of religious discourse emanate regularly from official quarters in many Muslim capitals. On August 7, for example, General Musharraf, president of Pakistan, stated that Muslims all over the globe should give up what he called "fundamentalism" and adopt a moderate Islam of a kind he did not specify. In Egypt, however, and gradually but steadily in the Arab media, the call for the "renovation of religious discourse" was taken up by secular intellectuals either in the employ of governments or in a quasi-political relationship with them.

This assault on Islamic "religious discourse" was studiedly vague and undefined when launched by official quarters, for obvious reasons. Despite their excessively dictatorial nature, the regimes did not wish to anger and shock their people yet by spelling out exactly what they meant. They probably thought it advisable to avoid unnecessary confrontation at a time when they were already being embarrassed by their servility to the Americans, who are engaged in a crusade not just against the notorious "Islamic terrorists" but against Muslim and Arab states. When the whole fuss started in Egypt, some deputies and journalists interpreted the call as meaning the changing of the "content" of religious doctrines and teachings, while Dr Fathy Serrour, the speaker of Parliament, tried to reassure Muslims by saying that what was at stake was the "form" of religious teachings. Dr Zagzoug, the minister of auqaf, tried to steer a middle course by saying that the call meant the presentation of Islam in a garb that is "appropriate to the age", reflecting the "true nature" of Islam, which is "moderate" and rejects extremism and terrorism.

The confusion and the studied ambiguity were understandable for another reason: when the call for the renewal of Islamic religious discourse was made, there was a flood of writings from American academics, analysts, politicians, the "intelligence community" and even evangelists, all demanding the "modernisation" of Islam to make it fit ‘enlightened’ Western liberal and democratic ideals and to prevent the breeding of further generations of "Islamic terrorists" (who are, presumably, the offspring of an outmoded, reactionary and benighted Islam). For a time, western commentators went into paroxysms of joy over the birth of a supposedly enlightened, modern and democratic Islam in the guise of the Turkish "party for justice and development" that later won the general elections.

The Americans started to demand more of the same, and to hunt for it all over the Islamic world. The strange coincidence of the call for changing religious discourse coming at the same time as the demands made from Washington for a new Islam ( or "American Islam", as it came to be called scoffingly by some Arab intellectuals) was too true to be good, to quote Bernard Shaw. The embarrassing consequences for the politicians and officials who launched the call as their own independent and benevolent contribution to further the cause of Islam are obvious.

In fact, this embarrassment of a call made by top politicians, that exactly echoed the demands of American counter-terrorism experts, was not only linked to the vagueness of what exactly the "renewal of religious discourse" meant, but also led to the judicious and quiet abandonment of this call by the politicians. This left it in the safe hands of the secular elites, who are given domination over the officially-monopolised intellectual, cultural and media outlets by the governments of most Arab countries. These elites did not mince any words in setting out what this renewal craze involved. The most recent manifestation was a conference held in July in Cairo, organised by the Egyptian Higher Council for Culture, for "Arab intellectuals". For a start about seventy so-called intellectuals, mostly pro-American secularists with a smattering of "leftists", were invited, but not Islamic intellectuals, except for the minister of auqaf and two secularists who describe themselves as "Islamic thinkers" to disguise their systematic attacks on Muslim teachings as ijtihad. Although the conference had for its ostensible theme the renewal of cultural discourse, in fact it was preoccupied almost entirely with religious discourse.

In the deliberations (over several days) the "renewal" required of religious discourse by officials, secularists and Americans alike became quite clear. The "content", and not just the "form" of Islam should be changed. The lines of change that the conferees agreed were those that had for two years or more been insisted on by them and by other secular intellectuals all over the Arab countries. The Qur’an is a "human document" that should be interpreted in accordance with "human needs" in every age; a new reinterpretation is long overdue, to align the Qur’an, from basic creed to the Shari’ah, with the modern age, which is the age of liberalism and democracy: in brief, the age of America and the West. The Shari’ah and fiqh should be scrapped in favour of a new secular "civil" law. Contemporary Muslims should give up the outmoded values associated with their religion, such as the jealous guarding of "identity" and rejection of all sorts of western values. These are the broad outlines of the "renewal" that the secularists want for Islam, which they do not even believe.

So outrageous were the calls for an out-and-out secularisation of Islam that they provoked strong reactions even from non-Islamists, which reactions found their way to the officially-controlled press. Indeed, Al- Taher Wattar, an Algerian writer, wrote to the organisers of the event, declining their invitation, reportedly on the grounds that he saw no point in attending a conference that had no end but to preach American viewpoints, motivated by American wishes.

Thus the call for renewal of Islamic discourse degenerated, betrayed as yet another mask for the western drive, active since the nineteenth century, to secularise and westernise Islam. The only difference this time is that those demanding the process wanted it to be undertaken by the Muslims themselves, rather than by orientalists. However, the Muslims appointed to do so had already been exposed as agents of the West. Nevertheless, the urgency with which the matter was being pursued reveals the depth and pervasiveness of American influence in the region. This power is no longer satisfied with exerting military, political and economic domination, but wants to control the Muslims minds and consciences as well as their history, culture, language, religion and faith.