“We need a religious revolution!” Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi declared those words a month ago as he addressed senior religious leaders from al-Azhar University and elsewhere while Egyptians celebrated the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The speech was widely applauded in Egypt, particularly as it opened an ideological front to the battle against the Islamist violence that has troubled the country since the summer of 2013. His words seem especially significant after last week’s attack on security forces in the Sinai Peninsula that killed at least thirty and wounded many more. However, before Sisi is praised any more as a visionary and a reformer, observers should understand that Egypt and Sisi may not have the capacity to carry out much reform in Islamic thinking.
First of all, what exactly does Sisi mean by a religious revolution? The general Western observer might interpret it as a call to overturn central Islamic institutions and principles in a bid to combat extremism. After the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, a number of Western media outlets hailed Sisi as an example of a Muslim leader finally seeking to meet the challenges posed by extremism and jihadism to Islam today. It fits with the Western belief that Islam needs a reformation to modernize it. Others more politically conservative in tone have gone further and taken it as a long-awaited and much-needed admission that Islam itself is the root cause of such terrorism. This sentiment seems subtly implied in one English-subtitled video clip of Sisi’s speech that incorrectly translates his words as “We must revolutionize our religion.”
What these readings miss, however, is that the term “revolution” is a politically charged word in Egypt today, one that has gripped the general imagination since the 2011 uprising. It has become the dominant theme of Egyptian discourse in the post-Mubarak era, one that gives weight to the will of the people. Sisi’s decision to use that word is designed to fit in with this narrative, which he has adopted and skillfully employed as a foundation for his legitimacy. So what, then, does he mean by religious revolution? Rather than seeking fundamental changes to the principles of Islam, what Sisi seems to be calling for is a discussion on and tajdid—renewal—of contemporary religious thought.
Historically speaking, Islam is no stranger to periods of intense discourse seeking a revival of its core principles and a reform (or a rethinking at the very least) of interpretations and traditions to suit new circumstances. Many Muslims will point to an oft-repeated hadith—a report of the Prophet’s sayings, teachings, or deeds—in which Muhammad said, “At the head of every hundred years, God sends to this community one who shall renew for it its religion.” These moments are also never divorced from the political and social realities of the day; they are, in fact, born out of them. Modern Islamic thought is the result of one such revivalist and reformist movement that erupted across the Muslim world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. With the onset of European colonialism, Muslims grappled with questions on modernity, tradition, and identity, producing thinkers such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, and Rashid Rida, all of whom challenged the religious and political orthodoxy of their day. One could also argue that this modern Islamic renewal began before the Europeans even arrived, with figures such as Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism who rebelled against Ottoman authority and died six years before Napoleon invaded Egypt. These scholars and their students have become the inspiration for a multitude of Muslims today, including Middle Eastern liberals and secularists as well as all shades of political Islamists, from the moderates to the extremists.
It is the contextual nature of these movements that presents the first problem for Sisi. An intellectual movement addressing the state of religious discourse and seeking to combat the strain of terrorism plaguing it would inevitably ask questions about the sociopolitical conditions that make violence an attractive option in the first place. After all, as the majority of Muslims and their leaders around the world do denounce violence as alien to their religion, why would an Islamic revolution in Egypt be based on the premise of reforming religion so that it no longer promotes violence? Instead, the debate would focus on identifying the causes of perverse religious interpretation as well as revisiting issues of modernity, tradition, and identity. This would mean a deep introspection on the failures of post-colonial Arab systems of governance, the unwillingness to accommodate pluralism, and the inability to provide equitable and representative citizenship for all. In other words, Sisi’s regime would come under intense scrutiny.
Moreover, any discussion of Islamic reform to combat violent fundamentalism would necessitate a recognition that the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis, and even the jihadists are among the by-products of the reformist discourses of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. This means an acknowledgement that Islamism, with all its limitations, is organic and not a foreign-implanted ideology championed by madmen functioning outside of society. Given the hypernationalism that Sisi and his supporters subscribe to that defines political Islamism as un-Egyptian, the potential outcome of this religious revolution would be all kinds of ironic and unwanted.
Realities on the ground also make it difficult to stimulate a genuine intellectual discourse on religious thought. One glaring obstacle is the state’s unwillingness to protect the freedom to critique. In late December 2014, a pro-Sisi Egyptian writer was referred to a misdemeanor court for religious blasphemy on account of her criticizing the ritual practice of slaughtering sheep for the Muslim festival Eid al-Adha. Last month, one student was sentenced to three years in jail for declaring himself an atheist. Over the course of the past year, the state has set guidelines for Friday sermons and introduced measures to remove unlicensed preachers from mosques throughout the country, replacing them with government-approved imams. (It is worth pointing out that the irony of using political processes to co-opt religious institutions in order to promote apolitical sermons seems lost on the Egyptian government). While all this has been done in the name of protecting public morals and preventing the spread of extremism, the scope of this policy has been so broad that criticism and nonconformity are now essentially forbidden. It hardly seems necessary to say that this is far from the right kind of environment needed to produce a prolific religious revolution. After all, Islamic periods of renewal are, in many ways, characterized by controversy. It is evident that so long as the state continues to behave as it does, Sisi’s call for a reform in religious discourse will remain futile.
Lastly, yet quite significantly, there is a dire need to introduce substantial reforms to Egypt’s dysfunctional educational institutions. Among the pitfalls of the system is that the state is not vested in producing historians, philosophers, and religious leaders out of its citizens. Students who score high marks on their exams at the end of high school are able to apply to the country’s top schools and most competitive programs such as medicine, engineering, the hard sciences, and commerce. These are the faculties most valued by the state and society in Egypt today. Those who do not do as well must settle for art, literature, history, political science, and religious studies. It is of little wonder, then, that many Islamist leaders are engineers, doctors, and scientists by training. Seeing as these professions generally assume that there is only one correct answer to the problems they seek to solve, it is worth asking how such an educational background may have influenced Islamist thinking, which largely takes a literalist approach to religious texts and so arguably offers a narrow range of interpretations. It is, therefore, not far-fetched to suggest that a curriculum stressing academic disciplines that emphasize criticism, such as history and philosophy, can undermine the appeal of Islamism. In fact, if the patterns of history tell us anything, it is that any meaningful reform of religious discourse requires a deep appreciation of the humanities and social sciences as they encourage critical thinking of highly subjective topics.
On a structural level, religious and educational institutions also need to be awarded greater independence. Ever since Gamal Abdel Nasser brought al-Azhar under full state control in 1961, the university has experienced limits on academic freedoms and has effectively been drafted to support the message of the state. As much as al-Azhar has sought greater independence in recent years, worries that Salafis and pro-Brotherhood students would take over the reins abound. That, in addition to the dissenting violence that has gripped universities across Egypt in recent months, has pushed the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayyeb to continue aligning the university with the policies of the state and the Sisi regime. Given the status of education and critical thought in Egypt today, it is difficult to imagine another thinker of the caliber of Muhammad Abduh, the great Egyptian modernist and religious reformer of the nineteenth century, emerging any time soon.
In the end, it seems that Sisi’s call for a religious revolution is based on politically motivated words meant to bolster his image as a warrior against extremism rather than a substantial will for internal reflection. The Islamic world at large may very well be ripe for another bout of renewal, revival, and reform, and there are those who call for it, but they will have to fight the intellectually oppressive atmosphere enforced by strongmen like Sisi first before a flourishing religious discourse in the so-called traditional heartlands of Islam can take root.