I recently did a post on the nature of Liberal Islam for the Liberal Youth blog, The Libertine. Unfortunately, it may prove not to come true… it looks like Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, my favourite candidate in Egypt’s Presidential elections, has not made it through to the run-off. Still, he would’ve been good… let’s wait a few years.
Whoever sleeps full while his neighbour is hungry is not a believer.
The Prophet Muhammed PBUH
While the Liberal Democrats in Britain, MoDem in France, and Germany’s FDP are going through tough times, another strand of liberalism may be taking centre stage in an unlikely venue…
In Egypt, a liberal Islamist candidate has taken a major step towards the head of the race to be President. Previously in second place, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former leader of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, has been endorsed by the ultraconservative, islamist, Salafi preaching group, Salafi Call, and its sister party Al Nour. Salafis are effectively a kind of Muslim Puritans, and are even more hard-line than the Muslim Brotherhood’s brand of Islamism. Al Nour won around a quarter of seats in Egypt’s Parliamentary elections; the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party won almost half. Left-liberal and nationalist liberal blocs won 8-9% of the vote each.
Wait, ultraconservatives endorsing Islamists? It doesn’t sound ‘liberal’, but Aboul Fotouh’s brand of Islam is one of the most liberal in the region, strongly believing in personal liberty. His understanding of how Islamic law addresses individual freedom and economic fairness already means many liberals in Egypt back him.
He is, in many ways, a nationalist, believing in a strong Egypt. But he’s also said that “Islam does not discriminate based on gender, religion, colour and the new constitution must not either. The appointment of people to office or other government jobs must be based on merit and capability and not gender or religion or even political inclination.”
His platform is very liberal for Egypt,
- He will appoint a vice-president and fill 50% of all administrative posts with people under the age of 45.
- Women and Coptic Christians should have the right to run for Parliament.
- Health insurance is a ‘basic right’.
- Introduce a minimum standard income.
- Islamic restrictions on alcohol should not be imposed on non-Muslims (hoping to attract tourism back to the country).
- Re-equip the military without depending on US funding.
- Allow re-trials for all those arrested under the brutal SCAF military reign that has existed since ex-President Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow in the Arab Spring.
Just like Nick Clegg, he has four key goals – to promote freedom in Egypt, to promote the value of justice, to strengthen education and scientific research, and to open Egypt up to investment.
The 61-year old doctor and head of the Arab Medical Union is well respected in Egypt. He first came to prominence as a student leader in the ’70s, even debating Anwar Sadat, the President himself. His student activities make him well-known to the Salafis, and he is close to their leaders. He was later arrested by Sadat. And then by Mubarak.
He was forced to leave the Muslim Brotherhood when he declared his intention to run for the Presidency. At the time, the Muslim Brotherhood insisted they would not stand a candidate, for fear of alarming other parties who fear they would dominate the political scene. They have since changed their mind.
This is perhaps why the Salafis are coming out in favour of Aboul Fotouh. The Muslim Brotherhood is by far the largest and best organised party in Egypt. While the Salafis have a highly decentralised grass-roots network, the Muslim Brotherhood is as monolithic as our Tories. The Salafis disapprove of this internal rigidity.
Salafis are no friends of the Muslim Brotherhood. While they believe in imposing far harsher restrictions on individual liberty, they acknowledge that the country is not yet ripe. They fear that if the Muslim Brotherhood dominates the Presidency as well as Parliament, their brand of Islamism will be snuffed out. At least if Aboul Fotouh leads the Presidency, his liberalism and belief in a separation of religion and politics, will allow them the freedom to preach. We can only hope that Egyptians will embrace Aboul Fotouh’s liberal Islam, and not the hard-line Salafis.
‘Liberal Islam’ should surprise no one. It is far from a contradiction in terms as some would have you believe. Islam and liberalism can perfectly co-exist. Ataturk separated the Turk’s Islam and the secular state institutions. Then there are liberal Muslims like Javed Ahmad Ghamidi who believe that the Qur’an and Sunnah are liberal texts, if correctly interpreted, or Abd al-Raziq who believes that the Qur’an is silent on certain matters to which liberalism can be applied – for example, the Qur’an never judges the forms of government, so a democracy is perfectly Islamic. Even supposedly hardline positions, such as a total rejection of the Hadith can lead to liberalism, as it allows far greater leniency of interpretation.
Fethullah Gülen goes so far as to say that “no one should condemn another for being a member of a religion or scold him for being an atheist” and “no one should suppress the progress of women through the clothes they wear.”.
Sharia can also be interpreted liberally – while it is true that for Muslims, Sharia is the word of God, Islamic jurisprudence has always allowed for pluralism. ‘Fiqh’ means ‘understanding’ and all that what most people think of as ‘Sharia law’ is actually one school of fiqh, one particular, human, fallible, understanding of God’s divine and infallible Word. As such, there are multiple schools of fiqh, Any country with ‘Sharia’ law, supports one of these schools.
The Muslim Brotherhood itself, in order to deal with the issue of having to choose a school of fiqh to support, and thus alienate all others in the country, has chosen the middle, liberal, path – ‘to each his own’, believing that their state should not support one single fiqh, nor Islam over Christianity or Judaism. Religious pluralism could still persist in Egypt, even with the rise of Islamism. Liberal ideas are not dead.
Liberal Islam does exist and is developing in Egypt, in a form – but it is fragile, as is all liberalism. Assailed by extremist positions all around, liberalism must try and find its own place, its own message, and its own followers. Egypt’s liberals need to be supported by their brothers and sisters around the world, to show Muslim’s fearful of a secularist attack on their faith, that liberalism guarantees their right to their faith, no matter what it may be, and the Qur’an itself can be a liberal text. Aboul Fotouh is not a dead-cert for the Presidency, but his unifying brand of politics, his liberal credentials and position, make him the one we should root for.
If Liberal Islam takes hold in Egypt, this can bode well for the whole Middle East. Best of luck to Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh.