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The Arabs and Religious Reform - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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During a televised speech made a few days ago, the King of Bahrain addressed his people about the necessity of introducing religious reforms, [indicating] that there is a

comprehensive plan in place for this purpose, particularly after the security authorities had uncovered a terrorist plot that aimed to “undermine national unity, disrupt the social fabric of the country and its cultural heritage, and operate to sustain violence, target innocent people and destroy public and private property” according to reports from Bahrain’s state-owned television station.

The King of Bahrain, Hamad Ibn Isa al-Khalifa, announced that he had called upon concerned religious authorities to verify those who “take to the pulpits” and called for action to bring about “rapprochement between the different Islamic doctrines, the renouncement of violence, and the commitment to the community.”

It is certain that reforming the “religious field” in Bahrain, for instance, is not only linked to exposing this new fundamentalist network. From time to time, we uncover a new fundamentalist revolutionary plan that uses religion as the base of its discourse and recruitment. There is nothing new or surprising about that. I can confidently say that ever since 1967, there has been no political coup, or attempt to overthrow an established regime in any Arab country that did not originate from a culture of religious fundamentalism. The age of pan-nationalist and left-wing revolutions is over. Even the southern separatist movement in Yemen – despite the civil population in the south enjoying a legacy of secularism that has existed since the British colonialist period – has started to take on a Jihadist and Salafist dimension, especially after individuals such as the jihadist Tariq al-Fadhli and others appeared on the scene. However this is just a summary of the nature and size of the fundamentalist trend in southern Yemen and the reasons behind the conflict in the south, without delving into the details, as this is the subject of another article.

What is important here is to examine the reality of Arab society and Arab regimes inability to come to terms with the impasse that exists with regards to religion, or their strained understanding of religion and its role in politics and life.

We have been living in a state of turmoil and uproar in the Arab world with regards to the relationship between religion and politics, society, and daily life, as well as the nature of our relationship with the outside world, and this was even before the infamous 9/11 attacks.

[We have been living in this state] ever since Hassan al-Banna announced his intention to transform Islam into a political party, and came to blows with the rest of the Muslim political parties in Egypt, due to his own conception of Islam. Then consider the actual role played by the Muslim Brotherhood in the Free Officers’ coup against the Egyptian monarchy in 1952. This can be summarized in the relationship between Sayyid Qutb and the Free Officers, which eventually ended with a ferocious battle between [President] Nasser and the Muslim Brotherhood, resulting in Sayyid Qutb – the ally of yesterday – being tried and executed by Nasser’s regime after his radical network had been exposed in 1966. Religious fundamentalism could also be found in the Military Technical Academy in Egypt in the form of Palestinian liberationist Saleh Sariya, as well as the assassination of [President] Sadat at the hands of Egyptian fundamentalists [serving in the armed forces]. Here I would like to take this opportunity to agree with what Mr. Ali Salem stated in his latest article published in this newspaper in which he said that the real reason why Egyptian fundamentalists opted to assassinate Sadat was not due to his inclination towards peace and his signing of the Camp David Peace Accords, but rather because he was an ‘infidel’ in their eyes; an infidel who ruled against the wishes of God Almighty, just like Nasser and Mubarak. It could be that Sadat’s decision to sign the Camp David Peace Accords served as an additional factor that established his illegitimacy in the eyes of these Egyptian fundamentalists, but it certainly wasn’t the major or primary reason for Sadat being declared an infidel, thereby making his killing lawful.

Following this came the era of militant fundamentalist terrorist groups, which extended throughout the nineties and into the new millennium, or at least this was how the situation developed in Egypt. This is not to mention Yemen, where a series of terrible crises have taken place with regards to Islamic fundamentalism since the assassination of Imam Yahya Hamid al-Din [in 1948]. This assassination was arranged by Hassan al-Banna in Egypt, via the Algerian Muslim Brotherhood member al-Fadil al-Wertlani, and the ‘constitutional’ Zaidi Imam, Ibn al-Wazir. Today we are witnessing the crises masterminded by Sheikh al-Zendani, as well as other fundamentalists like the Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula organization, or even groups outside of the Salafist trend such as the extremist [Shiite] Huthi movement.

What we have said about Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen applies to nearly all Arab and Islamic countries. All these countries face serious crises with fundamentalist movements on different levels. These radical groups, in their hostility towards their own countries, seek to impose their agendas upon them, and in some countries, attempt to seize power (as was the case in Sudan, during the era of [Hassan] al-Turabi and [Omar] al-Bashir’s alliance). All of these fundamentalist movements draw upon religion, which is something that immediately places us within the framework of the crisis of fundamentalism, and understanding religion and ways of utilizing it.

What happened recently in Bahrain occurred earlier in Morocco, where some media outlets reported the “reforming of the religious field”, referring to a group of reforms carried out by King Mohammed VI of Morocco in July 2009. These reforms dealt with issues such as Fatwa, legislation, preaching and guidance. They also included the launch of a reformative agenda on family issues and all institutions connected to religious affairs. The efforts of the King of Morocco were directed more at ‘organizing’ the field of religion, rather than “reforming” it, as to some, the term “reform” has terrifying connotations, suggesting that values will diminish, deviate, or be distorted.

In Egypt, when the new Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayeb, was appointed to head the most important religious university in Egypt, replacing Sheikh Mohammed Tantawi, he sought immediately to reform the institution, in an effort restore its role and momentum, strengthen its religious influence, and combat the Salafist tide. The King of Morocco previously said that he was seeking to achieve the same objectives [i.e. combat Salafism] by promoting the local al-Maliki doctrine in Morocco.

We are facing an Arab political ‘current’ which aims to amend what it believes to be the leaks in the social and cultural fabric of the nation via the most important ingredient of our collective identity, our religion. The danger of fundamentalist movements, whether they are peaceful or violent, is that they have the capability of stirring deep emotions and resonating with the public. It is possible for anyone with a lot of personality and charisma, and perhaps little intellect or intelligence, to influence crowds of people. This is particularly possible considering the current “commonality” of the media, which includes scores of satellite TV channels and a hundred more internet websites. The state’s strong grip on the media has started to loosen up. So it was imperative, from the point of view of the Arab authorities, to implement these reforms, in order to regulate what can be regulated.

The question is: Is the task of religiously mobilizing people different today than it was in the past? In the past, clerics enjoyed greater prestige and status, there was a scarcity of media outlets, and life in general moved at a slower pace with little changes in people’s lives. In the past, clerics had the monopoly on religious information, and the interpretation of religious texts. However today, any and all religious information is available via the internet, and this only sometimes includes religious encyclopaedias uploaded by official ministries of Islamic Affairs across the Arab World.

I believe many changes have taken place. There is no longer as much a role for the prestigious cleric, with his knowledge of “the science of religion” as there was in the past.

Everything has changed in a world that is now changing at a much faster rate than it was in the past. No longer is the cleric’s primary responsibility the interpretation of religion and religious texts, and determining the relationship between religion and life, society and politics. In short, the status and role of clerics in the Islamic World has changed, because life itself has changed.

We are indeed living in an exciting time, a time of transition that is overflowing with religious and secular viewpoints; and these are viewpoints that might appeal to us, or provoke us. But that is human nature; it is the way of the world. There are views that we like and others that we dislike. In the end, only those who possess strong reason and a power of persuasion will emerge victorious. I am talking about a strong reason and a power of persuasion that surpasses, both in impact and sustainability, the power of all authorities. Of course, what we are talking about does not include religious views on acts of a criminal nature or acts that defy the public order. Such viewpoints should be strongly confronted by the powers of the state.

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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