Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat Talks to Freedom and Justice party VP Dr. Rafik Habib | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- Prominent Christian intellectual, Dr. Rafik Habib, who sparked controversy in Egypt by joining the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, warned that the Christian community’s absence from the political parties that carry an Islamic cultural point of reference (marji’iyah) will deepen the antagonism that actually exists between that community and the Islamic current.

Habib, who has been selected to be the Freedom and Justice Party’s deputy for foreign affairs, expressed the belief that the relationship between the church and the state during the rule of Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak embarrassed the church and harmed Christians. He indicated that the church agreed to support the hereditary succession scheme in return for being allowed to detain Christian women who declared that they had converted to Islam.

He told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The church’s wager was that this regime would continue to survive and that it would protect Christians from the Islamic movement. However, after the revolution of January 25 the church has been trying to refashion its roles in a different manner. It is trying to distance itself from the political role. Perhaps it is trying to gets its opinions across through Christians working in the political field, which is something acceptable.”

Habib indicated that Egyptian Christians, working within the framework of civil society, need to build up Christian popular organizations whose membership is limited to Christians. They need to provide a framework for organized Christian action outside the framework of the church. Such a framework would relieve the church of the embarrassment of organized Christian action taking place within it.

Habib welcomed the idea of establishing political parties having a Christian point of reference. He stated that every person had the right to draw his ideas from any point of reference: “Freedom to think and to define one’s political views must be complete freedom. The important thing is that the party be based on a political program and that its membership be open to all.”

Habib said that the former president’s regime decided to enter into a war with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic current generally. It began to make the Copts afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood. Part of the regime’s plan was to enlist the church in confronting the Brotherhood, something that left its effect on the bulk of Christians.

Here is the text of the interview.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the history of your relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood? What was the reason for your joining the Freedom and Justice Party?

[Habib] As a researcher interested in Islamic groups, I was acquainted with some of the Brotherhood’s leaders and had been in dialogue with them for more than twenty years. The dialogue between me and them intensified after Muhammad Mahdi Akif assumed the position of the Brotherhood’s general guide. My joining the Justice and Freedom Party is a partnership in political activity with a party whom I know. I concluded from my studies that Egyptian society belongs to the Islamic civilization, which represents its overall unifying identity. Historically, Christians belonged to the same identity, and there wasn’t the clash of identities that we now witness. Egyptian society under the aegis of freedom and democracy will move toward building a political system from within the sphere of its identity. The political parties that carry an Islamic cultural point of reference (marji’iyah) will therefore have an important role. All this made me think it necessary for me to participate in this party, especially because we are in a decisive period in Egypt’s history that makes communication imperative between the Christian community and the political projects that carry an Islamic cultural point of reference. I did so despite my knowledge that the Christian community rejects this and objects to my having joined the party. However, I think that the Christian community’s absence from an important component of the political parties that will have a role in the future is unnatural and will create antagonism, or rather will deepen the antagonism that actually exists.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Don’t you believe that when a political faction proclaims that it is striving to establish an Islamic regime and implement the hadd punishments, Christians’ fears of such a situation become a natural reaction?

[Habib] No; I see the antagonism that existed throughout the past period as the product of absence of communication and dialogue. This was because the Islamic movement was under security siege, and the former regime kept Christians away from the Islamic movement. The media were exploited to make Christians afraid of the Islamic current, so that their fear would become deep-seated and they would lack any desire to cooperate with it.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] But there are secularists and liberals who feel the same fear toward the Islamic current. How do you explain that?

[Habib] I am talking about the idea of exploiting the media to frighten Christians. The idea of fear differs from the idea of disagreement. We find that fear of the Islamic current is widespread within the Christian community because it is a cohesive community, but it is also to be found in certain Muslim groups that are heavily influenced by the newspapers and satellite stations. On the other hand, this fear is not present among groups less influenced by the information media. I think the real issue is that fear is a disease that afflicts the community with disunity and that must be treated. As for political disagreement, it is something normal. The other thing is that the Christian community now has a fear of the Islamic current, of Arab identity, of Islamic identity, and of Islamic law. If it continues to be in this state, it will discover that it has fears of the majority of Egyptian society. I therefore support the Christian community’s being in dialogue with all parties.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] This brings us to the dialogue between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Copts. What point has it reached?

[Habib] In truth, the steps in the dialogue have been limited and are taking place between groups that are small in number. Certainly the Muslim Brotherhood is fully aware that there is fear on the part of Christians toward the Islamic current and that it’s falling into complete antagonism with this current would involve danger to the society. The more important point in my opinion is what the group is trying to achieve, which is to establish a street-level dialogue through charitable projects and other means. This interaction may be our way now to remedy these misgivings.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why don’t you review for us the history of relations between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Copts?

[Habib] Before the July 1952 revolution — or rather the military coup, because the real revolution happened this January — relations were normal and based on mutual understanding. All the major figures of the church used to attend Muslim Brotherhood functions. Significantly, as soon as any incident of sectarian violence occurred, there would be an exchange of messages between Imam Hasan al-Banna and His Holiness the [Coptic] Pope, the head of the [Coptic] Orthodox Church. Among Christians there were some who disagreed with the thinking of the Muslim Brotherhood, and some who agreed, but there were no fears. This is the ideal that we want to recover. In the fifties and sixties, the Islamic current was made to disappear completely, and the society was made to fear it. Then came the seventies, bringing a religious revival on both the Christian and Islamic side, but there wasn’t much interaction during it between the two. In the eighties some interaction began between Copts and Muslim Brotherhood inside the professional syndicates and student unions in a completely natural and free manner. Anyone who examines the speeches of that decade will find that on the part of the church there was an understanding of Islamic law and its authority. In the nineties the ruling regime decided to get into a war with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic current generally. All the tools of the media, art, and artists themselves were mobilized to serve the regime. It became a fierce battle. Part of the mobilization took place inside the church and left is effect on the bulk of Christians. By 1995 and 1996, a very deep rift had established itself between the two sides.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What were the symptoms of this rift?

[Habib] The leaders of the church ceased attending iftar banquets organized by the Muslim Brotherhood, and then the banquets themselves ceased. The Brotherhood’s leaders ceased being invited to the national unity iftar banquets within the church. Christians have come to have dozens of fears, the great majority of which have no basis. This is because Christians’ ideas now about the Muslim Brotherhood apply only to the most extreme sects of armed Salafi groups that ultimately represent a very small minority. One of the erroneous notions is that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party will impose a poll-tax (jizyah) on Christians, which is not true.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] But didn’t such a statement in fact emanate from a former general guide of the group?

[Habib] Leaving aside the circumstances under which the statement was issued, on the next day the group issued a communiqué repudiating the opinion. The group thereby replied — politely, of course — to its general guide, announcing its disagreement with this opinion and seeking to excuse him, affirming that he had not intended it and that any political leader in the world sometimes misspeaks. What I wish to emphasize is that anyone fearing the Muslim Brotherhood’s coming to power fears the huge bloc of votes that would bring it to power, meaning that the split would no longer be between Christians and the Brotherhood, but between Christians and Muslims in general.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Don’t you think that the Brotherhood’s announcement that it rejects rule by a Copt or a woman might contribute to entrenching fears of the Brotherhood?

[Habib] I don’t think so, because there is a social custom prevalent in Egypt that comes close to the opinion announced by the Muslim Brotherhood. My personal assessment is that if a Christian ran for the presidency, he would not succeed in obtaining it. Christians in Egypt understand the sensitivity of the office and that anyone who holds it will confront issues of a religious nature. I therefore believe that reaching the presidency is not a priority of Christians and that the issue does not preoccupy them. What does concern them is that they imagine that the Islamic current will make all leadership offices closed to them, that church building will be prohibited, and that the equality of Muslims and Christians before the law will end. This is untrue. As a researcher I note that the head of state in Egypt has exercised religious functions from the days of the Pharaohs until the present. This means that I am in a society that deems religion to be its primary organizer and that therefore cannot be separated from the political system.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Many people agree with the idea that it would be difficult for a Christian to reach the presidency, but the announcement by a political faction that it rejects in principle a Christian’s running for the presidency — doesn’t it represent an entrenchment of discrimination on the basis of religion?

[Habib] This opinion is symptomatic of an mistaken understanding. The correct understanding is that the Muslim Brotherhood has said that when it nominates a person for the presidency, he will fulfill these conditions; but everyone, including a Christian or a woman, has the right to run. We shall respect anyone the people elect and abide by the opinion of the people. The other thing is that the matter has not been raised inside the Freedom and Justice Party, based on the Muslim Brotherhood’s conviction that the issue has raised sensitivities. The issue therefore has been closed and has become a legal opinion of concern to the group, but not of concern to the Freedom and Justice Party or put into its platform, even if the issue has been given more than its share of media attention.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does this mean that the party might possibly nominate you in the presidential elections?

[Habib] The situation for the party differs according to circumstances. For example, as regards the coming presidential elections, the party has imposed on itself the same promise that the Muslim Brotherhood has made, which is not to put forward a presidential candidate, and so the issue has not been discussed at all.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, the prominent Brotherhood leader Kamal al-Hilbawi expressed his belief that Egypt could have room for a party with a Christian point of reference, like the parties with an Islamic point of reference, provided that membership was open to everybody. Do you agree with this opinion?

[Habib] I agree completely with this opinion. The idea of a point of reference means that the person who drafts the party’s platform has a certain background from which he draws his opinions. Every person has the right to draw his ideas from any point of reference. The freedom to think and to determine one’s political views ought to be a complete freedom. The important thing is that the party should be based on a political platform and that its membership should be open to everybody.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe that Egypt in the coming period might witness the emergence of a party with a Christian point of reference?

[Habib] Realistically, I have another expectation, which is that any party with a Christian point of reference will express one of the choices and alternatives within the Christian outlook. It either will be more inclined toward liberalism or toward conservatism. If we lay down a political program based on a Christian point of reference, it will choose the conservative choices, and it will be similar to the platform of the Freedom and Justice Party. This is the point that many people have failed to see: that conservative political platforms, whatever their religious point of reference, overlap and are similar to a large extent. An indication of this on the Western political scene is that Muslim immigrants to the United States by and large support the Republican Party, which draws its support from the Christian right. This is because they find the party’s domestic policies on such issues such as abortion and homosexuality appropriate. One might expect something like this to be repeated in Egypt, were it not for the case of religious inflammation and cleavage that has taken place in Egypt. In general, I believe that if parties with a Christian point of reference emerge, they will be a beneficial addition and that Christians will feel at home in them.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Don’t you believe that the establishment of a party with a Christian point of reference will tend to increase the polarization of the society?

[Habib] To begin with, the general principle should be freedom for everybody. After that, the greatest importance goes to wisdom in behavior. For example, someone who draws inspiration for his ideas from Christianity ought to present them as expressing everyone; he should present his ideas in a form that relies on shared values. The solution, lest we become obsessed with shooting at each other, is that we work within shared frameworks. This means, first, that we make the overall identity agreed upon by the majority of society the identity of us all. Second, all forces and currents, whether liberal, secular, or conservative, should join in mutual alliances. What is striking is that the only two blocs in Egypt between which communication has not taken place are the Christian conservative and the Muslim conservative blocs, whereas the liberals work together easily. Therefore, this rift must be closed, so that we arrive at a normal situation based on a shared identity, along with the existence of political differences.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will the existence of political parties with a religious point of reference help to mend the split or deepen it?

[Habib] I have a view drawn from history. I think that Egyptian Christians in the context of civil society have a pressing need to build popular Christian organizations whose membership is restricted to Christians, organizations concerned with the affairs and basic issues of Christians. Such entities will provide Christians with an organizational framework through which they can tend to all the issues of particular concern to them, in addition to providing a framework for organized Christian activity outside the framework of the church. The church will be relieved of the embarrassment of having organized Christian activity take place within it. Also, the existence of organized Christian groups and organized Islamic groups will allow these groups to build a bridge of contact between them and deal with all instances of religious strife. Besides, dealing with issues specific to Christians through popular organizations is better than dealing with them through political parties, because a political party’s attention ought to be directed toward public political affairs as a whole.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your assessment of the relations between the Mubarak regime and the church?

[Habib] Traditionally, the church always had a good relation with the state administratively. The state under the former regime certainly preferred that all Christians be a single bloc represented by the church and that the church should be their political spokesman. The Copts preferred that the church be their protector. The leaders of the church also preferred to perform this role as mediators between the Christian community and the state. All sides therefore agreed on this situation. The church’s wager was that this regime would continue to survive and that it would protect Christians from the Islamic movement. The regime’s relations with the West were good, which would allow pressures from the West to be exercised on the regime. Naturally, the revolution of January 25 overturned all these calculations. Now the church is trying to refashion its roles in a different manner. It is trying to distance itself from the political role. Perhaps it is trying to gets its opinions across through Christians working in the political field, which is something that is acceptable and allowed.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that the church’s agreement to the former regime’s equation caused Christians to become isolated from political life?

[Habib] Certainly; the Christian community became subject to voluntary isolation. It no longer interacted with the society. Therefore, when the revolution came and the street became open to all, the Christian community discovered that it had no links to the street. I think that the relationship between the church and the state has embarrassed the church and harmed the Copts.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you see the scene after the revolution? Will the church be able to regain this position?

[Habib] Of course not. As long as we are facing a peaceful rotation of power, there is no longer any room for such relations between the church and the ruling elite. The only path before Christians now is to join society.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you agree with the proposition that Christians are persecuted in Egypt?

[Habib] Christians certainly have problems and grievances, but I consider the word “persecution” to be a mistake. It implies that the Muslim community has decided to get rid of the Christian community completely, which is not the case. Foremost among the problems is the issue of building churches. Despite the unfair regulations for building of churches, the regime would sometimes issue dozens of permits at once when its relations with the head of the church were good, but it would withhold them when relations were bad. What we need are definite rules stating that when there is an area with a certain density of Christians without a church, it becomes their right to build a church. However, I think the more dangerous problem facing Christians is the spread of intolerance in Egyptian society from the seventies until the present. Intolerance always spreads when the society is weak, and it always harms the minority most. I am convinced that Egyptian society entered a period of real weakness after the 1967 defeat and that this produced intolerance of the other, and the political regime intentionally entrenched it.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] But is it something that still exists?

[Habib] I have the opposite view. Before January 25, Egyptian society was on its way to one of three possibilities: sectarian war; a state of anarchy, random violence, and a revolt of the starving; or a popular uprising. The latter is what took place. Fortunately for Egyptian society, the Tunisian revolution erupted at the moment when Egyptian society had reached the highest degree of crisis and explosiveness. What we are seeing now one of the side-effects of the revolution.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] The issue of religious conversion has caused sectarian strife that still remains explosive. What is your assessment of how the church has dealt with this issue?

[Habib] This is an issue on which fundamental changes have taken place. At first, when a Muslim converted to Christianity, he couldn’t change his religion on his identity card. Then, with the issue of Wafa Qustantin a new development appeared: namely, that the church or the Christian community began to prevent anyone who wanted to leave it from doing so. We therefore have come to be faced with another dilemma and an inflammatory issue. Its solution should be handled by social, official, and legal parties. Christians at first viewed not allowing conversion to Christianity to be a wrong. Now the sense of wrong is mutual. The relationship between the church and the previous ruling elite produced an unreasonable situation. In return for supporting for the scheme for hereditary succession, the church became able to take Christian women and detain them inside its buildings — as if it had the power to arrest and detain. The relationship thus came to be outside any rational or legal sphere, and this has produced terrible complications.