By co-opting religious discourse, liberal Egyptian leaders are trying to 'out-Islamize the Islamists'. But what they believe is a smart tactical move might end up a fatal mistake.
By preempting religious discourse, liberal Egyptian leaders are trying to 'out-Islamize the Islamists'. But what they believe is a smart tactical move might end up being a fatal mistake. By abandoning their identity and mimicking their opponents, liberals are shooting themselves in the foot—and maybe digging their own graves.
Okay, watch this:
These people, protesting in Port-Said against Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, are chanting “There is only one God,” Islam’s profession of faith, and “Mohamed Morsi is his enemy.” The crowd clamors on: “We’re not infidels, we’re not atheists, down with the (Muslim Brotherhood’s) Guide.” Are these people bigots, bashing the Islamist president because he’s not religious enough to their liking? Not at all. In fact, they are arch-seculars. Confusing, huh?
Now watch that:
This is Mohamed El Baradai, the coordinator of Egypt's coalition of secular opposition, the National Salvation Front. And what is the man saying? “We want Sharia [Islamic law].” Even better: “We have always said that Sharia should be the primary source of the Law.” Baffling, right?
Ok, see this image now:
Yes, this is a banner of the allegedly secular Egyptian Bloc party alliance, bluntly proclaiming: “The Quran is our Constitution” (which happens to also be the official motto of the Muslim brotherhood.)
Had enough? Wait, here’s one for the road:
That, ladies and gentlemen, is a secular rally in Cairo and the banner says, “Khaibar, Khaibar O (Muslim) Brothers, Muhammad’s army is in (Tahrir) square.” For those not accustomed to Islamic intricacies, this echoes the famous slogan “Khaibar Khaibar O Jews, Mohammed’s army is back”— a sensible reminder of the conquest by Prophet Muhammad’s army of the Jewish-populated oasis Khaibar, in seventh-century Arabia. The Khaibar slogan is arguably the most anti-semitic, aggressive instance of contemporary Islamist propaganda. And here are Egypt’s seculars co-opting it and adopting the “Muhammad’s army” moniker for themselves. Isn’t that… well, incomprehensible?
Don’t scratch your head too much. Out-Islamizing the Islamists had somehow become the most commonly employed tactic nowadays amongst Egyptian seculars. But why would self-proclaimed liberals resort to using a language they not only criticize but also consider antithetic to everything they stand for?
The first element of the answer is an idea that Egyptians, being "religious by nature" (a view that’s been repeated ad nauseam), will only respond to religiously-inspired political discourse. A pretty dismissive thinking actually, since it denigrates the Egyptian people to the status of toddlers who need to hear slow, familiar words in order to understand.
Another element is that not all self-proclaimed seculars are in fact sincere proponents of a secular state (and by “secular”, I mean a neutral, a-religious state, which would do nothing but guarantee freedom of belief and worship in the public sphere.) Some subscribe to these notions not out of conviction, but rather out of fear that their lifestyles would change under and Islamist-run state. Others might nurture true secular feelings—but only to a certain extent. Let’s face it: the absence of an ideological foundation for Egyptian seculars is leading to a movement that lacks a real identity and is thus comfortable with any kind of populist rhetoric.
But the most important reason so-called seculars resort to Islamist rhetoric is probably fear. In other words: the religious overdoing (or rather, over-saying) by Egypt’s liberals is simply a reaction to Islamist claims that seculars are “anti-religion.” Fearing that the party’s reputation would be tarnished beyond repair by such misnomers, many seculars end up thinking that resorting to an Islamist-esque rhetoric will assure the people of their good intentions. Yet here’s what really happens: what liberals believe is a smart political maneuver makes them look like people who are ready to forsake the very essentials of their ideology in order to gain popular favor. Just think about it: to what extent can one embrace oppositional dogma without compromising – or at least rethinking – one’s own?
When seculars try to out-Islamize the Islamists by co-opting religious rhetoric, they set themselves up for political failure. After all, why vote for the copy when you have the original?
Egyptian seculars face many difficulties. Not only do they lack the funding and organizational power that Islamist parties enjoy, but they also suffer from widespread, popular ignorance about what exactly it is they stand for. The problem is that they are greatly responsible of this ignorance themselves. Instead of speaking their true minds in the form of coherent political platforms, they mimic their opposition, thus convoluting an already confusing political conundrum. Not to mention that they resort to dishonest political speech — which happens to be their main criticism of their Islamist adversaries. That’s what is called shooting oneself in the foot.
Many Egyptian seculars are contributing to the problem instead of solving it: instead of pushing the claim of a religiously neutral state (which, by the way, would include guaranteeing the independence of respected religious institutions), they clumsily try to pose as competitors through claims that their own interpretation of religious provisions are better than the Muslim Brotherhood’s. What they fail to see is that in their unsuccessful attempts to try to sound more appealing to the public, they are in fact endorsing the Islamist claim that religion should be enforced by the state — a claim that is indeed a danger for the civil and individual liberties of all. Instead of reshaping the playing field, they choose to play along with the same rules they allegedly abhor. By contributing to the poisoned rhetoric that accuses political dissidents of not being religious or virtuous enough, they are justifying and perpetuating methods they themselves were—and still are—victims of.
Seculars in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world must build their own identities instead of settling with the deleterious label “non-Islamists.” And most importantly, they must stop attempting to 'out-Islamize' the Islamists. Their obsession with trying to appear acceptable to all is something that has badly hurt the secular stream in Egypt. Instead of admitting their political and economic differences and trying to compete by providing services, being active in the midst of society and focusing on issues that touch citizens' lives, they resort to watered-down, spineless words. Attempting to appeal to all will cause them to eventually appeal to none.
When seculars try to out-Islamize the Islamists by co-opting religious rhetoric, they set themselves up for failure. After all, why vote for the copy when you have the original? More importantly, they are missing an opportunity to provide an ideologically-defined secular movement at a time when the Arab world desperately needs one. While compromises and concessions are inevitable parts of politics, certain lines should not be crossed. Arab seculars — on the right, on the left and in between — have to redefine themselves and clearly establish their message. If they can’t speak their goals, they have no chance of ever reaching them.
* Sara Labib is an Egyptian blogger and Law graduate Student