Our recent Inside Islam radio show with Oxford University Professor Tariq Ramadan was a good history lesson for me. Ramadan talked about how both the western media and many of Egypt’s politicians are missing the boat: the role of Islam in future structures of Egyptian government is a relevant and important question, but there are much more pressing issues that need to be discussed. The western media has been especially interested in highlighting the headscarf or other tangibles that are symbolic of religious life, when there should be more of an emphasis on what Ramadan identified as the six themes all governments should work towards in their own way: rule of law, equal citizenship, universal suffrage, accountability of elected leaders, separation of power (executive, judicial, and legislative branches), and separation between religious and political power. He argued that it’s dangerous to have our sights on the trees when Egypt should be focusing on its future vision of the forest.
Asked whether the current revolution and political situation in Egypt would meet the standards of the vision set by his grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, the founder the Muslim Brotherhood, Ramadan reminded us to consider the context when making any comparison. The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in an era of colonialism, when Egyptians were struggling to break free from British rule; al-Banna and others saw an Islamic government as the appropriate vehicle to unite and inspire the majority of Egyptians. He also spoke of how an “Islamicized” version of the British parliamentary system could be the model going forward. Today, the situation is remarkably different, and so understanding what al-Banna would have wanted today is unrealistic. But Ramadan noted that al-Banna was very clear about the value of learning from others’ experiences and integrating that knowledge into a system that made sense for the time.
Most importantly, Ramadan highlighted that most people are much less concerned about how Islam is going to shape aspects of the future government, but rather, what each party is going to “bring to the table to counter poverty and economic instability.”
It’s time to stop this useless discourse between the Islamists and the secularists about the structure. … You can’t protect democracy if you have illiteracy on the one hand and economic instability [on the other] … [S]o instead of talking as people knowing what is the final stage of a democratic model, we should also share with the people in Egypt our own experience [as westerners] and hoping that the Muslim Brotherhood with others, with the secular forces, are going beyond this very polarized debate they have now about the political structure and they come to a more comprehensive approach.
Ramadan encourage patience and reminded us of how long it took other democracies to achieve their own institutions and systems of governance. He covered a number of topics throughout the interview, which you can listen to in its entirety here, but he also emphasized a final point for western policymakers to consider. The US and its allies have supported dictatorships and military regimes for decades–in Egypt and elsewhere-and this unique period of transition in Egypt is an opportunity to create a different pattern and a policy that supports the freedoms of the people. The US-supported Egyptian military has had a grip on power for decades, and how the US and other foreign governments interact with them will influence the future direction of the Egyptian state much more than any specific social or religious law related to Islam.
What do you think about Tariq Ramadan’s views on the Muslim Brotherhood and the future political direction of Egypt? In what way and to what degree may Islamic religious laws be related to the prosperity of a future Egyptian society? How much influence does the US have on the future direction of Egyptian political structures?