Islam and Democracy

Protestors in Cairo, February 2011 Photo: AFP

Tomorrow (Thursday, March 15) at 3 pm Central Time, radio host Jean Feraca will speak with scholars Reza Aslan and Marc Lynch about Islam and Democracy. As part of our build-up to the Islam and Democracy Conference to be held April 13-14 in Madison, WI (see conference schedule), Aslan and Lynch will touch on a variety of topics related to the Arab Spring.

Tariq Ramadan recently offered his perspective on the Muslim Brotherhood and their ascendance within the new Egyptian political climate. Building on Ramadan’s perspectives, Aslan and Lynch will focus on the political transformation of the Middle East and the role of democratic principles inherent within Islamic philosophy.

You can learn more about Lynch’s recent work on the Middle East on his blog and website. And you can listen to past Inside Islam shows with Reza Azlan on such varied topics as Whitewashing Tales from the Arabian Nights, 100 Years of Literature from the Middle East, Losing the War on Terror, and Young Muslims and New Media.

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The Future of Egypt

Egyptian Women display their inked fingers after voting at a Cairo polling station. Image: Bela Szandelszky/AP/Press Association Images

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.

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Inside Islam Radio Show: Tariq Ramadan on the Muslim Brotherhood

Saad al-Katatni, member of the Muslim Brotherhood's political wing, and newly elected head of the Egyptian Parliament Photo: AP

Today at 3 PM CST (GMT+4), Jean will speak with Tariq Ramadan about the Muslim Brotherhood, and what its near control of the Egyptian Parliament means for Egyptian society. Ramadan, a Swiss academic, poet, and writer, holds a unique position, as he is the grandson of the founder of the Brotherhood, and also a harsh critic of many Islamic interpretations and notionally Islamic governments.

As tens of thousands gather in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to commemorate the Egyptian revolution of 2011 and celebrate the fall of the Mubarak regime, listen in to hear Ramadan’s thoughts on  the influence of the Brotherhood, and the future of Egypt.

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Tariq Ramadan on The Muslim Brotherhood

Tariq Ramadan Photo: britishmuseum.org

Next Wednesday, January 25, Jean will speak with Oxford University Professor Tariq Ramadan about the Muslim Brotherhood. Ramadan, the grandson of the Muslim Brotherhood’s founder and a leading scholar of political science and Islam, will speak with Jean about the Muslim Brotherhood’s platform and its likely influence on Egypt in the coming years.

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Will Islamists Take Over in Egypt?

Last month, Egyptians went to the polls to vote on a referendum for constitutional amendments that would pave the way for free elections later this year. Since Hosni Mubarak stepped down on February 11th, Egyptians have witnessed a wave of political activity. Various groups are trying to mobilize to be prepared to participate in the parliamentary and presidential elections. In this new atmosphere, there continues to be fear of an Islamist take over.

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A New Caliphate? Glenn Beck Thinks So

When the Egyptian revolution was beginning, many saw hope for democracy and change in a country that had suffered under the same president for 30 years. However,  people like Fox News commentator Glenn Bleck saw something more sinister in the Tunisian revolution, Egyptian revolution, and the following protests in the Middle East. Beck did not see these uprisings as the people speaking and finally having their voice heard. Rather, he argued that these uprisings were indicative of a move towards establishing a new caliphate not only in the region but over the whole world.

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Setting the Record Straight on Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood

Muslim Egyptians Pray in Tahrir (Liberation) Square Photo: Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

Perhaps the most significant world event since the fall of the Berlin Wall has been broadcast around the world: the Egyptian people have overthrown now ex-President Hosni Mubarak through 18 days of  peaceful protests. Much of mainstream western media has been in a frenzy over what will come next in Egypt and how the Muslim-majority country will “fair” in “dealing with democracy.” Countless journalists, news articles, and pundits have painted a frightening picture of the Muslim Brotherhood as a violent, Islamic extremist organization on the brink of an Iranian Revolution style takeover of Egypt, imposing Shariah law, and going to war with Israel. In contrast, Howard Schweber, Professor of Law at the University of Wisconsin termed these characterizations “hysterical fear mongering” and called the possibility of Egypt going to war with Israel “wildly implausible.”

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Islam and the Egyptian Uprising

Alexander Hanna is a PhD student in Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He studies social movements in the Middle East and political uses of social media. He is currently in Cairo.

Mainstream news outlets have been making a lot of noise about the Muslim Brotherhood and  the possible Islamist threat coming from the impending downfall of President Mubarak’s 30 year-old regime. This point is generally overstressed — although the Muslim Brotherhood is a large opposition group and has been supporting the protests in the past few days, they were not the progenitors of the uprising and are not the current leaders of it.

Video: Alexander Hanna

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A Guide: How Not to Say Stupid Stuff about Egypt

Since the international media started following the situation in Egypt closely, a number of inaccurate, ignorant, and occasionally racist commentary from otherwise reputable new sources have been passed over without a thought. Since we write about Islam and Muslims, and Egypt is 90% Muslim, we thought it was relevant. And funny. The blogger Sarthanapalos has received a great deal of attention for this response:

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Islam’s Role in Egypt’s Secular Revolution

Mona Mogahed is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and lived in Cairo between 2008-2009. She is a native of Madison, Wisconsin and currently resides in Washington, DC.

When a wave of self-immolation attempts began sweeping the Arab world following the now historic actions of Tunisian citizen Mohamed Bouazizi, Muslim clerics scrambled to issue statements condemning suicide in Islam. Al-Azhar, the world’s most respected institution of Sunni learning, released a statement declaring that “Islam categorically forbids suicide for any reason,” while a Saudi scholar called self-immolation a “great sin” and asserted that Islam “bans suicide even if living conditions are hard.” Of course, few Muslims would argue that suicide is not forbidden in Islam, but both the timing and nature of these statements left little doubt that the dictums were government directives – urging citizens to refrain from the extreme forms of protest that led to the eventual ousting of Tunisian dictator Ben Ali. One Azhar sheikh even went so far as to claim that protesting was forbidden in Islam (other Azhar scholars did the responsible thing by disagreeing with him, even calling Ben Ali’s removal a pious act).

It has long been a strategy of dictatorial governments like Mubarak’s 30-year old regime to try using Islam as an effective means to control citizens, appealing to a common currency that few would muster enough sacrilege to object to (with Azhar-sanctioned legitimacy, the regime has God on its side after all). And Egyptians are indeed a deeply religious people – arguably the most religious in the world. A recent Gallup poll found that a whopping 99% of Egyptians answered “Yes” to the question “Is religion an important part of your daily life?

It comes as a surprise to some, therefore, that the country’s current popular uprising has not taken on an explicitly Islamic bent. Protesters’ demands are quite simple: get Mubarak out. The role Islam has played thus far has been mostly organic and far from political. Until today, the most successful demonstrations took place on Friday, January 28th. These protests were scheduled immediately following the Friday prayers, benefiting from the already-critical masses which regularly turn out to attend these services. Committed protesters paused their chants in order to line up and perform daily prayers, bowing and prostrating beneath riot police and military tanks, gestures extensively documented in a slew of powerful images and videos.

But these were not political acts. These were merely practicing Muslims taking a few moments to perform prayer as they would on any other occasion, whether they were battling Egyptian security forces over control of a major bridge, or just experiencing a regular day in the office.

What does this mean for the revolution? Regardless of who takes rule after Mubarak, be it explicitly religious leadership such as the Muslim Brotherhood or a more secular figure like Mohamed El-Baradei, the powerful place religion occupies in the hearts and minds of Egyptians is unlikely to be affected. Contrary to an unfortunate misunderstanding espoused by government-puppet Muslim clerics and anti-Muslim zealots seeking to pit religion against freedom, lived Islam cannot be boiled down to a mere instrument of control or a series of punitive measures. In fact, as in the Egyptian uprising, the faith there is so much a part of Egyptian life that it seems to transcend such politics. It is there, simply as a matter of course, motivating people, enriching their lives, informing their decisions (both political and, more often, just everyday), but may ultimately go unaffected by the outcome of this historic moment.

What role does religion play in the current Egyptian protests and elsewhere? The majority of these protesters are Muslim. How does that change the perception of Islam?