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Islam and democracy: an interview with Heba Ezzat

Rosemary Bechler, 12. maj 2005

How to bring Islam, democracy and modernity into a new relationship with each other is a major challenge for 21st-century Muslims. In meeting it, the Egyptian scholar-activist Heba Ezzat is also taking her ideas into the arena of global civil society. openDemocracy’s Rosemary Bechler talks to her.

openDemocracy: Tariq Ramadan referred in his openDemocracy interview to the title of his book, Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, arguing that even if European Muslims are numerically in the minority in their respective states, they are coming up with new arguments to help Muslims throughout the world of Islam. In response, Dyab Abou Jahjah disagreed, saying that Muslim thinking in the Arabic world is far more democratic than Muslim thinking in Europe. As a young political scientist at Cairo University, where would you position yourself in this landscape?

Heba Ezzat: You cannot say that innovation comes exclusively from one region. You can spot anti-democrats in the west and democrats in the Arab world and the Islamic world at large. Arabs for a long time have thought of themselves as the true innovators and of their Islam as the “true Islam”. This has never been correct: a lot of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) came from east Asia, Iran and Afghanistan. So I don’t concur with ideas of geographical superiority or seniority in thinking.

Dyab Abou Jahjah cites two thinkers who are interesting in this respect. Tariq al-Bishri is one of the most respected intellectuals in the Arab world. He shifted from Marxism to a more Islamic frame of reference, and his ideas try to mix Islamic thought with a deeply committed and rather clever Egyptian nationalism. He focuses on the unity of Christian and Muslim people in Egypt, and beyond this, on a mild version of Arab nationalism.

Fahmy Howeidy, an Al-Ahram journalist, writes about Islamic resurgence from a rational and democratic point of view. These two intellectuals are among many who connect the Islamic future with the domain of democracy, albeit in rather general terms.

My own recent contribution is a forthcoming essay entitled “An Investigation into the Political Imaginary of Islamists”. I wrote it from concern that the work of these moderate intellectuals – or indeed those to their right, the more salafi and traditional thinkers – does not come from the perspective of political science. This is also true of Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, who are thinkers in the larger sense. As a jealous guardian of political science, my worry is that if you attempt to transfer their arguments into a political discourse subject to methodological and scientific rigour, they are often too vague and full of ambiguity.

Such figures can still be sincere democrats, but their ideas have to be considerably more developed before they can become prescriptive in a useful way. I am not a thinker but a political scientist. I know that if people want to talk seriously about democracy, they have to draw the maps, outline the matrices of relations, specify the spheres of freedom and of the authority of the state. Indeed, one of my main arguments is that I do not have a problem with the “Islamic” aspects of a putative Islamic state, but I do have problems with the “state” bit! It is very important to get this right.

Between the west and Islam

openDemocracy: Tariq Ramadan and Dyab Abou Jahjah have large public followings. How do you assess their thinking?

Heba Ezzat: You have to contextualise any particular school of thought. Tariq Ramadan has earned the fame and respect which he commands. His is a very sophisticated attempt at real ijtihad (critical interpretation) regarding his situation as a European Muslim. Precisely because he is trying to come up with political solutions, he faces many accusations by his opponents in the west. It is much easier to be advocates of an Islamic frame of reference in the Arab and Islamic world. We have less political freedom, but we are standing on the solid ground of the culture we belong to. If we have a problem with the state, well, it is lacking in legitimacy anyway, so our position has a respectable history.

It is much more difficult for Tariq Ramadan and Dyab Abou Jahjah, who belong to a generation that had to coin its own terms, develop its own discourse, and make itself attractive to younger generations who might have abandoned Islam altogether – at the same time as trying to be contemporary and European in their own right. I respect them. It is only through continuous engagement in a cross- or trans-Islamic debate or dialogue that we will be able to develop something for the good of Islam globally.

openDemocracy: Tariq Ramadan argues for social and global policies that stress what Muslims and non-Muslims have in common, while Dyab Abou Jahjah emphasises the need to recognise how diverse and multicultural the modern world has become. Which of these approaches do you favour?

Heba Ezzat: I don’t see a contradiction between these two approaches. At a certain point you have to have communalities to bring people and your societies together: a basic understanding of what being European, or being British, means. If you share nothing with your fellow-Britons, it makes no sense to say “I am British and Muslim at the same time”.

Within this framework, you also have to accept diversity: for example, that Muslims come from different regions, and while living in Europe are in some ways the bearers of their own original cultures. The only way to reach the “overlapping consensus” recognised in western thought is to respect that diversity.

One of the major sources of antagonism within the Muslim community in the past has been over racial origin. It used to be the case that everyone had to pray in mosques according to where the parents came from: Arab mosques, Turkish mosques, Pakistani mosques. This is changing a little with the present generation, and I welcome it. I see no point in being entrenched in cultures that bear little relation to your life as lived. The paradox is that in their own original worlds of Islam, in North Africa, Asia, and so forth, people changed and developed their ideas. But those who emigrated twenty or thirty years ago tended to be much more orthodox than those they left behind. When I first visited Britain ten years ago, I was fascinated by this situation in which people were so stuck in these parochial identities.

Even within the Arab world we differ. We have to accept that Asians have a sub-culture of everyday life as Muslims that might differ from that of the Tunisians or the Egyptians. But the aim is to find a mutual tolerance within the Islamic domain and then in the wider society with which you are trying to come together.

Much attention has been given to the so-called dichotomy between the west and Islam. If you are trying to bring these closer together, you are regarded as rather brilliant just for making the effort. What has been often overlooked, however, is the part played in this by ideology.

We need to ask: which Islam is being reconciled to the west here? Is it an Islam that really accepts liberalism, including free-market policies, and focuses on the economic empowerment of Muslims who are disempowered in so many capitalist societies? Or is it an Islam that embraces a type of neo-socialist thinking, seeking to empower the poor to fight against poverty and class divisions within the western world. Do we prefer to go for a welfare state, or for the neo-liberal version of the state which is emerging in Europe? What sort of a political and economic system are we reaching for, beyond the normal focus on Islamic business transactions and how to ensure that they avoid usury?

As a Muslim, how would you like to live? We need to know far more. Muslims really should focus on these issues.

Islamic and leftist intellectuals

opendemocracy: How can your ideas reach an audience beyond that of political science professionals?

Heba Ezzat: I publish, and both my paper and online publications are reaching a much wider audience. In 1999, I became the co-founder of IslamOnline, where I have written on many different social issues, trying to bring concepts from a wide range of ideologies and intellectual backgrounds closer to the general and lay Islamic visitors to this website.

One of my first articles was entitled “Anarchism: a Word Unjustly Maligned in Translation” – because the Arabic word for anarchism means “chaos”. I wanted to explain that anarchists from everything from a liberal to a Marxist background have given a lot of thought to the overweening power accorded the state in the modern age, and that this is a respectable tradition deserving to be revisited. This is one of my main themes.

What I have tried to argue in the Islamic public domain, virtual or intellectual, is that ideology has to be taken seriously, not in a dogmatic way, but as part of a neo-Islamic vision, and that we have to build bridges with some of the people with whom we rarely engage. Muslims have been over-obsessed with talking to democrats and liberals who already accept their presence in the western world, or who accept their parliamentary representation in the Muslim world. They have shied away from dealing with the leftists, the anti-globalisers and the different resistance and protest groups in the west.

There are three reasons for this. First, the daily lifestyle of Muslims is a little different – both in the west and in the Muslim world – from that of many leftists. Muslims find it easier to identify with conservatives who defend family values and religiosity.

Second, our preconception of leftists as Muslim intellectuals was that they relied on an underlying atheism – a complete turn-off for Muslim intellectuals.

Third, many of our current, prominent Muslim intellectuals came from a Marxist background, who in the 1970s and 1980s shifted onto an Islamic terrain and turned their backs on their former ideology. Like many recent converts, they repented of their earlier affiliations, including the central emphasis in Marxist thought on social justice.

The result is that in the ensuing Islamic resurgence there was an over-emphasis on the significance of the state. Many intellectuals tried to Islamicise the model of the nation-state. From my point of view, this is in fact an anti-Islamic direction to take. It is a model which disempowers the people, which tries to monopolise the public domain and which always reduces civil society to dependence on the state in one way or another.

Muslim intellectuals, especially in this globalising age, should pick up where they left off, realign their alliances, and choose afresh those with whom they should try to build common ground, as well as who to move away from.

The meaning of “Islamic secularism”

openDemocracy: In 2000, the late Paul Hirst wrote an article on church and state relations in which he emphasised that purely secular arguments for a neutral state do not properly address those who think primarily within a specific religious idiom. You and your husband have set out to campaign for an Islamic secularism, as opposed to the secularisation of Islam that is often demanded in Eurocentric approaches. Why is this project important to you?

Heba Ezzat: Because it provides us with an opportunity to force Islamists to be concerned with human rights, democracy and social justice, rather than keeping them preoccupied with the overarching imperative of defending sharia. This legal emphasis can only lead us to state power, and nowhere else. If you wish to adapt the legal system at large to match sharia, you have either to address the state and ask it for legal changes, or you yourself want to be in power so that you can change the system.

This actually prevents Islamists from seizing upon opportunities to empower people in civil society. In recent decades, Islamists suffered more than anyone else from terrible human-rights violations. But they never established active human-rights campaigns or associations to overcome this victimisation. Indeed, at a certain point, I felt that they came to regard victimisation as a kind of fate, a cycle of sacrifice they were trapped in yet which drove them on.

The result was that their activity came to be about soliciting sympathy in one way or another. This saves you the trouble of struggling for human rights as part of civil society. Instead, you hope only to seize and wield power.

What we mean by “Islamic secularism” is not that Islam is subject to secular restructuring, but that through Islam, we can arrive at a form of secularism which suits us. We can decide where the power of the state should be minimal, where the power of the people should be maximised, where law enters, and where morality rather than law decides.

This last point is a very interesting aspect of Islam, one that has been totally overlooked in an over-politicised debate. Today, we are paying far too high a price for the over-legalising of moral issues, instead of leaving them to communities to discuss and to the individual conscience to decide.

Saudi Arabia is a good example: there, the over-legalisation of every aspect of life deprived people of their own right to take moral decisions in day-to-day situations in accordance with Islam. They gave up this moral responsibility and just became subjects of the state and of the law. I would claim that in this situation the public domain is rapidly deprived of individual and collective morality – quite the opposite of what living according to Islam is about.

Human rights and state co-option

openDemocracy: You have criticised feminists in Egypt, and especially those professional lawyers who have over-deployed the legal system in their cause. Why?

Heba Ezzat: My prime concern has been to offer a political criticism of how Islamists have focused on the promotion of the legal aspect of sharia, to the exclusion of its moral and civil aspects. Sharia is much more than just a penal code, and it requires a sophisticated understanding that will not long survive the kind of theoretical, even existential obsession which sets in when people become preoccupied with state power.

I could see the same thing happening when I watched secular feminists in Egypt being co-opted by state power. They thought that they could influence social change by changing the law and thereby empowering the state. Even when it worked, the price they paid was higher than any gain. The state was in the end the only winner, because it attracted the support of many people active in the human-rights domain, including the secular activists. When these people thought that the legal system could be changed in a more secular direction, they became “insiders”, part of the state apparatus. This left a huge vacuum in the civil society human-rights arena.

Many people who were human-rights activists twenty years ago now do not talk about human rights anymore. They will talk about women’s rights, because this is an acceptable slogan in the eyes of the state. But essentially they have been co-opted. This is the price they paid for being brought in and given the authority to change the laws according to their own perspective. In the widest sense, we – by which I mean civil society taken as a whole – lost from this, regardless of our ideological stance.

openDemocracy: You criticise both the centralised Islamic state as envisioned by political Islamists and the Enlightenment individualism of the west. What model do you envisage for how decisions can best be taken in state and society?

Heba Ezzat: This problem is a matter of economics as well as politics and society. When people decide for themselves, I want the effect of the market to be as minimal as possible. This, not that the authority of the state should be reduced, is my primary concern. People might choose to become virtuous and moral creatures if the government and “society” stopped telling them what to do and gave them space to decide for themselves: but not while the market dominates our cultures.

The choices people make are not because they are “bad” people. Take the “body” issue: people do not simply decide today that they want to discard the veil or pierce their noses – rather, the market effectively gives them orders, just like any dictatorial regime.

I have been fascinated to see in London the fashion for low-lying trousers that show quite a lot of your body. I have been trying to sort out what sort of beauty or wisdom or logic this is. I feel that it is also a violation of other people’s rights: you have the right to expose your body, but – what if I don’t wish to see it?

Don’t we have to find a middle ground between covering the body totally – the Taliban model – or invading my consciousness with your nakedness when I am going to work? Is it actually a young woman’s choice to do this today at this particular time and place, or is the market trying to reshape and refocus people’s concerns on consumerism to suit itself?

There are clearly parallels here in the political realm. Governments do not seem to mind about such “choices” as long as people don’t ask for more power. This is what Jacques Ellul, French Christian author of The Political Illusion and Propaganda, means by “the democratic illusion”. Is this really the choice of people? Or is it the market, playing around with people to make them consume more, and focus on their bodies and on consumption itself.

Take a step back from this, and it looks less like freedom and more like the free-market economy. I would claim that the whole logic of the veil, from an Islamic perspective, is designed to minimise precisely this domineering effect. When we say “humility”, and that the body should not be the domain for a competition between the small percentage of glamorously beautiful women in the world and the rest, this is because when you do not make the body the main focal-point of expression, people begin to look for more profound manifestations and expressions, including, conceivably, a political way forward.

When the latter is not available, they resort again to the body. This is not only my point of view as a Muslim. Many on the left and many feminists share it; they also see that a major distinction needs to be drawn between freedom and liberty. This debate must continue. So much is at stake.

Islam and its others

openDemocracy: A major theme in your work is the return of religion. In particular you stress the need for sociologists to take note of its private rather than its public face. Why is this so important to you?

Heba Ezzat: There has been much interest in the social movements, resistance movements that have embraced religion anew in the last three decades. This is by no means confined to an Islamic resurgence, but includes Jewish and Hindu experience, Christian liberation theology, and Christian evangelism.

All this signifies a much broader, silent return to religion that has taken place on many levels in the lives of ordinary people, including many older people who had been committed Marxists in the 1960s. Some of the most vocal advocates of sexual rights and human rights, foremost leftist leaders in the Arab world, now call for an Islamic revival in the public sphere.

Many ordinary people quietly and imperceptibly have become more religious in their daily lives. These individual and apolitical forms of religiosity should be the subject of study, because they provide substantial support, I believe, to the political movements. Their adherents are scattered but they form a majority, although their lack of a political consciousness – interesting in its own right – could be dangerous.

This is because an absence of political awareness can be made to become anti-democratic. People can give their votes and their commitment to politicised Islamic movements without really knowing the consequences. They are ready to support Islamist discourse without being politically conscious as individuals.

I am afraid that unless we start opening up a debate across different sectors in the public sphere, to engage those people who are the future potential leaders of the political Islamist movements, we will suffer again from tyranny and authoritarianism.

openDemocracy: In your search for a better model that can handle the complexities of modern democratic society, how aware are you of other national experiences?

Heba Ezzat: Many who discuss this issue invoke Malaysia or Turkey, but they don’t see that the approach of other traditions to the political and the social might be of relevance: these are “not Muslim”.

This is one of the major problems with contemporary Islamic thinking, and again, I must say, most un-Islamic. The Qu’ranic call for traversing the world, sampling the different historical experiences of other people and trying to understand the wisdom of history, is deeply embedded in its discourse. But this is not at all reflected in the current political Islamic mind. It is as if the Hindu experience is irrelevant to us.

Current Islamic thinking, like contemporary thought in general, would be much enriched if it tried to learn the lessons of history, setting aside the temptation to recuperate them solely as an account of the victimisation of Muslims.

At the same time, it should draw lessons from other kinds of societies: not just the sorts of religion which dominate them, but how the religious and the political relate to the public spheres in these societies. Which model might one choose from the various ones which exist – but not confining ourselves to the Sudanese, Iranian, or the Turkish model, but rather drawing up our own Islamic model for the future by drawing on experiences from Latin America, or India, as well as those we already know about.

This is not on the Islamist agenda at the moment, but it needs to be raised; there is no point in talking about “multiculturalism” or a new “common humanism” if you don’t learn from all the richness of human experiences. This is an urgent imperative, and one which the Qu’ran itself fully upholds.

There is no point trying to work on a politics that only makes sense to Muslims, because you will be reducing Islam. I am a believer, and I think Islam addresses universal issues, and allows people within that framework to make their own ijtihad. The virtue of difference is highly respected in Islam. This is why I believe that we can make our discourse very relevant in this regard to others.

Democracy in Islam

openDemocracy: How do you assess the public reception of your thinking on democracy?

Heba Ezzat: This is thinking about democracy within Islam, but at the same time it is also part of a wider democratic debate: that is the key point. The more the Islamists – which is our duty and responsibility – work hard on sharpening up the terms and concepts of this debate, the more likely they are to contribute something to changing democratic theory at large.

I wish to be, not just a consumer of democratic ideas, but a creative participant in formulating new ideas which would make sense and be of interest in the west as well. This, as a by-product of my larger goal: to help form a discourse which is universal.

For example, I recently contributed a chapter to the LSE’s Global Civil Society Report. It discusses nationalism and how the notion of global civil society can be used to approach civility, globality and the societal. I drew my examples from the Islamic world, but what I offered was neither so obscure nor so narrow as to be considered a specialist case-study. I claim that we can make these contributions on many different levels as Muslims, not only to help us develop our own thinking, but also to make a contribution to world thought on democracy, freedom, and human rights.

openDemocracy: What are the difficulties and prospects of advocating democracy when the models are, as you see it, in crisis?

Heba Ezzat : Not long ago I attended a Cairo conference entitled “The American Elections: democracy in action”. After listening to several papers, I simply said: “We are not watching democracy in action: we are watching democracy in crisis. But we should be concerned with democracy in the United States even if we disagree with its foreign policy, because if America becomes less and less democratic, we will have less and less hope of establishing our own democracy.”

The question, then, is not how can we best enforce democracy on people from above, but how can people enforce democracy on their states, make their presence felt and exert their influence from beneath, when this probably entails civil disobedience?

All over the world – including in the United States – if you keep quiet, governments will simply become more authoritarian. And if you make a move, they will act against you. If you redouble your efforts, they will become violent and accuse you of being a terrorist. So this indeed is a vicious circle. How can people ask for peace, when this must involve them, not in the use of violence, but in the use of higher forms of power?

This is why we need a debate about violence.

This article is published by Rosemary Bechler, and appeared originally on openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons licence. To view the original article, please click here.


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Opdateret d. 24.8.2005