The 25 January Revolution was a spontaneous upheaval of Egypt’s young, venting the anger Egyptians had for years sustained. Although some argue otherwise, I see the fact that it had neither programme nor leadership an asset rather than a liability. The miracle of the Revolution was that it succeeded where movements and protests by older generations had failed: it dealt a fatal blow to a despotic, corrupt regime and opened new horizons for building the country. In this light, it does not matter that the Revolution did not come up with a new line of thought. More important is that it restored the people’s enthusiasm for reshaping their future on their own: exactly what is taking place in the current transitional phase. Underway is a crucial process of shaping the future to take Egypt into a modern era of welfare and prosperity.
Amid the political mobility on all fronts—aptly manifested in the heated debate between the Tahrir revolutionaries who advocate a civil State and the Salafis who long for a religious one—al-Azhar, released its own vision for the future. On 19 June, the venerable top Sunni Islamic institution issued a statement under the title: “A statement by al-Azhar and a group of intellectuals on the future of Egypt”. The significance of the statement quickly earned it the title: “Al-Azhar Document”. It calls to mind the long legacy of enlightenment al-Azhar has been famous for, and brings to the fore its role as a staunch defender of moderate Islamic thought which works to advance society not hinder its progress. In essence, the document lays the foundation for reviving the enlightenment which suffered a setback over the past six decades, since the outbreak of the 1952 Revolution. It proves that al-Azhar, the most important Sunni Muslim centre of learning based on the juxtaposition of reason and tradition, is capable of taking courageous initiatives to announce its support of the civil State. Many had expected al-Azhar, at core a religious institution, to bless the religious State alternative and side with Salafi revisionist views.
The document worked to quell the fears of the many who care for the future of this country and insist—rightly—on the separation of State and religion. The past decades in Egypt have witnessed an ongoing outburst of bitter instances of ‘religionisation’ among community and State institutions, including the education, media and other establishments which became increasingly cloaked in religious hues. The al-Azhar document shows that even though the full separation between State and religion might be some way off, the religious institution is willing to display profound moderation, flexibility and tolerance to prove it would never stand in the way of progress and modernity.
I belong to a generation that was raised on the politics and notions promoted by the 1952 Revolution, notorious for its keenness on distorting historical facts and imposing a blackout on reality. One-and-a-half centuries of Egypt’s modern renaissance, which started at the outset of the 19th century and lasted well into the 20th century, were intentionally obscured. This renaissance began with the rule of Mohammed Ali that came right on the heels of Napoleon’s military campaign against Egypt which, despite its being a foreign invasion, served to open the eyes of Egyptians to their first glimpse in centuries at the modern world. My generation was raised on Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s National Charter which was released in 1961 to abrogate the Egyptian nation’s heritage of history, thought, and achievements, under false allegations that this heritage was steeped in corruption and revisionism. Unable to sense the curtailed freedom of thought and speech, we were indoctrinated in the principles worded in the National Charter. Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War was a blow that shook my generation to the core. It was, however, a “blessed blow”, since it acted as an eye-opener. We voluntarily went back to explore our nation’s history, and realised we had much to be proud of in past accomplishments, freedoms, creativity and civilisation. Over the following decades, we fought to restore the bright face of our beloved homeland, even though oppression and tyranny stood in the way.
Today, we stand before a new ‘national charter’, this time in the form of the al-Azhar document. The document stresses the following:
• Drawing upon the inspiration of moderate Islamic thought, the spirit of progressive and reformist imams, and the achievements of leading Egyptian intellectuals and men of thought who contributed to the development of knowledge and culture and the shaping of the rejuvenated Egyptian mind.
• Defining the principles governing the relationship between Islam and the State within the framework of a consensus strategy that determines the shape of the desired modern State and achieves democratic transition and social justice. In the process, spiritual and human values and the correct understanding of religion should be preserved.
• Supporting the foundation of a modern and democratic State, in which legislative authority is the prerogative of the public, provided that Islam is the basic source of legislation, while non-Muslims should refer to their own religious traditions to decide matters relating to personal status law.
• Stressing the principles of pluralism, respect of heavenly religions, and citizenship as the basis of societal responsibility. Ethics of debate and disagreement should be respected, and allegations of apostasy or betrayal shunned.
• Respecting the places of worship of the three monotheistic religions and securing the free performance of religious rites. Freedom of expression, and artistic and literary creativity, should be preserved within the unchanging values of our civilisation. Education and scientific research and entry into the age of knowledge should be our locomotive to progress and our channel to contribute to the welfare of humanity.
Are not we before a new national charter to revive the old/new Egypt?