When Einstein created his clever theory of relativity, he focused his work on time and space. Today, political analysts have extended the application of his theory to a completely different sphere; redefining political Islam. The excitement about the Islamic spring and the potential for political Islam to embrace democracy has seduced many in the name of relativity to label some Egyptian Islamists such as presidential candidate Aboul Fetouh as ‘liberal.”
Dr. Aboul Fetouh perceived liberalism is a good indicative of the current state of affairs in Egypt, where grey is white just because it is not black. In another words, benign conservatism is liberalism because we can swallow its milder rhetoric without feeling the urge to vomit.
For years, the mainstream religious establishment has resisted any reform of religious thoughts. Liberal scholars who advocate Ijtihad as the way forward to reconcile traditional texts with modern day life were mocked, bullied, dismissed or even worth murdered. For example; a reformist like Gamal El-Banna (despite being the Brother of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan el-Banna) was shunned by many, Nasr abu Zayd was forced to leave the country and settle abroad until he died, and Faraj Fouda was tragically assassinated when he dared to voice different views. Many of them advocated reformation of Islamic thoughts, and tried (rightly or wrongly) to articulate different views of Sharia that protect the society without impinging on basic human rights. Sadly, these reformists’ voices were silenced in a country blurred by collective conscience.
As a result, there are only various shades of conservative Islam within the Islamic map of Egypt.
First, the Muslim Brotherhood:
a- The main group: Strongly committed to the group ideology and the targets and demands under the lead of their supreme leader and the Presidential candidate the group chooses (Shater or Morsi, it doesn’t matter)
b- the younger ranks who recently expressed some opposition to the group’s main chain of control and commands and demanded more freedom and flexibility. (Some of them may find Aboul Fotouh far more appealing than Morsi)
c- the wider group among the Brotherhood affiliates who endorsed the group in the parliamentary election, but they are not necessarily willing to commit to the Brotherhood and may endorse other candidates, like Aboul Fotouh, if convinced that his chances are better.
Second, the Salafists:
a-the hard-core Salafists: These are true followers of Salafi scholars who actually read religious text, study school of thoughts and actively involved within different Salafi parties. It seems that many of them will support their leaders endorsement of Aboul Fotouh.
b- the soft-core Salafists: These make up the larger group who choose to follow their preachers out of affection and trust without exploring the details of their perspectives. Most of the main Salafi constituents fall under this category. For them, Salafism is a general loose term that means embracing literalism as a way to achieve religiosity without venturing into details. How they will choose their candidate? Will they follow Salafists parties and back Aboul Fotouh? Possibly yes, though not necessarily.
Third, the non- brotherhood, non-Salafist Islamists:
This wider group of none-political affiliated Egyptians who voted for Islamic candidates in the parliament but are willing to shop around before voting in the presidential election.
Fourth, other groups like the Sufi Muslims:
They usually focus on the spiritual aspect of the religion and are naturally declined to join in politics. Their preferred candidate is still unknown.
It seems that Aboul Fotouh has scanned the Islamic map well and decided to focus on the milder version of each subgroup by adopting a more elastic rhetoric, vague, but smooth, calling for justice for all in a rather ambiguous Islamic framework. He may also appeal to non-Islamists under the pretext of his perceived liberalism, and by playing the all-inclusive card: “Trust me, I am a moderate.”
Yesterday, in the first ever-Preseidential debate , Aboul Fotouh reinforced what he already mentioned in his manifesto, a clear commitment to Sharia, but of course he didn’t elaborate on what exactly he means. The Maqasid ( goals) of Sharia as I wrote before is a very elastic subject that raises many questions. I doubt very much that Abuoel Fetouh has even thought about embracing liberal Islamic philosophy with its rationalism and freedom of thoughts; instead, he placed stronger emphasis on the justice of Islamic law, a very appealing slogan in a country rife with corruption.
The only hint of liberalism I detected from Aboul Fotouh was his support to the rights to change religious beliefs, however, later in the debate; he reiterated his opposition of Iran attempt to spread Shia sect of Islam in Egypt. As a liberal I find that hard to swallow, opposing the brutal Iranian regime should not be extended to rejection of Islamic inter-sect conversion.
I wished Aboul Fetouh was quizzed about his views of Faraj Fouda & Nasr Abu Zeid, bthough I am not expecting him to embrace them, but he should at least protect the right of Muslims to voice different theological opinions without fear for their lives. No one should be murdered or persecuted for expressing controversial views in post–revolution Egypt. On several occasions, Aboul Fetouh has promised he would guarantee “Freedom of creativity” despite he has never articulated what creativity means in his opinion? I wonder how Aboul Fotouh stance regarding the elusive charge of “insulting Islam” and how he would prevent another Adel Imam saga?
So far, Abouel Fotouh vague platform has earned him the endorsement of many from “perceived liberals” like Wael Ghonium to various Salafi groups. It is certainly true, that most of these endorsements are based on political calculation rather than ideological factors. However, the ultra-conservatives can be potential troublemakers in the future if they perceived any delays in Sharia implementation.
Shadi Hamid described Aboul Fotouh as A Man for All Seasons and that Sharia for him “is everything and nothing all at once.” For me, that is not the description of a unifying figure, but a political hustler who are trying to appeal to wide variety of audience all at once. There are still plenty of question marks surrounding his assumed Liberalism, is it real or just a garnish for a very conservative manifesto? For now, he remains Mr. “Relative,” one who successfully proves the endless interesting applications of Einstein’s theory.