”Drawing a distinct line between religion and politics”
Mohamed Salmawy with Giancarlo Bosetti 19 September 2006

Bosetti: We would like to understand precisely the way in which one can conceive, and consequently practice, dialogue among different cultures. Within this context it’s particularly difficult to clarify the relation between politics, culture and religion. In an interview for this magazine, Sayed Yassin explained that he considered himself a “secular” scholar. You too consider yourself the same, though you prefer to use the term “liberal” rather than “secular”. Can you tell us what these terms signify in Egypt? This would allow us to compare secularism in Europe with secularism in Egypt.

Salmawy: The term “secular” has a very distinct meaning in our part of the world. According to people here, it simply stands for those who call themselves secularists. We avoid using the term secular as it is considered equivalent to being anti-religious or atheistic.

Bosetti: What is the term you employ?

Salmawy: Rather than secular I prefer to use the term “civil”, as opposed to religious not as opposed to military. There is the religious authority and there is the civil authority, and we belong to the civil authority, we belong to the civil community, hence the term “civil”. I’m definitely not religious, in the sense that I don’t think that religion is the parameter, the framework and the criterion for everything in life. Religion is more of a personal belief, rather than a framework for co-existence and interacting with other people. Therefore, I do not consider myself to be religious, but that does not mean that I’m against religion. I’m a believer myself but when I look at the world, I look at other issues. I don’t judge everything solely from a religious point of view.

Bosetti: And what about the concept of laicité?

Salmawy: I am talking about more of a French laicité, which refers to secularism. When I said civil, what I had in mind was more or less laicité. The position I’m describing is the ideal and probably most representative position for Egypt. Egypt is not composed only of Muslims. About 20 percent of our population, if not more, is Coptic Christians. The Copts are not simply a minority like minorities in other countries; they are actually part of the social fabric of the country. We must not forget that before the Arab and Muslim conquest of Egypt they were the only Egyptians, the real Egyptians. So a society composed as such can only be “civil”, not religious. Maybe that is the real reason Egypt has never had a religious government. The idea of religious rule for us is more along the lines of the European model of the Middle Ages when the Church ruled. Egypt has Al-Azhar, which is the seat of Islamic learning and the seat of Islam, a kind of Islamic Vatican. However, Al-Azhar has never ruled Egypt. The rule has always been civil, secular as you like to say. Egypt has never been a religious state, because it can not be ruled by a religious government. Even under the Ottoman Empire, when all the Arab and Islamic countries were under the Caliphate, one would have thought that the seat of this religious Caliphate would have been in Egypt, the temple and leader of the Arab world. But it never was.

Bosetti: It is common knowledge that Egypt is a secular state, a secular country compared to other Muslim majority countries especially in comparison to Iran. But is it true that the supreme imam has no constitutional role in Egypt?

Salmawy: No, not at all.

Bosetti: So, Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi’s (the leading religious authority in the Sunni Muslim establishment in Egypt, ndr) statement about female inheritance has no constitutional relevance? Can it be accepted by the Parliament or not?

Salmawy: It can be accepted, or refused, or even ignored. It does not have any constitutional role. In fact, until the reign of Anwar Sadat, our constitution had never stated that Egypt was a religious country. When Sadat promulgated a new constitution in 1971 he introduced, for the first time in the history of Egypt, a clause that Egypt was to be an Islamic country and that the shari’a, Islamic law, would be the source of Egyptian law. This of course ran counter to all our history and to all that Egypt had stood for throughout the last thousands of years. It was a political manoeuvre on Sadat’s part. He wanted to appease the newly revived religious power and he thought he could use Islam to counter nationalist and leftist ideologies. With this move, he opened up a Pandora’s Box. We are still suffering from what he did. The same religious extremists that his government had encouraged ended up assassinating him. Sadat’s reign led to all the problems that we are currently facing in Egyptian society.

Bosetti: So the passage from Sadat to Mubarak was a passage into a more secular era?

Salmawy: I cannot say that under Sadat it was a religious era. Sadat included this in the constitution, but it was merely a clause. He could not change the history of the country nor could he change the nature of the society. It was introduced in the constitution and it is still there because Sadat’s constitution has not been changed. But what I was trying to say was that it is not representative of what Egypt stands for today.

Bosetti: The boundaries between religion and politics are blurring globally. Increasingly, religious groups and people, from churches, from religious authorities, where ever they might exist, are demanding a greater voice in the public sphere. This is true both in the West and the East. Is the situation changing in Egypt?

Salmawy: It is moving like a pendulum, to and from. But it is true that the line between religion and politics is no longer as distinct as it was before. For various reasons, political ideology has suffered a great deal during the past few decades and as a result there has been a rise in religion as a counter ideology. Political ideology fell and that gave rise to religious ideology and has interfered greatly in the political sphere. This is very dangerous and we have seen that the manifestations of this are not restricted to the Middle East. Nobody is immune from the danger it poses, not even the greatest superpower in the world. If the lines between religion and politics are blurred, you end up committing a lot of blunders, as we have seen in the case of the United States during the Bush years. We suffered from this situation before the West did and we have, or at least the government here has, tried to draw the attention of the West to this problem of religious interference in politics. Mubarak has a number of times called for an international conference on terrorism so as to define terrorism and to try and drive out religion from the political arena. His calls were not taken seriously by the rest of the world. But we find that the West is also suffering from the same malaise that we have in our societies, which is the result of precisely what you said: that the demarcation line between these two fields is not clear. I think it is the duty of civil society, not only in Egypt and in the Middle East but all over the world, to draw this line, and to keep it very clear and distinct in our dealings. We have to separate the state from religion.

Bosetti: Let’s talk about religion as it is represented in the Egyptian parliament by the Muslim Brotherhood minority. What are the main objectives of that minority? Do they want to change the family code? Or do they want to introduce a new version of the constitution?

Salmawy: I don’t really know what they want, because what they were calling for before entering parliament was different from what they are saying now . Before joining parliament they wanted the application of shari’a, the Islamic law. By definition, the shari’a is not absolute or unchangeable. Historically it has undergone many changes, even during the time of the great caliphs who followed prophet Muhammed: notably Omar Ibn al-Khattab had stopped the application of the shari’a in certain cases and during certain periods. So this shows that shari’a is not a basic unchangeable parameter of religion, like the creed itself or like the belief in religion. It can change from one age to the other. But the Muslim Brotherhood had stated earlier that they wanted to go back to the old shari’a and wanted to change the constitution to an Islamic constitution. In short, they wanted to establish a religious, Islamic state.

Bosetti: And then did they change their mind?

Salmawy: Now that they are in the parliament they are stating that no, this is not what they wanted, that even their party is not a religious party, it is a political party with a religious outlook, similar to the Christian democrats in Europe or something similar. I think they are in a process of adapting to their political role and their new position in parliament. They are also being challenged by civil society and they are responding to that challenge. This phenomenon is not peculiar to Egypt. If you look at Palestine you have a similar situation. Hamas, which was a religious group, is now in power and they have changed quite a bit of their outlook and their previous mottos. I think this is an important period where civil society has to be very strong and very clear about what it wants. Civil society has to be able to impose itself on these newly arrived religious groups to make them conform to democracy and to the democratic way of politics that we believe in.

Bosetti: You do have quite an extensive international experience as President of the association of Egyptian writers, and also personally because of your international role. You also participated in our dialogue among cultures “Beyond Orientalism and Occidentalism”. In your opinion, what is the most useful way to proceed in such a dialogue?

Salmawy: I think first of all we have to decide who the two parties in this dialogue are. For a long time people have thought that the real parties in this dialogue should be the two religions, Islam on the one side, and Christianity on the other. I don’t agree with this. The dialogue should be between the two civil societies that are facing the same problems, that is, the intrusion of religion in daily life, in a sphere which is not its own and where it has no role. So we, the civil societies of different countries of the West and East, should be the two parties to this dialogue. We should not ignore religion as it is a part of our society, part of our culture and part of our outlook on life that distinguishes us from Europe. However, it should be taken as such and not be regarded as the real representative of society and thus conduct a dialogue only with religion. Personally I don’t believe in dialogue between religions, because religions can’t dialogue. If you are looking for understanding and non-belligerence, they can only co-exist. In a dialogue each side tries to influence the other. Religions can’t negotiate and neither can they come out with a common stand, a compromise from their previous position. The differences will still be there. Dialogue among religious people, I would not call it “dialogue” but a “meeting” between religious people, with the aim of finding ways to co-exist side by side is possible. But the real dialogue should be between cultures, between civilizations, between the civil society of both sides. They have to reinforce their civil power, their civil outlook on life and ensure that religion is contained in its respective sphere and does not become the main reference of everything in life. Otherwise we cannot co-exist.

Bosetti: Did you ever try to organize a meeting between an Egyptian and an Israeli writer?

Salmawy: Egyptian writers still abide by a resolution passed many years ago forbidding normalization of relations with Israel until Israel withdraws from the occupied territories and until the creation of a Palestinian state. This resolution was passed by all the associations and syndicates of the country, including the journalist syndicate, the writers union, the lawyers etc. Civil society here felt that this was the only card, the only pressure they could exert on Israel, to push it toward negotiations with the Palestinians and to bring about peace in the region.

Bosetti: Would even a personal meeting between an Egyptian writer and an Israeli one in Rome or in Paris be interpreted as a kind of normalization?

Salmawy: Yes. It has happened. A writer was expelled from the association five years ago, before my time, because he had chosen to go to Israel. Similar incidents have also taken place among the journalists and other unions.

Bosetti: Would you describe the Palestinian Hamas and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood as similar political entities?

Salmawy: No, but they are in a similar political scenario.

Bosetti: Similar scenario? But are they different?

Salmawy: They are different, but they have both risen through elections to gain power in society. That is what I meant.

Bosetti: But you have examples that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt today, or some of them, can be de-radicalized?

Salmawy: Yes. They are now trying to gain the acceptance of society and to do so they have taken many steps. Just before our conference in Cairo, in December, at the 94th birthday of Naguib Mahfouz (a symbol of civil society, of literature, of culture, a Nobel prize winner and someone who the more extremist religious groups tried to assassinate in 1994), a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood came to see him to wish him a happy birthday and assure him, in front of the people present and the press, of the high esteem he was held in by the Muslim Brotherhood and how much they cared about culture literature and enlightenment.