Madaniyya: What’s in a Name
W. Scott Chahanovich, Freie Universität Berlin 4 April 2012


Since the nineteenth-century, Egypt’s intellectuals played with the notion of an Egyptian nation on eyelevel with its European imperial neighbors. Impressed with French, British, and German military and technological prowess, the Egyptian viceroy Mohammad Ali sent students abroad to penetrate and extract the valuable bits from European ‘civilization’. Egyptian thinkers, such as Rifa’a al-Tahtawi and Ali Mubarak, all talked about one thing – ‘civilization’ – using different terms, however. In the 20th century, one of the terms that stuck was madaniyya.

As late as the 1940s, Muhammad Kamil Hussain, the Egyptian surgeon, public intellectual, and author, was still lauding the compatibility of Islam, madaniyya, and the secular state. At some point over the next 40 to 50 years, madaniyya for ‘civilization’ was conclusively replaced with the term hidara. Semantic stability was achieved, but the theoretical value of madaniyya remained volatile.

Prior to the 2011 revolution, madaniyya was used in anti-government discourse, and, hence, suggested something akin to “civil society”. “Civil society” in Arabic is translated as al-mujtama’ al-madani. For example, the Arabic websites for Amnesty International and the World Bank – the top results for a Google search in Arabic for the term – have extensive documentation on the topic of ‘al-mujtama’ al-madani’. These sites also suggest the ‘Western’ roots of the term and how international consensus is based on Enlightenment inspired ideals of government, religion, and society.

In this light, the Arabic term suggests semantic shades similar to the definition laid out by Italian political dissident and intellectual Antonio Gramsci. By extension, one can observe that Egyptian theoretical debate on governance has also mirrored the same developments in 20th century Europe. This epistemological background, as we shall see, underlines Islamist contentions with the concept. It is, so to say, non-organic.

A Revolutionary madaniyya

Since Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took power post-Mubarak, madaniyya has increasingly been chanted in support of a civil government – hukuma madaniyya – as opposed to a military one – hukuma ‘askariyya. Cairene street graffiti pithily reminds citizens, “Egypt is a state, not a military fort” (ma’skar). Similarly, madaniyya can also be associated with, if not directly derived from, the chant “NO to a military [government], YES to a civilian [government]”.

In fact, the linguistic elision of the noun, in this case hukuma, is not odd in Arabic. For contemporary discourse, all of this is a plausible explanation for the derivation of madaniyya, in so far as it reflects a mature understanding of what a democratic transition should not look like. As Lebanese human rights lawyer Chibli Mallat pithily put it: “In terms of basic political principles, the army is secondary to civilian rule in a democratic country, even in times of stress”. But if the term were so innocently derived, why does the discord remain? After all, don’t all parties agree – at least publically – that the SCAF should step down?

When translating concept-nouns from English into Arabic, the feminine suffix –iyya is the equivalent of English political –ism. On its own and preceded by the definite article al-, the word becomes a morphologically independent semantic category of its own. Hence, in Arabic we have al-libiraliyya for Liberalism, al-ishtirakiyya for Socialism, and al-islamiyya for Islamism. But what about madaniyya?

Linguistic study aside, the commonly accepted interpretation by both Islamists and liberals is that madaniyya is synonymous with ‘ilmaniyya: secularism.

Thus, hard-right Islamist parties like Nour, Al-Asala, al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya etc. outright reject any constitution that mentions madaniyya. It is anathema to their political aspirations. Yet the Muslim Brotherhood seems unperturbed, and the mass of other parties can’t stop harping on the issue. Romeo and Juliet spoke the universal language of love; ideologues, however, speak in mutually incomprehensible tongues. What’s in a name, indeed.

There’s the Rub: Secular Shine

Muhammad Nour, spokesman of the party Nour, explained unambiguously in a public statement the hard-core Islamist position: the Salafists do and will reject any constitutional draft in which madaniyya is mentioned because madaniyya, “means that Egypt is a secular state (dawla ‘ilmaniyya).” So the root of the problem, as it were, has nothing to do with the term’s actual semantic derivation, but rather with its secular shine. But the FJP remains calm, unbothered by the concept.

The Muslim Brotherhood behind the FJP has no profound problem with the presence of the word madaniyya in the constitution. The reasons why, as political journalist and activist Amr Bargisi explained, is due to the fact that, “[the Brotherhood understands] secularism as a Western concept, historically derived from the debate over the separation of Church and State in Europe. Since [Sunni] Islam has no clergy, the term does not apply.” Mr. Bargisi’s statement suggests, therefore, that the public policy organ of the Brotherhood, after decades of playing the political chameleon, has become an old hand at deconstructing Western inspired political discourse. Taking into consideration that the MB had held a major conference as recent as 1986 titled “Islam and Secularism” (al-islam wa al-‘ilmaniyya), one can be sure that they have done their homework.

For example, Muhammad Tosoun, an FJP parliamentarian in the upper Shura Council, further lifted the veil from the Brotherhood’s well played poker face: “There is nothing in the Constitution that will stipulate whether [Egypt] will be a secular or theocratic state (dawla madaniyya aw diniyya). What the Constitution does say is that the ruler (hakim) can be removed (yumikin ‘azluhu). This means the Constitution is secular (dostor madani).”

It seems, however, that Tosoun himself is wisely playing up discursive ambiguity. Here, madani can mean civil or secular, a portmanteau used to obfuscate the truth and avoid PR pitfalls. For example, ‘civil’ can simply mean “not military”, but does not necessarily rule out a more robust theocratic government in the future. The Brotherhood is not about to sit on their hard-earned political laurels.

Having abstained from explicitly talking about the form of the government itself, have Egypt’s Islamists found a back door through which they can slip to rob Egypt of a civil government? This scenario seems all too likely, especially given the threats to topple interim Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri’s government and secure for themselves, as FJP Chief Hasan al-Bashbishi has announced, the presidency of the subsequent coalition government.

Moreover, according to Mr. Bargisi, the liberals are guilty of indulging in cursory interpretations of madaniyya: “Secularists have come up with ‘madani’ as indirectly meaning ‘secular’ in opposition to the concept of theocracy.” The Salafists are right to question leftist posturing that madani/madaniyya could accommodate their theocratic dreams. Combined, the Brotherhood’s tactical maneuvering, and the Salafist’s unwavering dedication to an Egypt exclusively ruled by some vague understanding of religious law, together dictate the terms of parliamentary discord and constitutional debate. And the occasional cleft between them speaks volumes about the marginalization of the ‘liberals’ and exactly where Egypt will be politically in the short- and long-term.

More disconcerting, however, is the religious right’s prestidigitatory prowess at using democratic principles as a smoke-and-mirrors show for political observers. In a special issue of Nour’s party paper, the eponymous al-Nour, published March 5th, this reality is flushed out in full over two whole pages. Under the headline, “The Constitution Draft Assembly: Different Currents, Unified Demands”, the party states that all parties are committed to the dream of establishing a, “contemporary, modern state (dawla ‘asriyya haditha) based on the principles of freedom, democracy, and social justice, as long as they do not conflict with Islamic principles of Shari’a.”

The qualification says it all: Shari’a can abrogate liberal-democratic principles anytime. Shakespeare himself could not have penned a more tragic monologue for liberal revolutionaries.



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