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Why an Islamic Government in Egypt Might Not Be So Terrible

February 3, 2011 by  


By William O. Beeman, New America Media

The current unrest in Egypt is once again raising the specter of a potential “Islamic republic” as the fortunes of the nearly century-old Muslim Brotherhood and its role in a possible post-Mubarak state there are weighed in the minds of Egyptians and non-Egyptians alike. This prospect is met with a great deal of consternation and hand-wringing in the United States and Europe. However, the idea of an Islamic republic in the minds of Western observers is far worse than the reality.

The symbolic value of “Islamic governance” is of critical importance for Muslims, since as a matter of faith, Islam is supposed to be the governing principle for all of human life. However, theologically speaking, even if a nation labels itself as an Islamic republic, all government structures would not necessarily be determined by Islamic Shari’a (sacred law). Moreover, even those aspects of governance that appear to be directly determined by Shari’a principles are subject to interpretation by religious officials, many of whom disagree on their application.

Beyond this, Islamic government incorporates a broad set of ethical principles that few in the West would disagree with, namely that public resources should be used for the good of all, that honesty should be a hallmark of public life, and that the poor, sick and disadvantaged should be provided for.

Most Americans look at the term “Islamic republic” and immediately think of Iran, with clerical rule, mandatory head covering for women, and prohibitions on various forms of public and private behavior. However, the Iranian government is in some ways an anomaly in the Muslim world because it is very specifically based on a bedrock principle of the Velayat-e Faqih, or “rule of the chief jurisprudent,” which mandates a hierarchy of clerical decision-making with the chief cleric being the last word on all decisions. The Iranian state structure is a miracle of complexity with interlocking leadership positions, staggered election terms, and baroque combinations of direct and indirect election of leadership posts.

In other countries where Shari’a principles are included in the law, this doctrine is anathema, though clerical authority is nonetheless imperative. Thus, it is highly unlikely that any emerging Islamic state would mandate total clerical jurisprudence as in Iran.

Of course, Islam does have a specific set of laws that pious Muslims want to see an Islamic state preserve and protect. These include family law (including custody of children), inheritance law, laws against charging interest, laws governing certain aspects of personal behavior (such as personal dress), and specific punishments for certain crimes. These are frequently the battleground areas for those who want to protect the Islamic nature of the state, and those who want to approximate the secular laws of Europe and North America.

However, most people who object to Shari’a law have no idea how it is applied in the Islamic world. The laws are modified differently from country to country depending on who is making the religious determination and how strongly they are imbedded in the constitution and other legal documents of the state. For example, in some Muslim countries, the law that allows a man to have four wives is modified by the equally important religious demand that he prove that he will be able to treat all of his wives equally. In some Muslim countries, devices such as requiring written permission from the earlier wives before a second, third or fourth marriage can take place keep this practice in check, while still preserving the Islamic law.

Naturally, many in the United States and Israel are afraid that an Islamic government in Egypt would spell renewed hostilities with Israel. This depends entirely on the ability of moderate Muslims, of which there are millions in Egypt, to exert political control over the small minority of rabid extremists in the state. It is thus a political, not a religious question. The benefits of peace with Israel have been very great, and a sensible Muslim citizenry realizes that this is not something to renege on lightly.

It is also important to understand that under religious law, an Islamic government must be in place in order to protect religious minorities. Jews and Christians are all “people of the book,” whose religious practices must be respected under Islamic law. This protection has been logically extended to Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, and Taoists in South and East Asia in de facto observance. For example, in Iran, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians are allowed to manufacture, sell and consume alcoholic beverages, even though alcohol is prohibited for Muslims.

It is somewhat odd that Western commentators find it difficult to accept the desire to preserve a small number of characteristic religious structures in the laws of the state, when many of their countries already do so. Israeli law accommodates Orthodox Jewish religious practice. European nations until recently had prohibitions against divorce and abortion to uphold Catholic Canon Law. The opposition to same-sex marriage on religious grounds is a reality in American politics today, having resulted in legal prohibition in the laws of the majority of states. In fact, many religious-minded people in the United States would find such laws welcome, and regularly lobby for them.

There should be no interference to impose some imagined set of secular Western values on Egypt, given the serious problems that legislators would have to face. The United States in particular would do well not to obsess over the potential Islamic nature of the Egyptian state.

William O. Beeman is professor and chair of the department of anthropology at the University of Minnesota. He has lived and worked in the Middle East for more than 30 years. His most recent book is “The ‘Great Satan’ vs. the ‘Mad Mullahs’: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other” (Chicago).

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