This news story is quite interesting on many accounts, not just the purposeful image of uninterested and dosing Salafi MPs that Reuters chose to append to the linked article. I was particularly fascinated by the indignation it caused in Egyptian media circles and even the Islamist Speaker himself who reprimanded the culprit quite forcefully. The ‘culprit’ is Mamdouh Ismail; a Salafi MP in the recently ‘elected’ Egyptian Parliament. He is accused of irrespectfully breaking into the Muslim formal call for prayer (a’then) during a parliamentary session. Ismail later said that this wasn’t as purely provocative as it might first appear, as he had asked on many previous occasions, together with other MPs, that prayer times should be respected according to the Islamic tradition but was systematically ignored. He said that what he did was the best way to bring this issue to the attention of those concerned. In the following video, we see the actual event followed by the reaction of one of the presidential candidates from the Muslim Brotherhood (Dr Hazim Salah Abu Ismail):
Abu Ismail is clever here because he doesn’t use an exclusively religious discourse but a pragmatic, political one as well. He said that even during the Mubarak era (when Sorour was in charge of the Parliament), parliamentary sessions were scheduled in such a way as not to clash with prayer times and on occasions where sessions overran and prayer time came, pauses were allowed and sessions were resumed after prayer. I think that what happens in Egypt is in general a good clue to what will likely happen in other Arab countries including Algeria, especially in the current cultural void we suffer from. In fact, having thought about it a bit more, I think that anything that happens anywhere in the World is a good clue to what will likely end up happening in Algeria at some point! So expect to see similar news stories in Algeria during the electoral campaign for the upcoming legislatives and even afterwards.
But for the purposes of this post, I am amazed at the amount of hostility that is directed towards so-called ‘Islamists’ from so-called ‘Muslims’ themselves. I mean, I cannot say that I like ‘Islamists’ or feel any ‘loyalty’ towards them, but still, I am capable of understanding where they’re coming from because am Muslim. What has this guy done that deserves such indignation? This is what parliament is about and every MP is entitled to express their opinion however they see fit. Furthermore, what he is asking for is perfectly legitimate and the extremely lively and ground-breaking political life of Egypt is not going to come to a stand-still should prayer times be respected. Never mind religion, just consider it on purely political grounds: you have an elected parliament where the majority is held by ‘Islamists’, and it is supposed to represent a Muslim-majority country, it is only natural that Islamic way of doing things should be favoured if only to avoid unnecessary distractions such as these. But maybe the objective is actually to encourage futile distractions (not prayer but lengthy debates on some Salafi MP breaking into a call of prayer in the midst of a parliamentary session and how shocking and politically-incorrect it is!)? Apparently, Ismail’s little number coincided with a tense moment where the Egyptian Interior Minister was being questionned over the recent killing of protestors. Attention-seekers such as Ismail will thrive in environments such as these and this is why they always end-up becoming the useful idiots of repressive despotic regimes. We have in our Ali Belhadj a personification of this. Could also be to ridicule ‘Islamists’ and gain the favours of the Western masters and reassure them that their brand of democracy is doing well in our emerging markets.
Ironically enough, a similar case arose in Britain earlier this month when an atheist council member, supported by the National Secular Society, objected that the tradition of beginning council meetings with (Christian) prayer excluded non-believers. He later won the case when a judge ruled that “The saying of prayers as part of the formal meeting of a council is not lawful under section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972, and there is no statutory power permitting the practice to continue.” So the case was won on grounds of local government legislation. If we’re to apply the same approach here, given that we’re quite fond of copying the West, Ismail would be vindicated as the Egyptian constitution states in Article 2 that: “Islam is the religion of the state, and the Arabic language is its official language. The principles of Islamic law are the chief source of legislation“. Britain is of course a secular country and the ruling is valid legally, because if prayer is considered a formal part of the agenda of the meeting, non Christian members who will skip it would presumably be recorded as late attenders. But those who dispute it do so on grounds of the Christian tradition which constitutes an important part of the cultural heritage of the country. In this article, the journalist analyses the ‘liberty to pray’ in historically-Christian-but-now-secular-and-multi-cultural-no-longer-great Britain and contrasts the ban of prayer in council meetings with British Muslims using public spaces to pray and asks: “The question now is, how should the State and the judiciary defend that liberty, in a land whose people now have a thousand gods instead of one, and in which atheists demand to be heard? And what part can the beleaguered national church play?” It makes the Egyptian case seem even more absurd because, in the British case, there is a genuine problem of how to manage a diverse society whilst upholding the principles of liberal democracy. Whereas in the Egyptian case, there is a genuine problem of how to manage full-stop.
I also want to share another video, not only because its content is related to the subject of this post but also because the name of this man is quite amusing as it combines a religious title ‘Cheikh’ with a name which means ‘army’ (Askar). So we could say this person symbolizes the current political alliance between the Egyptian army and the Muslim Brothers. Cheikh Essayyed Askar argues in response to Ismail, that it is permissible in Islam to pray in advance in order to avoid disruptions of important meetings. Unlike Ismail who was making a purely political point, he uses religion but to make a religious point – you’d think he is in Al Azhar discussing the minutiae of Islamic jurisprudence:
I think that the Cheikh misses the point, this is not a matter of religion, but of politics and how an elected parliament in a Muslim country whose constitution clearly acknowledges that Islam is the religion of the State should be run! I wish we could understand this and not have to have an official fatwa on every tiny little thing of private and public life! Why can’t we, instead of copying blindly Western discourse, actually understand where they’re coming from and adopt their legalistic approach? (Well, ignore this case here where the British government encourages citizens to not respect the law).
It seems to me that we have lived so long under imported laws that we have lost the ability to relate to law as a source of order and affirmation of national principles. For us, Law is just something we have to have in place to avoid being told off. Having said that, I do also think that the Muslim world has a problem in that the methodology of deriving laws from Islamic tradition is quite old as well as many of the rulings which ensued. In fact, Islamic jurisprudence (fiq’h) was developped over many centuries and much of it was conceived within a particular geo-political context. Hence, recycling it as one indissociable bloc won’t do and were we to resort to an exclusively Islamic legislative system, we will run into many complexities because of the absolute veneration of ancient ulema and the dismal lack of modern thinkers of the same caliber of ancient polymaths.