Protest against Morsi in Egypt, 2013
© Muhammad Mansour / Commons
Protest against Morsi in Egypt, 2013
Last updated: April 14, 2015
The market for religion in Egypt: anarchy, revolution, and nationalization

"What the media is portraying as a religious revolution currently happening in Egypt is nothing but nationalization of Islam"

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“Consider him as your father,” was one of the most common justifications, and later became a source of irony, that Mubarak supporters employed to “enlighten” the rebellious youth and deviate them from their revolutionary path. Yet, this youth climbed the buildings to tear apart the pictures of their paternalistic president. This act was not only political, it had deeper meanings.

If there was one conflict that demarked the Egyptian revolution, it was an intergenerational one. The face-off between the frustrated young and the resigned old materialized at every step of the Egyptian political transition. However, as the revolution was mostly a youth phenomenon and the regime support was led by the elders, the act of rebellion implied challenging the older generation, their institutions, and even their beliefs. And with the interplay between religion and politics after the ouster of Mubarak, the youth started a more critical, and relatively surreptitious, rebellion on the most profound social and political institutions: the religious ones.

"The face-off between the frustrated young and the resigned old materialized at every step"

Unlike political revolutions, to rebel against the religious foundations of a society is to antagonize your family, friends, co-workers, the religious institutions, and the state. The cost is very high, the risks are hard to manage, and the benefits are largely unattainable. Yet, the signs of the mounting frustration with the prevalent religious order began to come to the surface. This is due to several factors.

FIRSTLY, the sense of freedom associated with the revolution created the impression that all opinions could be expressed. Secondly, the proliferation of mass media outlets intensified their competition and their hunger for catchy topics to attract more audience. Thus, religious controversies occupied a larger share of televised hours. Thirdly, the rise of political Islam led to a counter-rhetoric that challenges the religious foundations, which was employed by the Islamist politicians as a backup for their political arguments, as a form of secular resistance to the post-revolution political authority. These three factors intertwined to create a state of religious anarchy with three main camps fighting for the Egyptian minds. The competition in the market of religious ideas intensified, but the historical legacy of nationalizing the religious market was never dead.

By definition, revolutions are not stable. They are chaotic, emotional, dominated by arguments, and rarely peaceful. This describes the market for religion in Egypt in the last few years. The Salafis lectured in their own channels, Al-Azhar employed its army of preachers and scholars, atheists spoke out about their ideas, skeptics openly looked for answers, and revisionists asked for reforms. Proponents of each camp fought for their ideas either intellectually, emotionally, or even physically. In a way, this gave birth to an anarchic religious revolution with the audience to choose the winner. But, the political changes that followed the ouster of Mohamed Morsi led to a wide governmental intervention in the religious market. The current Egyptian President, El-Sisi, labeled this intervention as a “religious revolution.” However, the intervention that was celebrated by several local and international observers as revolutionary and “Lutheran” is far from a revolution, it is a mere act of nationalization of Islam.  

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The nationalization process took place in two main steps. The first targeted the faction of the Islamic discourse which is not affiliated with the official religious authorities, represented by Al-Azhar, through crackdowns on its main preachers, bringing its mosques under the supervision of the government, and shutting down most of its channels of communication with the general public. The second step was directed towards the other side of the spectrum, the secular and non-religious forces. To contain their activity, laws of blasphemy and insulting religion were handy tools along with shutting down the relevant media outlets. The most recent example is banning the broadcasting of two television programs that were blamed by Al-Azhar for “deceiving” the youth and criticizing foundational religious texts. Thus, by silencing the unofficial opinions on religion, the state and Al-Azhar declared themselves as the sole producers of the “correct” form of Islam. The religious revolution where everyone expressed their opinions, no matter how strange they are, was halted by the nationalization of religion.

THE BOTTOM LINE is that what the media is portraying as a religious revolution currently happening in Egypt is nothing but nationalization of Islam. Giving one authority the final say on religious debates has many advantages, especially with the growing religious extremism. Yet, similar to the situation in a state-led economy, a state-led religion would lead to creating a black market for religious ideas where “unorthodox” forms of religious thoughts would flourish. Against the state’s intentions, religious extremism and atheism would continue growing, and the conflict with the authorities would be inevitable. The only way for religious reform to occur is by discussing rather than banning other religious ideas. 

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