Since there seems to be a lot of interest in the English media in Bassem Youssef, I figured I would jump on that train and provide a translation of a recent column he wrote in Al-Shorouk. In it, he responds to those who attempt to silence opposition by invoking God’s law, something Youssef sees as a concerted political strategy.

Youssef is, of course, not opposed to Islam or “Sharia.” He is, as this article makes clear, opposed to anyone claiming a monopoly on religious truth exercising power. He believes that a separation between religion and the state is better for the spiritual health of Egyptians because people will not be turned off to religion because of compulsion. He has gone on record claiming that “a terrible wave of atheism and secularism” spread in Europe as a result of religious oppression, and doesn’t want to see the same thing happen to Egypt.

See translation notes at the end.

Also be sure to catch Dr. Bassem Youssef on the Daily Show again this Wednesday evening!

How do you confront religious blackmail?

Bassem Youssef
Al-Shorouk April 9th, 2013

The original article can be read here.

In America until the 18th century, if there was a rumor that a woman or a young girl was a witch or a sorceress the entire village would hunt her down and put her on trial. The witch had to pass the holy test before the court that would prove whether or not she was guilty: they would tie a heavy rock to her and then throw in in the river. If she floated on the surface, there was no doubt she was a witch who used her black magic powers to save herself. In that case, the accusation is proven and the village would burn her for sorcery. If she drowned, which is to be expected of course, the people of the village realized that they made a mistake and would pray for the messiah to accept her and to forgive their sins and hers.

This is the method that anyone who has anointed himself the guardian of the people’s religion has adopted throughout history. Spanish Catholics adopted it during the inquisition and the church in Europe implemented it with scholars and their political rivals. Even the Americans did it in the 50s – albeit through ideological terrorism, not religious – during the vicious attack of McCarthyism when the charge of being a communist was a sword hanging over the necks of American intellectuals and celebrities.

The best way to win any intellectual, social, and even economic battle is to put your adversary in the column of heretics, unbelievers, and enemies of God’s religion (or the communist traitors hostile to the beloved homeland such as in America). By doing so, you don’t need to present any real solutions as part of your plan and you need not expend any effort to prove your theories. In the court of public opinion, they’re an unbeliever, a heretic, and a belittler of religions. Even if they’re right, no one will listen to them.

This method is not far off from our own Islamic history. When the Kharijites appeared and declared every muslim a non-muslim (takfir), including Imam Ali, they did it with God’s book. They committed massacres and atrocities all while claiming to be the custodians of God’s book.

And despite the fact that their approach was as far outside the bounds of what is right, of religion, and even of correct politics as it could be, it didn’t matter as long as they wrapped themselves in the banner of religion and repeated Quranic verses, even as they tried to one-up Ali himself. It is related that after Ali delivered a sermon to a group of people during the Great Upheaval (al-fitna al-kubra), one of the Kharijites called out “God is the Greatest!” to which Ali replied: “A word of truth that serves a lie.” And the Kharijites were among those who forced Ali to accept the scheme of arbitration by God’s book after it was raised on spears.

Maybe you think that what I’m saying is just memories from time immemorial. But, my friend, we are subject to this religious blackmail on a daily basis.

After the revolution and the emergence of a great many who spoke in the name of the Islamic project, it was them who silenced their opponents in disagreements with expressions such as “What have you seen of God to make you hate his Sharia?” or “How are you opposed to Sharia? How do you oppose God’s law?” Many young people wavered before these accusations, as they are, at the same time, accusations of sorcery: either drowning or burning. No young person would dare deny Sharia with the threat of excommunication (takfir) and “departure from the Islamic community” (al-khuruj min al-milla) looming, and with the possibility of being called an obscene liberal unbelieving secularist. If he accepts the labels, his opposition to the Muslim Brothers and the Salafis is meaningless.

But, my young friend, you are not forced to accept these choices because the Salafis do not have a monopoly on Sharia and the Muslim Brothers are not its guardians. You must realize deep inside yourself that these questions that come in the form of accusations must be turned around and repeated to those who ask them in the first place.

Ask those who rant about Sharia about their media that is filled with pathologies, lies, and slander. Ask them about their Sheikhs’ sermons that are filled with hatred, racism, and insults. Ask them about their tendency to align themselves with every wrong political position after the revolution and how they have made themselves out to be lions now after having been like house cats under Mubarak. They did not commit themselves to death for the sake of Sharia until after having trampled on the bodies of the youth whom they belittled for their demonstrating, their religion, and their nationalism.

What do you mean Sharia when we see the disagreements among the religious currents such a degree that some of them are excommunicating others and accusing them of lying, disbelief, and corruption?

What Sharia? What model of the Islamic project do you want to implement? What do you want to add to the law besides what restricts and constricts? According to them Sharia revolves around outlawing alcohol (khamr) and implementing the hudud, as if we see people in Egypt going around committing adultery, being promiscuous, and getting drunk for all to see in the light of day.

Why don’t the Islamists who have arrived in power and their sponsors among Islamic countries implement the Zakat Al-Rekaaz, which is a 20% tax on natural resources extracted from the land such as minerals and petroleum to be distributed to the poor? It would be enough to eliminate poverty in all Muslim countries. But that isn’t important. Concentrating on what a woman is wearing, on alcohol, and the hudud is, without a doubt, much more important.

Then they come with their smugness and their filth and their breaking of promises and they want to talk about Sharia.

My young friend don’t let anyone blackmail you with Quranic verses that they take out of context to try and make you feel that their Islam is better than yours. Don’t give them the opportunity to put you in front of verses such as “And whoever does not judge by what Allah has revealed – then it is those who are the disbelievers” or “it is those who are the wrongdoers” or “it is those who are the defiantly disobedient.”

They are the ones who have not ruled by what God has revealed and they are the ones who have not set an example to be emulated in discussion, dialogue, or morals. Straight up: we cannot trust these people to implement a sharia that they don’t understand and don’t live by.

Remember that the most famous who ranted about these verses was Zayd bin Hasan Al-Ta’i, who gave sermons to the Kharijites in his house, after which they went out to commit murder, torture, and to excommunicate other Muslims.

When one of them comes to you and tries to put you in a tight spot by saying “what have you seen of God’s law to make you hate it?” say to him: “Unfortunately, I have seen you and your morals that have no relationship to God’s law. We don’t hate God and are unable to hate God, we just cannot stand you.”

Some translation notes:

1: The story about the trial by water Youssef mentions is probably apocryphal. I’m pretty sure they used ropes to pull sinkers from the water before they died. Also I don’t remember anything about rocks. Any witch-hunt experts know?

2: The Great Upheaval (al-fitna al-kubra) refers to a period of internecine fighting among competing claims to the Islamic caliphate after the assassination of the third Caliph, Uthman.

3: The Qurans on spears incident refers to a fight between Ali’s forces and those supporting his rival Muawiya. Basically these guys were losing so they put Qurans on their spears to force Ali to accept arbitration instead of killing them all, a trick that weakened Ali’s position and eventually led to a falling out between him and the Kharijites (correct me if I’m really wrong on this, I’m not anearly Islamic history buff).

4: Hudud refers to the particularly nasty punishments for the most egregious crimes in Islam such as blasphemy, adultery, and theft. The punishments for these crimes, the hudud, include capital punishment and amputation among other deterrents.

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The following article appeared in Al-Shorouk on April 8th, 2013 – (apologies for being a bit late on it). In it, Ahmed El-Sawy addresses what many perceive to be growing tensions between members Egypt’s Christian minority and Muslims, a trend that many claim is exacerbated by Islamists in power who deliberately fan the coals of sectarian tension for electoral gains. The title refers to Al-Khusus, a town north of Cairo where sectarian clashes earlier this month left several Muslims and Christians dead before spreading to Cairo.

The crux of El-Sawy’s argument is that Christians have suffered from collective punishment as a result of the errors/crimes/mistakes of individuals, a betrayal of the concept of citizenship and equality before the law. The article struck me because of El-Sawy’s equal indictment of the Islamists in power and the society as a whole from which they draw support.

Regarding Al-Khusus

Ahmed El-Sawy
Al-Shorouk April 8th, 2013

The original Arabic article can be read here.

It’s enough for you to be a Christian in Egypt to know that you do not have the luxury of making a mistake. If your fate happens to lead you to err, you do not have the right to be punished and to carry the burden on your own without your family, your sect, and anyone who might just be passing by also bearing the responsibility.

It’s enough for you to be a Christian in Egypt. Don’t challenge the vegetable seller in the market, even if he sells you his goods at double the price, because challenging him will require a fight. If someone gets injured the issue won’t be that one citizen got into a fight with another citizen – there are government bodies whose responsibility it is to decide the matter according to the law. Rather, it could be that you, your family, and everyone from your millet* will pay the price of your recklessness. Your house will be burned and your neighbor’s house too, even though he didn’t fight, was not present, and doesn’t know a thing about the reason for the quarrel, but who is only a Christian like you.

It’s enough for you to be a grocer in Dakahlia whose fight with a neighbor over a bottle of water ends in a fatal blow, or an ironer in Dahshur fighting over a shirt, or a teenager in Beni Suef or Asyut harassing a young woman to bring damnation to your family and every Christian living in your village. You’re the accused, the murderer, the one at fault. Yet you will not pay the price of your mistake alone because you are a Christian and your family, neighbors, and all your co-religionists in your region must also be punished.

The state is absent and deliberately ignoring the law. It was absent before the revolution and was absent during the transitional period. It is still absent and even more weak and fragile in the era of the elected president who swore to protect the people, all the people

However, the problem is not entirely the state. The truth which you have been ignoring is that you live in a society burdened by tension and discrimination that is unembarrassed to kill over identity even as it carries a book that proclaims: “No bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another.”** A society that is not embarrassed to practice collective punishment against others of a different religion, and not because they are all in error.

With the rise of the religious tide in authority, the ruling elite has not attempted to sooth the tension, even just to improve its image domestically and internationally. Instead, it has stoked it in its electoral battles and in the speeches that its prominent figures make about the Christians who demonstrate here and there, as if it were not their right to demonstrate.

This is a new test for a society whose duty is to guarantee for Christians the right to make mistakes in order to begin to reclaim their citizenship and to free themselves from the complex of being in the minority. It must also guarantee that the guilty be held accountable and punished justly and on his own in order to deter looting, stealing, burning, and the killing of innocents under the false and misleading guise of religious triumphalism.

Translation notes:

*: The term millet refers to non-muslim religious minorities living in Muslim countries. Here, it implies a sort of second class status that Christians are forced to accept in a society increasingly governed by Sharia.

**:  Surat Az-Zumar verse 7. The quote is from the Sahih International translation of the Quran.

The following is a clip I translated from Reem Maged’s excellent ONtv program, Baladna bel Masry, dealing with the ongoing confrontation between members of Egypt’s prosecution and Talaat Ibrahim Abdullah, President Morsi’s appointee for Attorney General. It outlines plans drawn up by members of Egypt’s prosecution to escalate their campaign to force Abdullah to resign. Abdullah has been under siege from members of Egypt’s prosecution since he was appointed, even offering to tender his resignation because of the uproar before retracting it. Members of the prosecution, who say that since the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) did not nominate Abdullah, his appointment was illegal. The SJC agreed and issued a joint statement last saturday with the Egyptian Judges’ club saying that Abdullah should step down.

For extra reference, this Arabic article also summarizes the results of the Judges’ Club meeting and this piece quotes Hassan Yassin saying that the work stoppages will be insignificant because so few members of the prosecution support them.

The ongoing confrontation between Egypt’s combative corps of judges and the components of the Judiciary that are still connected to the Executive through appointments and other incentives is important because it could play a role in determining how the legal system interprets many of the vague articles in the constitution concerning personal freedoms and religion. As I mentioned in a previous post, many Egyptian judges do not hold a particularly liberal view of personal freedom and the role of religion in public life (i.e. Shadi Khalifa in the video intends to pursue a complaint against the Attorney General for “insulting” members of the prosecution), but they have a point of view that is decidedly more inclusive than the more exclusionary Islamists among the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi movement. A more independent judiciary will serve as a bulwark against more strict interpretations of the constitution. If the executive succeeds, however, in gaining significant leverage over the legal system, then likely significant Islamist majorities in the coming years will lead to a significant curtailment of personal freedoms and a harsher implementation of what they regard as Islamic law.

Apologies for any mistakes I may have made in the translation, let me know if you catch any!

The role for the Egyptian military as described in Egypt’s draft constitution is positive. By empowering the military to exercise significant influence over its own affairs, as well as Egypt’s foreign military affairs, the draft constitution creates an institutional framework in which Egypt will continue to perform its important role in regional security. Stability in Egypt’s regional security role will mitigate fears among the Egyptian military, the international community, and the economy of escalating hostilities up to and including war with Israel. Thus, the draft constitution also ensures stability at home by satisfying the institution with the greatest ability to disrupt Egypt’s transition through direct intervention in domestic politics.

In the new charter, the Egyptian military retains significant privileges that do not necessarily comport with the requirements of a fully liberal democracy. The military retains control over its own budget and will exercise significant influence in Egypt’s foreign relations by ensuring that the Minister of Defense is not a civilian and through the formation of a National Defense Council where the military and the intelligence services have majority representation.

Although these provisions represent a failure for those wishing to extend full civilian control over the military, subordinating the armed forces was never a realistic goal. Egypt’s military is heavily invested in numerous sectors of the economy and prioritizes its relationship with the United States, which provides it with approximately $1.3 billion annually. The military is deeply suspicious that Egyptian civilians, if given full control over the country’s foreign policy and security apparatus, would strip it of its economic privileges and implement policies that would put the country at odds with Israel and place U.S. aid in jeopardy.

The military fears a worst-case scenario in which newly empowered elected politicians would be tempted to unilaterally “review” and possibly amend a number of provisions of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, a move that Israel would see as an abrogation. In the case that one side declared the treaty dead, relations between Israel and Egypt would revert to pre-treaty status, leading the former to reoccupy the Sinai Peninsula. Reoccupation, combined with the simultaneous loss of U.S. financial support, would be an unparalleled disaster for the Egyptian military. While unlikely, the scenario is a risk that the constitution makes virtually impossible.

Another more likely scenario is that civilian politicians would take steps short of modifying the peace treaty but still sufficient to cause friction in the region such as choosing to cut back on diplomatic ties with Israel and scaling back intelligence cooperation. The military again could find its American patronage threatened by a U.S. Congress committed to Israel’s security and fearful that such steps would lead to the eventual termination of peaceful relations between Egypt and Israel.

The economic costs of either scenario would be substantial. Growing tension and uncertainty in Egypt’s relations with the United States and Israel would speed up the already crippling capital flight that has afflicted the country since the revolution. Lack of investment would speed up Egypt’s slide into complete insolvency, exacerbating indebtedness, and rapidly depleting the country’s foreign currency reserves that have already taken a huge hit. These and other economic costs of confrontation are distinct possibilities unless Egypt gives clear assurances that drastic changes in foreign policy are unlikely.

This is exactly what the Egyptian military has attempted almost since the moment of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. Seeking to put in place a system of institutional guarantees to reassure both the United States and Israel and in order to safeguard its own interests, the Egyptian Armed Forces have, since the revolution, intervened in Egyptian politics on numerous occasions to ensure both continuity in the role that the institution has played in regional security and certainty that it will continue to do so.

Thus, the constitution, by protecting the Military, will mitigate some of the worst fears regarding the future of Egyptian foreign policy and help insulate the country from worsening economic malaise. Regional stability is important not only for U.S. and Western foreign policy goals, but also for Egypt’s ability to address the substantial economic challenges it currently faces. Moreover, the provisions protecting the military guarantee the tacit support and acquiescence of the country’s most powerful institution and the one with the best ability to deploy force to safeguard its interests.

Egypt’s new constitution is flawed, but represents a significant improvement on the country’s 1971 constitution. Although it contains a number of illiberal provisions that will restrict personal freedoms, the constitution improves the ability of the parliament to check the power of the executive branch and provides for an independent judiciary that will ensure a greater degree of the rule of law. Additionally, Egypt’s powerful military establishment maintains a number of key privileges, ensuring stability within the country’s security forces and continuity in the role Egypt’s has played in Middle East security.

The draft constitution does not describe a fully liberal democracy that many among the country’s secular and liberal left hoped to create. It does, however, at least on paper, provide for some of the basic mechanisms of a functioning democracy: the separation of powers, checks and balances, an independent judiciary, and regular elections. Moreover it placates many of the most potentially disruptive key stakeholders among the Islamist camp and the military. As such, the draft constitution will most likely pass next Saturday, with an Islamist-led get-out-the vote effort that is already underway and a sizable portion of the population seeking stability delivering the required majority of votes.

Despite the improvements, the newly energized coalition of liberals, secularists, former regime supporters, and other anti-Islamists have focused their criticisms on the draft constitution’s ambiguous and contradictory language concerning freedom of expression, freedom of religion, women’s rights, and the influence retained by the country’s powerful military establishment. More importantly, the process which produced the draft has stirred outrage and brought deep suspicions of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists to the fore.

Indeed many provisions in the draft constitution are troubling with regard to basic rights, and the criticisms are well documented at this point.

However, much of the regressive language with regard to freedom of expression and religion does not deviate significantly from established Egyptian law. In his book Egypt After Mubarak, Bruce K. Rutherford points out that the Judiciary, which had a combative relationship with the former regime and is somewhat incorrectly portrayed as the guardian of secularism and liberalism, has established significant precedent that subordinates individual rights to what it viewed as the public good.

One administrative court ruling from 1984 held that “a person’s freedom of speech does not extend to offending the most deeply held beliefs of his fellow Egyptians. It also does not extend to raising doubts in them about their faith.” Another set of administrative court rulings held that non-Muslims have to practice their faith in a way that “does not disrupt the harmony of society” and the Supreme Constitutional Court held that they must worship in a way that “conforms to the traditional values of Egyptians, does not jeopardize national security, and does not violate accepted social norms.” Rutherford argues that Egypt’s Judiciary sees individual rights as inviolable insofar as they are used to contribute to the public good, not because individuals inherently possess them.

It is clear that the coalition of Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi Islamists who agreed to the language currently contained in the draft constitution conceive of rights similarly. It is unlikely that any representative assembly of Egyptians would draft a constitution that would wipe away these precedents and establish a truly liberal rights regime to satisfy the most ardent protesters currently coursing through Egypt’s streets. As Shadi Hamid has stated, a constituent assembly that includes an influential Salafi component will not produce a truly liberal constitution.

From this perspective it becomes clear that the Judiciary’s rejection of President Morsi’s November 22nd constitutional degree was not rooted in their principled stand against the constitution, but in their view that Morsi blatantly encroached on their privileges of judicial oversight, powers that Egyptian judges have spent decades cultivating. As Egyptian journalist Ahmed Aboul Enein predicted, now that Morsi has withdrawn his constitutional declaration, the Judges will most likely supervise the referendum as scheduled on December 15th.

On the other hand, the draft constitution contains a number of procedural reforms that, if implemented, will represent a significant step forward. Articles 35, 36, and 37 provide protections against arbitrary detention and describe due process much more explicitly than the previous constitution. The articles call for judicial oversight of detention centers and contain language that strictly disqualifies evidence gained from detainees under coercion, mandating that any interrogations be carried out only in the presence of a lawyer.

The constitution also introduces several new legislative checks on the executive, including Article 139, which essentially empowers a majority coalition in the House of Representatives to appoint a prime minister; Unless I have misread this article, it seems to empower a majority coalition to agree on a Prime Ministerial candidate and force the president’s hand by threatening to vote down any other selection.

The legislature also gains more control of the cabinet. Article 126 allows the House of Representatives to topple the cabinet in a vote of no confidence with a simple majority instead of a supermajority, as mandated by the 1971 constitution, and article 127 reduces the president’s incentive to dissolve parliament with the requirement that he resign if the referendum to approve the dissolution fails.

Lastly, the new constitution limits presidential terms to four years, with only one reelection possible, precluding a repetition of another 30-year president.

Compared to the 1971 constitution, these are significant improvements that both empower the legislature and check the power of the executive branch.  They should not be ignored nor treated as insignificant. While the President does retain some important powers, such as the right to name the heads of independent authorities and regulatory agencies, the larger-than-life President of the 1971 constitution has been made significantly smaller. If elections remain relatively free and fair, the new Egyptian parliament will be more diverse and more responsive to the demands of the people than ever before.

Of course, Nathan Brown points out that the powers exercised by the parliament and the presidency are shaped by political context; continuing Islamist dominance of the legislature could provide a president with far ranging powers. In the case of a legislature at odds with the president, Brown argues that the new constitution could produce only grid-lock. However, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, having expended much political capital rushing the draft to completion and confronting the political crisis that ensued, cannot expect to enjoy the same level of support in upcoming elections, and so the former scenario is less likely. Alternatively, grid-lock, in the case of a deeply divided society, could produce positive results, putting the brakes on heavily disputed reforms and forcing compromise within a more clearly defined institutional framework.

In the next post I will discuss the provisions in the draft constitution that pertain to the Egyptian Armed Forces and their implications for regional security.

Hello World

Welcome to Goha’s Nail. I will be posting translations of Arabic material I find interesting and some thoughts Arab politics and society.