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July 25, 2007


Gregory Gause

Abu A: "...demanding some level of reconciliation between Western and Arab arguments"? From the story you tell, it seems to me just the opposite. An Egyptian official does some double-talk to sound good to a Western audience. He gets caught. The Islamist opposition gets on him. He backtracks. Any effort to make a more liberal argument about apostasy gets knocked down (not surprising on this issue, as it seems to me that shari'a is pretty clear about it). "Western" and "Arab" arguments, if by that you mean "more liberal" and "more orthodox" interpretations of the role of the state in enforcing religious belief/law, are hardly reconciled. Their differences are highlighted. If what you mean is simply that you can't make one argument to the "West" and another to the Arab world, then I take your point.


Greg - your last point is just what I mean... it becomes harder to maintain the usual situation, where Arab and Western arguments have been parallel lines, not intersecting. By "reconciling" I don't mean coming to agreement, I mean that they (and we) start having more similar arguments. Is that an improvement? Depends on what you think about the value of such public arguments..


Excellent point AA, similar to your thoughts on al-Hurra, accountability, and the increasing obsolescence of the Smith-Mundt Act. I don't know how Arab politicians will manage once this process really gets going, saying one thing in English and another in Arabic is national sport in most Arab capitals.

But the internet and other mass media can't totally eliminate the differences in argumentation in different regions since so much is still lost, sometimes intentionally, in translation. MEMRI makes a business out of attempting to bring more transparency to Arabic media for English speakers, but it is a distorted transparency. Even those striving for honesty can run into trouble(witness the controvesy in question) when they try to translate terms like "fitna."

As far as I can tell, the theological argument that Gomaa made in Newsweek is theologically correct, it's just not politically correct in Islamist circles in Egypt. This is like the Alberto Fernandez debacle, he made true but politically unacceptable comments in Arabic to a Middle Eastern media outlet and was punished by his English speaking, North American employer, the US government. He was forced into a half-denial and was reassigned in large part because of a campaign launched by right-wing bloggers who, though they don't speak Arabic and don't have access to al-Jazeera, found out about it and were able to organize because of the internet.


Sorry in advance that this is long, but you know how I can be…

I don't think it's quite right to interpret Gomaa's position as "relatively liberal," much though we may like to take what he's said as a positive gesture toward religious tolerance. I think, instead, it illustrates Gomaa’s use of a kind of partial formulation that allows him to speak differently – and simultaneously – to different communities.

First, there's the translation issue. I assume that he gave the original interview in Arabic and that it was translated into English, but al-Masry al-Youm’s translation looks to me to be a re-translation from the English – in other words, we will not be able to retrace his steps well enough to determine the specific legal terms Gomaa personally invoked. That said, we can tell from the terms used in the Arabic article that the translator (whether affiliated with Gomaa or not) was drawing on well-understood legal distinctions between the terms, each invoking a highly particular genealogy understood by one – but not the other – of this audiences. Assuming that the translation matched well with Gomaa’s original comments, we can see that he was implying that the public order is undermined by the externalization of one’s (lack of) faith and that public legal response is thus justified. This argument has become quite “orthodox” in its own right, at least as far as my research suggests.

In my experience in Yemen and Lebanon (and Yemeni thinkers often draw upon or cite Egyptian Islamist sources, so there is some additional fealty there), Gomaa's position would be, as Yohan has suggested, doctrinally dominant. Nearly everyone I interviewed on the topic in a number of different Islamist groups, and nearly every source on takfir that I read, maintained that there is no legitimate worldly punishment for simple lack of belief, including the abandonment of belief. Many conservative folks (including both orthodox conservatives and self-identified salafis) hold this position.

But the devil is in the details, so to speak - in order for one to be aware of another's lack of belief, there has to have been some externalization of that unbelief (innately viewed by most of the scholars I read/interviewed as undermining society), at which point we're dealing with a different category, that of rida, which Gomaa’s article explicitly references. In this light - and with the knowledge that his Arab/Muslim audience would likely be somewhat aware of the genealogy of this term and its derivatives - Gomaa's position was not liberal at all. He invokes tropes quite common in the literature on takfir, as when he notes, “religious belief and practice are a personal matter, and society only intervenes when that personal matter becomes public…” The catch, of course, is that many (most?) of the scholars I’m familiar with maintain that any outside knowledge of another’s belief (in or against any faith) renders that belief (or lack thereof) a public issue. Abdallahi An-Naim details (and then critiques) the non-liberal consequences of this position very thoroughly in his “Toward an Islamic Reformation.”

My reading of the relevant sections of Gomaa’s articles would thus be that Gomaa has engaged in a pretty common “partial formulation” that might have allowed him to speak to both audiences with one term, knowing that it would be understood as tolerant/liberal by his non-Muslim audience, and invoke a narrow legal distinction with (somewhat) clear consequences to his Muslim audience. Perhaps this is what Greg meant when he suggested that Shari’a is largely clear on the issue – that this genealogy is known and its validity more or less recognized.

In the end, I certainly agree that this illustrates a measure of conservatism in the Egyptian public sphere, but I think it’s also a story about Islamist opposition to the regime and its attempt to manage public religious discourse. Why the Egyptian Islamists got riled up over this probably has more to do with their general dislike of the Mufti and his political role than anything else. I’d posit that on a different day of the week, the head of the Brotherhood could have made the same argument, in a different paper, without equivalent public outcry. Certainly, members of the Brotherhood elsewhere have.


with the important exception of when such apostasy 'undermines the foundations of society'

Balderdash! That proviso is all-inclusive, meaning that any topic that could upset the status quo. Two people arguing over garlic in pickles is enough to invoke this clause!

Ellis Goldberg

Perhaps Ali Guma' will offer to support the attempt by Muhammad Higazi through a court case to change his religion legally from Muslim to Christian. Or perhaps not. The August 4 2007 Al-Masri al-yawm has a story on Higazi.

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