Following every terror attack in Egypt, secularists, myself included, engage in long conversations on the necessity of combating Islamist ideologies [Islam as a religion and constitution] for the sake of our country’s national security. We also urge the state to allow Muslim reformers to speak freely without fear of getting thrown in jail and to prevent government senior officials, especially in the ministry of Islamic affairs and Al-Azhar, from promoting extremist, fundamentalist, and Islamist ideas. High on adrenaline, we tend to forget that most Muslims in Egypt actually put Islam high above the Egyptian state: they are Muslims living in Egypt not Egyptians who believe in Islam. It is one of the reasons why some Europeans are rightly concerned about the increasing numbers of Muslims in Europe alongside declining birth rates. Islam, unlike Christianity now, supersedes the state. Sharia courts and FGM in England come to mind.
Islamists in Egypt, including the ones in the government and Al-Azhar and Salafists, hold great sway over the minds of Muslims, particularly younger ones. Islamism gives these men of God the moral and executive authority to mobilize millions of youths towards a particular goal should the situation arise and the need for action is true enough. If Sisi challenges the core ideas that enables Islamists to control Egyptian Muslims without a meticulously calculated plan implemented incrementally, the outcome can be devastating for him and Egypt. Islamists will not watch helplessly as the rug is pulled from under their feet and the authority they worked years to achieve evaporates. Sisi is surely well aware of what happened when Saddam Hussein and his party tried secularizing Iraq in an economy much better than Egypt’s. Islamists have the know-how and texts to label him an enemy of Islam if they sense he is sincere about delegitimizing the authority they derive from the interpretation of Islam they promote, preach, and write literature for; they also have the capability to turn millions of youths against him and Christians, like some of them do now but on a mass scale. It is delusional, for example, to think that Salafists believe in anything but an Islamic State, they are just currently relaxed because the government allows them to freely, absolutely freely, propagate the ideas ISIS is putting into action and instill them in the minds of children.
Islam Beheiry, who had been jailed for criticizing extremist interpretations of the Quran and Hadith, says Al-Azhar University’s curricula must be updated to remove all hard-line stipulations derived from the Quran and Hadith such as the ones on fighting infidels and hating non-Muslims or discriminating against them. According to Beheiry, former head of Al-Azhar Mohamed Sayed Tantawi had actually taken this step before the current Grand Imam Ahmed Eltayeb rescinded it. Sisi, on more than one occasion, called on Al-Azhar scholars to actively combat extremist texts, not Islamism, but was met with deaf ears time and time again. And while it is true that Sisi’s authority is unchecked and he can pretty much get away with anything, when it comes to religion, if his vision of reforming and modernizing Islam, which neither denotes nor connotes rejecting the principle of Islam as a religion and state constitution, is not fully aligned with the Islamists and Salafists inside and outside his government he can find himself up against a volcano of terrorism and disobedience.
Taking small but real and effective steps, and cementing them, towards a secular Egypt is the only viable way. Sisi, however, still seems reluctant to take it. Sisi and many Egyptians seem to think terrorism can be fought without challenging Islamism, but if the statement Islam is a religion and state constitution is true, does it not follow that Men of God should rule or fight until power is in their hands?!!