With the revolution of January 25, 2011, al-Azhar has seized the opportunity to participate in the political debates that began in the winter of this year, in particular on the nature of the new regime, its relationship with religion, and relationships between Christians and Muslims in Egypt. It is striking that al-Azhar has done so not only through its peripheral ulama, who are often immersing themselves in political and moral public debates, but particularly through the voice of its head, the Grand Imam, shaykh Ahmad al-Tayyib.

The “Al-Azhar document around the future of Egypt,” an 11-clause declaration read on national television on June 20, 2011 (see above) by shaykh al-Tayyib himself is significant. It signals the engagement of al-Azhar with post-Moubarak Egyptian politics. The text is the result of the consultations between the Grand Imam and “Egyptian intellectuals from diverse intellectual trends and religious affiliations, as well as important ulama and thinkers from al-Azhar.” It is striking that al-Azhar as an institution would associate itself with intellectual and religious authorities beyond its own circles and produce a public document on such a general and crucial theme as “the future of Egypt.” After having been criticized for its quietism before as well as during the revolution (see my piece in The University of Chicago Divinity School’s sightings here), al-Azhar certainly needed to show that it was on the right side of history and to clarify its own role as a religious authority after the revolution. With so many religious actors of all stripes present in the public arena, from the Muslim Brothers, to their newly formed political party “Fredom and Justice,” to the Salafis and all the mosaic of religious authorities expressing themselves in mosques and beyond, there certainly was also a need to reassert al-Azhar’s central position and to make alliances with religious and intellectual trends that could gather around it and defend the role of the thousand year religious institution. The project supported by al-Tayyeb to revive the hay’at kibār al-‘ulamā’ –the old high council of scholars– that would elect the head of al-Azhar is one way to reclaim a lost independence and boost the institution’s legitimacy.

In the continuity of the traditional narratives that have been used by the official authorities of al-Azhar in the last 50 years or so, the “Al-Azhar Document” recognizes al-Azhar as representative of the “Islamic thought of the middle,” and as the institution Egyptians must refer to “in order to define the way in which the state relates to religion (taḥdīd ‘alāqat al-dawla bi’l-dīn) and to clarify the foundations of the correct siyāsa shar‘iyya that it is necessary to pursue.” It is noteworthy that the al-Azhar Document does not use the phrase “Islamic state.” The concept of siyāsa shar‘iyya can be read merely as “legitimate/legal politics,” but should also be interpreted as a reference to the concept as developed by the Muslim tradition, that is the effort to make governmental politics converge with and be animated by Islamic law. The document demands “the establishment of a national, constitutional, democratic and modern state, founded on a constitution approved by the nation,” the separation of powers, guarantees for human rights, the power to legislate given to the elected representatives of the people “in accordance with the correct Islamic understanding.” The principle of “politics according to sharia” is hence merely defined by the convergence between the principles at play in governance and in the Islamic tradition. Indeed, adds the document, there is no “religious state” in Islam, be it in its history, its legislation, or in its “civilization.” Islam has left to people “the administration of their society and the choice of the tools and of the institutions that realize their interests, with the condition that the comprehensive principles of the Islamic sharia be the main source of legislation, and as long as those who follow other revealed religions may refer to their own religious principles (sharā’i‘ dīniyya) to deal with their affairs of personal status.”

If there is no mention, however, of an “Islamic” or “Muslim state,” the document does not speak of a “civil state” (dawla madaniyya) either, because the adjective “civil” was interpreted by those who participated in the drafting of the al-Azhar document as evoking the possibility of a “secular” state (see the discussion of the al-Azhar document on al-Jazeera). The avoidance of the two adjectives “religious” and “civil” is also a way for al-Azhar to position itself outside of the polarizing debate between Islamists who want an “Islamic state” and the secularists who insist on the necessity of a “civil state.” Al-Azhar ended up describing the future state as “national,” “constitutional,” “democratic” and “modern” (dawla waṭaniyya, dustūriyya, dimuqrāṭiyya  ḥadītha).” In the end, these adjectives make al-Azhar’s perspective on the state not so different from the one laid out in the Muslim Brother’s Party (“Freedom and Justice”) platform, except that the latter uses the concept of a “civil state.”

The al-Azhar Document is much more vague than what the Freedom and Justice Party proposes. What exactly will be defined as “sharia,” and who will control the laws’ compliance to sharia? If it is the Supreme Constitutional Court, as it has been the case up to now, what role can al-Azhar play in this control? These questions are not answered in the document. The vagueness around the question of sharia also made the document come under the critique of some salafis, of members of the jamaa islamiyya, as well as of secularists. However, we should not expect  specific responses from al-Azhar: indeed, al-Azhar is keeping true to its traditional role, which is to provide a narrative under which most of the existing religious interpretations will converge, precisely the language of the “Islamic thought of the middle way” that the document expounds. If al-Azhar is ready to play a central role politically, it seems that it is more as a national institution rallying political actors around broad values, than as a political actor interested in the day-to-day governance and judicial power.

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Since the departure of President Zine al-Abidin Ben Ali from Tunisia on January 14, polarization has been growing between “Islamists” and “secularists.” No Islamist or secularist slogans were heard during the uprisings, which were described in Tunisia and abroad as uniting all political trends in Tunisian society and as being “secular.” Ajmi Lourimi, a member of the Political Bureau of al-Nahdha, the main Islamist political party, told me on June 9, 2011, that the revolution was a secular revolution. Not a secularist revolution, but secular in the sense that it was neither Islamist nor secularist. Indeed, the Islamists participated in the uprisings, but kept a low profile, a strategic decision driven by their fear of being used as a pretext for repression. The revolution, whose roots were socio-economic, was also a reaction against authoritarianism and corruption and as such united Tunisians from all walks of society.

However, months after January 14, while Tunisians have started to register for the elections of the constituent assembly that will take place on October 23, 2011, the old rift between “secularists” and “Islamists” has deepened. Each camp seems more entrenched every day and fights against the other through the written press, as well as the audiovisual and electronic media. Mutual accusations are regularly launched: Islamists accuse secularists of trying to impose their own views on their fellow Tunisians, in particular through the High Committee for the Realization of the Objectives of the Revolution, the Political Reform, and Democratic Transition. Deep tensions have opposed the few High Committee members who belong to al-Nahdha and the High Committee’s president Yadh Ben Achour. Al-Nahdha has accused him of being partial to the secularist members of the Committee and of trying to impose a secularist agenda on the Committee’s deliberations. Secularists have in turn accused the Islamists of not being real democrats, clamoring that they use a “double language.” For the secularists, al-Nahdha’s representatives speak the language of human rights and democracy in the media but adopt a much more radical stance with their own electoral base. They are suspected of aiming to put into question the rights of Tunisian women through a revision of the Personal Status Code, which they have often denied.

The polarization is taking so much space in public debates that it could endanger public peace and the political transition itself. The members of al-Nahdha announced their withdrawal from the High Committee on June 27, 2011 and have not come back despite the efforts of some mediators such as Justice Mokhtar Yahyaoui to negotiate an agreement. Al-Nahdha continues to denounce the lack of representativeness of the High Committee–the Islamists being a minority–and the High Committee’s absence of legitimacy, since it was not elected but was instead put together in an ad hoc and protracted process that started right before the departure of former President Ben Ali. According to Ghannushi, leader of the Nahdha party, the High Committee overextended its role by acting as a parliament and by drafting laws that should have been the responsibility of the upcoming elected parliament. However, al-Nahdha’s criticism of the committee goes beyond procedural issues. According to some analysts, it was the drafting of a law on the financing of political parties prohibiting any foreign funding that provoked the ire of al-Nahdha. Whatever the explanation is, there is a fear, among secularists and Islamists alike, that a political transition will not take place if the gap between these two camps is too wide and is politically instrumentalized.

The debate has gone beyond the High Committee and al-Nahdha, with issues emerging around the arts–a movie (titled Neither master nor God) showing was violently disrupted by Salafists in Tunis recently—and the need to protect “the sacred values” of society. A collective of imams has sent a letter to the prime minister to request a criminalization of any attack against “sacred values.” This atmosphere of mutual suspicion and fear related to the role of Islam in society is not new and not restricted to Tunisia. It begs the question of the limits that a society might assign to its freedoms, and of who defines them following what procedures: after all, all secular liberal democracies have their own “sacred values,” even if they are not necessarily religious. One can envision that article 1 of the old 1959 constitution will be reasserted in the new constitution: “Tunisia is a free, independent and sovereign state. Its language is Arabic and its religion is Islam. Its regime is a Republic.” This seems to be the only statement on which secularists and Islamists agree on. There remains to be seen how they will interpret the statement that “the religion of the state is Islam.” For Ajmi Lourimi, who articulated a minimalist interpretation of the article when we met on June 9, article 1 simply describes the identity of the majority of Tunisians. It is not certain that all al-Nahdha representatives think in these terms, and it will be interesting to observe the internal differences of interpretation as they emerge over time.

What is sure is that the principle of a religious establishment will carry on in the “new state,” an expression I often heard in Tunisia recently. The exact extent of that establishment will have to be determined. The good news is that after more than 50 years of a foreclosed space for public deliberations, Islamists and secularists now express themselves openly on the question, even if not always clearly. These contentions around religion signal that the electoral campaign has already started –despite the fact that it does not officially start until October 1st, 2011- and that we can expect cultural wars to play a deep part in it.