Arab political and social thought in the 1960s was dominated by secular conceptions, including Arab nationalism, Arab socialism and Marxism. Even after the 1967 war, when the attraction of these ideologies began to wane, the immediate “self-criticism after the defeat” (to cite the title of Sadiq al-Azm’s famous book) maintained a militantly secular and revolutionary stance. [1] The emerging Palestinian resistance movement put forward slogans of armed struggle and people’s war.

While such slogans held great appeal for certain elements in some Arab countries, such as university students in Egypt, they never became very popular. Traditional and conventional writers and thinkers attacked secular revolutionaries as the cause of Arab (or Islamic) weakness in the face of Israel and the West. [2]

In the decade after 1967, political Islam emerged as an important force. In some countries in the 1970s, such as Egypt under Sadat, regimes encouraged this trend. The growing strength of the Islamist camp in Egypt has infused political discourse in that country with images and slogans deriving from religion. The Muslim Brothers are openly (though not legally) present on the political scene, and other opposition parties are eager to form coalitions with them in order to join the Islamist bandwagon. [3] A great variety of other Islamist organizations, legal and illegal, put forward a few simple, general demands, such as the application of the shari‘a (religious law). Most political forces — the ruling party as well as the opposition — try to assume an “Islamic” coloring.

Partisans of the Heritage

Many political thinkers throughout the Arab East who used to hold secularist views now subscribe to political Islam. [4] In Egypt, such authors are known as turathiyun judud, “new partisans of the heritage,” meaning the authentic cultural traditions of the Arab-Islamic world and, above all, Islam itself.

The most prominent representatives of this trend are Anouar Abdel-Malek, Hasan Hanafi, Muhammad ‘Amara, Khalid Muhammad Khalid, ‘Adil Husain and Tariq al-Bishri. Abdel-Malek, known for his Marxist critique of Egypt under Nasser, has in his more recent writings underscored the cultural division between East and West and ascribed to Egypt a central mission in the resuscitation of the East. [5] He sees political Islam as an expression of determination to become culturally independent.

Hasan Hanafi, a philosophy professor who once advocated secularism and rationalism, more recently edited Khomeini’s Velayat-e faqih in Egypt and founded a new journal, The Islamic Left, in an effort to fuse leftist and Islamic political ideas. [6] Muhammad ‘Amara, a former communist who spent years in Nasser’s prisons, was a specialist on the 19th century Arab nahda (awakening). His recent works contain numerous polemics against secularism. [7] In 1950, Khalid Muhammad Khalid called for a secular state in his famous Min huna nabda‘ (From Here We Start) and was severely taken to task by the authorities of Al-Azhar University. He has since proved a staunch fighter for democracy and progress from an Islamic point of view, and now advocates the principle of the unity of state and religion. [8]

‘Adil Husain is a well-known leftist thinker who in the mid-1970s called for the cooperation of Marxist and Islamist political forces in order to end what he called an “absurd polarization” of Egyptian politics that weakened the opposition vis-à-vis the regime. [9] In his recent book, Towards a New Arabic Thought, he made himself the standard-bearer of the orientation toward “the heritage.” [10] He is editor-in-chief of Al-Sha‘b the newspaper of the Socialist party and the most vociferous mouthpiece of the present Islamist opposition.

The famous jurist and historian Tariq al-Bishri also used to be a secularist. He gives an account of the change in his views towards fundamentalism in the introduction to the second edition of his book, The Political Movement in Egypt 1945-1952. [11]

These authors do not form a school of thought or a homogeneous trend. Their common denominator is a turn towards political Islam, interpreting Islam as the core of an “Eastern” heritage which they must defend against Western cultural imperialism and nourish as the necessary basis of any development. Contributions by the “heritage partisans” appear quite often in the Arabic quarterly Al-Hiwar (Dialogue) published in Vienna.

Stepping Forward

For quite a while, nobody dared to challenge this view openly. Any criticism was implicit and cautious, lest “Islamic” sensitivities be offended. As late as 1981, leftist writer Salah ‘Isa recalled the two famous secularists, ‘Ali ‘Abd al-Raziq and Khalid Muhammad Khalid, who had both renounced their positions. “Maybe today or tomorrow a third young man will step forward,” ‘Isa wrote, “attack them both and repeat the folly of their youth.” [12]

That man, or rather several men, have come forward. Outspoken secularism is no longer an unknown phenomenon in Egypt. It consists of basically four authors, whom one influential journalist has even called “secularist extremists” and proponents of “the secularist jihad,” thereby drawing a parallel to the underground Islamist extremists. [13]

The four are Fu’ad Zakariyya, a philosophy professor teaching at Kuwait University; Husain Ahmad Amin, Egyptian ambassador to Algeria; Muhammad Nur Farahat, a lawyer and the head of the research center of the Arab Lawyers’ Union; and Farag ‘Ali Fuda, an agrarian engineer. They, too, do not form a school. They hold varying opinions. But they are all moved by the danger they see in the growing power of political Islam, and they have seen fit to tackle the problem directly. They have a platform in the journal Fikr (Thought), which has already devoted three issues (#4,7,8) to the debate about secularism.

Amin and Zakariyya had already during the 1970s published articles about the cultural confrontation between Islam and the West. While most Islamist authors wrote polemics against the penetration of Western thought into Muslim societies, these two advocated openness.

In the 1980s, they began to take on the phenomenon of political Islam more explicitly. [14] A number of secularist thinkers held a long panel discussion on “religious-political extremism in Egypt” in October 1985 that was later published in Fikr. [15] In July 1986, Zakariyya spoke on behalf of open secularism at a public panel with prominent Islamist thinkers — the first public occasion in decades at which secularism was treated seriously as an issue. Since about 1984, both sides have exchanged polemics from time to time, mostly in the press, and have attracted a good deal of attention. [16]

All four of these authors are Muslims and thus cannot be as easily dismissed as secularists who are Copts. Farag ‘Ali Fuda writes that
[]my being a Muslim does not give me, by the national yardstick, any priority over the Copts except in one respect: I am more able than they are to voice the case of national unity and to say what is surely in their hearts and what they want to say, out of regard for national unity, and what they are at the same time afraid to say — also out of regard for national unity. [17]

Since Fuda is the most widely known and since he focuses the issue most clearly on the political level and treats it most systematically, we shall here try to present, by way of example, his main ideas. [18]

Earthly Remedies

Farag ‘Ali Fuda was a member of the Neo-Wafd Party since its foundation. In 1983, he published Al-wafd wa-l-mustaqbal (The Wafd and the Future), in which he declared his openly secularist leanings and suggested that the fight against the “Islamic religious party” should be the main task of the Wafd.

Instead of heeding his advice, the party formed an election alliance with the main force of the Islamist camp, the Muslim Brothers. In January 1984, in the course of the ensuing debate between Fuda and one of the main protagonists of that alliance, Shaikh Salah Abu Isma‘il, Fuda resigned from the Wafd. Since then he has devoted himself mainly to propagating secularism.

Fuda’s main idea is that there are now in Egypt two mutually exclusive points of view regarding the character and future course of Egyptian society. One perspective is that Egyptian society is pagan (jahili), or at least has deviated from the path of true Islam, and that the appropriate remedy is the immediate application of the shari‘a. The other point of view claims that Egypt is now a truly Islamic country. Giving way to the forces of political Islam, these thinkers say, is very dangerous since it would inevitably lead to a religious state, with the evils that entails. The solution for Egypt’s problems lies not in the shari‘a but rather in carefully thought out earthly remedies. [19]

At first glance, the controversy is between two ideologies: are the basic tenets of secularism, calling for the separation and the independence of the political sphere from religion, compatible with Islam? Would this mean Islam's destruction, as the Muslim opponents of secularism maintain? Is Islam “religion and state, Quran and sword,” as the propagandists of political Islam would have it? Fuda’s position is that there can be an Islam restricted to a creed and to spiritual and moral values. [20]

The controversy extends to the broader social and political frameworks corresponding to the two views: a civil, secular state in one case; a religious state in the other. In a secular state, as exists in Egypt, there is room for several positions and opinions, including political Islam. In the state the Islamist forces want, says Fuda, there would be no legitimate place for any opposition. [21] Fuda begins his argument for the secularist position by stating what exists now: Egypt is a secular state. “Whoever maintains something has to prove it. If we have called for the separation [of religion and politics], our argument lies in the existing conditions.” [22] Far from defending all the aspects of Egypt’s present situation, Fuda maintains only that there are positive aspects that should be defended. If the Islamist radicals had their way, things would not improve but deteriorate.

Fuda pursues the argument: imagine that the state had acquired the thorough Islamic character the radicals are calling for. Preachers in mosques would then directly take stands on political issues, they would influence their audiences in this or that direction. This might well lead to clashes and civil strife, for the Islamist camp is far from united. Today there are many politicized imams; if this does not lead to civil war, it is solely thanks to the fact that they are still operating in the framework of a secular state. [23] Yet the gravest danger of an Islamic state, in Fuda’s view, would be the destruction of national unity: non-Muslims would be regarded as second-class citizens and discriminated against, confessional strife would flare up and destroy one of the very foundations of a sound political life in Egypt. [24]

But Fuda does not have to extrapolate into the future to argue for secularism: past and present experience is at hand. Most states in 14 centuries of Islamic history have claimed religious legitimacy. Yet that did not lead to the decent conduct of rulers, or their pursuit of the interest of their subjects. On the contrary, tyranny, despotism and autocracy could be upheld all the easier for being cloaked in religious garb. [25] Even in the 1980s, states such as Sudan under Numairi claimed to apply Islamic rules of government. In this case, a bankrupt regime developed into the naked dictatorship of one man and tried to legitimize all that by cloaking it in the garb of Islam. And all the prominent figures of the Islamist camp in Egypt stood applauding. [26]

What Is To Be Done?

This is, in the very broadest terms, Fuda’s case for secularism. What, then, can be done to stem the tide of Islamic extremism? The course of most of Egypt’s political actors is, in Fuda’s view, quite faulty. Some try to ride the crest of the Islamist wave in the hope of gaining votes or support; others idly rejoice at the prospect of the state receiving a lesson. Some try to oppose Islamic extremism inconsistently, to compromise with it. The state, thinking religious extremism of the youth is due to insufficient religious education, tries to curb it with the help of ‘ulama’ who argue publicly that extremism is against “true Islam.” [27]

All this is false, says Fuda. The Islamist movement is basically a political one. If it employs religious language and puts forward religious demands, this is in order to be accepted by the deeply religious Egyptian masses. To enter into a religious debate with that movement is to fight a lost battle. And one cannot mollify the extremists by compromising with them: this only enhances their resoluteness. To stand idle is also quite dangerous, for “if the boat sinks, it is with all of us.” [28]

The right way to tackle the problem is to confront Islamic extremism head-on. Where the extremists overstep the boundaries of legality and use violence, the state should suppress them with all the legal means at its disposal. Otherwise, they should be fought in an open political battle. The crux of the matter, according to Fuda, lies on the political level. One of the most efficient means to stem the influence of the radicals is to do away with general ignorance of the most important issues. If, for instance, the Islamist forces demand the immediate application of the shari‘a but deliberately avoid producing a detailed political program, they should be reminded that this demand, outside such a framework, is devoid of any meaning: “The shari‘a by itself can only exist or be applied in an Islamic society or more precisely in an Islamic religious state, and this state in turn requires a political program.” [29] In Fuda’s eyes, the right course for fighting the extremists is to challenge them openly to produce a political program oriented towards solving the main problems of Egyptian society and to fight with them over such a program. [30]

Yet a condition for this is that the Islamist forces can act freely on the political scene, that they can form their own party (or parties). Since under the party law of 1977 parties cannot be established on a religious basis, Fuda demands to cancel that prohibition, to allow the Islamist forces who are anyway very present to build their own parties. That would make it easier to bring the struggle against them onto its proper political level. [31] Once this is done, once all the related issues have been exposed to a wider audience, Fuda is quite confident that it will be easier to reduce the weight and influence of the Islamist forces to their real dimensions. He does not want to deny the Islamist camp its legitimate place in society. He is convinced that there are deep, persistent reasons for this phenomenon and that it has a popular basis. He simply thinks that the system of “limited democracy” has blown this phenomenon out of proportion, so that it now exerts a virtual hegemony over certain parts of the intellectual-political scene in Egypt. That situation should be ended. The representatives of political Islam, writes Fuda,

should know that Islam is too precious to demean it by the fancy of being able to stand against the epoch, that the fatherland is too precious to be torn apart by calls to fanaticism, that the future is produced by the pen not by the siwak [“Islamic” toothbrush], by work not self-isolation, by reason not by way of the dervish, by logic not bullets. And even more importantly: they should come to note a truth which is absent, that they are not alone in the community of Muslims. [32]



[1] An-naqd adh-dhati ba'da-l-hazima (Beirut: Dar at-Tali‘a, 1969).
[2] See Salahaddin al-Munajjid, A‘midat an-nakba (Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-Jadid, 1967).
[3] For an introduction see Gilles Kepel, The Prophet and Pharoah (London: Al Saqi Books, 1985). On the political alliance see Bertus Hendriks, “Egypt’s New Political Map,” Middle East Report No. 147 (July-August 1987).
[4] Sadik Jalal al-‘Azm, “Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse,” Khamsin, No. 8 (London 1981), pp. 5-26.
[5] One of his latest books is titled, characteristically, The Wind from the East [Rih ash-Sharq] (Cairo: Dar al-Mustaqbal al-‘Arabi, 1983).
[6] Ruhallah al-Khomeini, Al-hukuma al-islamiyya, edited and introduced by Hasan Hanafi (Cairo, 1979); Al-yasar al-islami No. 1 (Cairo, 1981).
[7] See for instance his most recent book on secularism, Al-‘almaniyya wa-nahdatuna al-haditha (Cairo and Beirut: Dar ash-Shuruq, 1986).
[8] Khalid Muhammad Khalid, Min huna nabda’ (Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-‘arabi, 1974); and Adduala fi-l-islam(Cairo, 1981).
[9] ‘Adil Husain, “Islam and Marxism: The Absurd Polarisation of Contemporary Egyptian Politics,” Review of Middle East Studies No. 2 (London, 1976), pp. 71-83.
[10] Nahwa fikr ‘arabijadid (Cairo: Dar al-Mustaqbal al-‘Arabi, 1985).
[11] Tariq al-Bishri, Al-haraka as-siyasiyya fi misr 1945-1952 (Cairo and Beirut: Dar ash-Shuruq, 1983), pp. 1-68.
[12] Salah ‘Isa, Muthaqqafun wa ‘askar (Cairo: Madbuli, 1986), p. 619.
[13] Fahmi Huwaidi, in a series of articles in Al-Ahram, July to November 1986. The articles were collected in his Tazyif al-wa‘y (Cairo and Beirut: Dar ash-Shuruq, 1987).
[14] Husain Ahmad Amin, in Haula-d-da‘wa ila tatbiq ash-shari‘a al-islamiyya (Beirut: Dar an-Nahda al-‘Arabiyya, 1985); Fu’ad Zakariyya, As-sahwa al-islamiyya fi mizan al-‘aql (Beirut: Dar at-Tanwir, 1985) and Al-haqiqa wa-l-wahm fi-l-haraka al-islamiyya al-mu‘asira (Cairo and Paris: Dar al-Fikr, 1986). The main contribution of Muhammad Nur Farahat is Al-mujtama‘ wa-sh-shari‘a wa-l-qanun (Cairo: Dar al-Hilal, 1986), in which he treats legal aspects of the problem.
[15] No. 8 (December 1985), pp 32-111.
[16] See Farag ‘Ali Fuda, Hiwar haula-l-‘almaniyya (Cairo: Al-Mahrusa, 1987), pp. 521-142.
[17] Ibid., p. 25f.
[18] His main works are Al-wafd wa-l-mustaqbal(Cairo, 1983), Qabla as-suqut (Cairo, 1985) and Al-haqiqa al-gha’iba (Cairo and Paris: Dar al-Fikr, 1986).
[19] Al-haqiqa, p. llff.
[20] Hiwa, p. 16ff.
[21] Hiwar, p. 23ff.
[22] Al-haqiqa, p. 144.
[23] Qabla, pp. 38-40.
[24] Hiwar, pp. 23, 25ff; Al-haqiqa, p. 145ff.
[25] A large part of Al-haqiqa is devoted to an examination of early Islamic history from this angle.
[26] Qabla, pp. 115-141,145-147.
[27] Hiwar, pp. 14ff, 20, 24, 31, 38ff.
[28] Hiwar, p. 20.
[29] Al-haqiqa, p. 22.
[30] Ibid., p. 14.
[31] Ibid., p. 36ff.
[32] Ibid., p. 37ff.

How to cite this article:

Alexander Flores "Egypt: A New Secularism?," Middle East Report 153 (July/August 1988).

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