Ashraf Mansour: Religious reform requires liberating religion from the religious establishment

Mansour ascribes the spread of extremism in Arab societies to the “defective historical evolution” of those societies.
Sunday 15/07/2018
Gripping viewpoint. Egyptian academic Ashraf Mansour.  (Courtesy of Ashraf Mansour)
Gripping viewpoint. Egyptian academic Ashraf Mansour. (Courtesy of Ashraf Mansour)

CAIRO - A shraf Mansour, an Egyptian academic who advocates liberation of the Muslim mind, is predictably one of the many Arab intellectuals under attack from Salafists.

Mansour says religious reform requires the liberation of religion from the hegemony of the religious establishment. “If we want to improve the current conditions of Muslims, we must first liberate them from the men of religion,” he said.

Mansour said that “the intellectual, social and political context is affected by the deep impregnation of societies by Salafist currents which have succeeded, even partially, to suppress the recourse to common sense and dialogue.”

Mansour says the concept of the caliphate does not exist in Islam but is an invention of the religious establishment within a specific historical context so should not be considered one of the foundations of Islam.

Mansour is a professor of philosophy at the University of Alexandria and has produced unique and interesting research in philosophy and epistemology. He specialises in critical theory, German idealism and phenomenology.

He has written many works on political Islam, political theory and economy and sociology of religion. He is best known for his comparative study between the interpretive approaches adopted by Averroes, Maimonides and Spinoza and for his encyclopaedia on the new liberalism.

Mansour ascribes the spread of extremism in Arab societies to the “defective historical evolution” of those societies because the Arab region has been subjected to different forms of colonialism and occupation, first by the Ottomans, then Western Europe, then the United States.

Mansour said: “Rising extremism can only be fought by reviving Islamic philosophy and modernist thinking.”

“Every religious institution will strive to deform the image of religion,” he said. “This is not true of Islam only but of Judaism and Christianity, also. Religion, in itself, does not require an institution, for it is a very personal relation between man and God.”

Mansour explained the rise of religious institutions as: “With societal support religion expands and takes the shape of a religious institution that starts controlling people in the name of God. This institution soon turns into a guardian and caretaker of religion. Its power and momentum increase with alliances with political authority and soon evolves into a religious police whose aim is to monitor people’s consciences and intentions.”

There has been move of Arab intellectuals and philosophers rejecting that hegemony, including Egyptian intellectual Farag Foda, who debated figures of religious intellectualism. He was charged with apostasy and was assassinated in June 1992.

Mansour said the first step in reforming religion was to protect intellectuals and creative thinkers by criminalising the act of accusing people of apostasy. He said a charge of apostasy carries a death sentence and this can be all it takes to “motivate” some zealot to “carry out that sentence.”

Criminalising accusations of apostasy, however, is not enough. Mansour said that “in the absence of the culture of intellectual pluralism and dialogue, chaos will prevail.”

He said there was a need to vanquish Salafist mentality, which Mansour compares to a closed box full of old texts turned sacred over time. Confronting Salafist thinking “requires freeing oneself from these texts by deconstructing them.” Only critical thinking can help. “We need the intellect of secularism to stop Salafism in its tracks,” Mansour said.

Mansour said he agreed that lasting change must start with changing the material bases of reality and that, in the Muslim world, there is an urgent need for secular thinking and the culture of openness and co-existence with the other. For him, the Clash of Civilisations theory is fantasy.

“Civilisations are not clashing but competing,” he said. “Each civilisation is trying to offer innovative solutions to the current social and human crises.”

Mansour said “the structuring of the Arab society produces dictatorship and that political autocracy is the ultimate outcome of that structure and extremist Salafist culture is part of this autocracy… So, these Arab regimes cannot really support enlightenment efforts because they secretly work hand in hand with religious movements.”

He said there were many enlightened philosophical and theological schools of thought, such as Sufism and the Mu’tazila, that ought to be brought back to life but the problem is to get enlightened ideas to the general public since most people are still “dominated by the present religious currents.”

Mansour spoke of the future of religious movements in the Arab world, saying they will continue to gain momentum because the Arab regimes do not seem enthusiastic about seriously combating extremism. They repeat the same mistakes that had helped extremism grow by restricting freedoms and democracy and mismanaging the economic crisis.

“This reality will lead to the return of extremist currents and we have no other way of getting rid of terrorism except through enlightenment and secularism,” Mansour said.