Egyptian thinker sees ‘no salvation without separation of religion and politics’

"It is unreasonable to seek solutions to problems of 2019 by going back to the products of minds that existed ten centuries ago," said Egyptian political thinker Tarek Heggy.
Saturday 24/08/2019
Egyptian political thinker Tarek Heggy. (Al Arab)
Warning. Egyptian political thinker Tarek Heggy. (Al Arab)

Politics is a human act, relative, variable and flexible while religion is absolute, sacred and fixed. Mixing the two without checks produces disorder, distortion, violence and may end in bloody terrorism. The experience of political Islam is the proof of that.

This is why Egyptian political thinker Tarek Heggy said defeating terrorism requires separating religion from politics and liberating thought by raising people’s awareness and refuting extremist modes of thinking.

Heggy said the war on terror is both “a security and intellectual war.” The security front is needed “to confront the armed groups using law, determination and the necessary firmness against [them].” On the intellectual level, there is a necessity “to confront inherited beliefs that groups affiliated with political Islam keep repeating without critical evaluation.”

Heggy said the most crucial of battles is one of education and religious discourse.

In his book, “The Plague of Radicalism,” Heggy deconstructs political Islamist thinking and reveals its distortions and contradictions. He concludes that a moderate political Islam is an illusion.

Heggy pointed to the existence of intimate links between all Islamist groups, be they political or jihadist, because they share common constants related to being intolerant, opposed to scientific reasoning and contemptuous of women.

He said the war with religious extremism is far from over and that international powers have not reached the stage of agreeing on policies to eliminate the scourge.

“Even if there is an international consensus on the inevitability of confronting political Islam organisations, it is difficult to totally get rid of it because the problem lies beyond the failure and fragmentation of any one of these organisations at any given time,” said Heggy. “There is a source that is still able to generate various other groups for the same goal and driven by the same idea.

“The first thing that needs to be done is to critique and assail the roots of its main narrative that we find scattered throughout history in various forms and with minor differences.”

He said the writings of Ibn Taymiyyah are still alive seven centuries after his death. The ideas that Muhammed bin Abdul Wahab, Abu al-A’la Mawdudi and Sayyid Qutb sowed are available to all and they are the principal basis of violence. All of them built their views on the idea of ​​hating and rejecting the other.

Heggy added that there may be “tactical differences” between one faction of political Islam and another. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, may not operate in the same way as al-Qaeda or Boko Haram or even the Islamic State but all of them are “strategically aligned, pursue the same goals and carry the same hatred.”

He stressed that resolving the problem of political Islam in a principled manner requires separation of religion from the state so religion remains removed from all political and legislative processes. Unfortunately, some countries answered the call of political Islam and even amplified it and that was a big mistake.

Heggy added that some may think that establishing real secularism in Arab societies is impossible but we must know there are no impossibilities in politics, in reform projects and on the paths of development and progress.

“Achieving progress can change the thinking patterns of the Arab mind, which is, like any other mind, apt to evolve and change as a result of real experiences and revisions,” he said.

He pointed out that there are Arab societies, such as Tunisia, that have been quicker in overcoming the dominance of religious thought and that the results of secularism associated with reform will bolster opposition to political Islam.

Heggy insisted that those calling for a return to religious and cultural roots have nothing to offer society except big vague promises. Intellectuals, however, know that Islamic history is a purely human history that witnessed prosperity, which many would like to overstate, followed by recession, then collapse when it produced a mindset based on pure transmission and total opposition to reasoning and innovation. Heggy said the period some call the “Golden Age” was one whose features reflected the realities of the Middle Ages.

In his books, Heggy argues that the progress of Western Europe was the result of several factors. The first was the great reduction of the power and influence of the clergy, then came the rise of freedom of thought and the use of critical thinking. These factors led to the development of the values of progress.

An analysis of Arab societies’ contemporary political, economic, social, cultural, educational and media aspects confirms those environments lack values ​​of progress.

Heggy said renewing and modernising religious discourse is “a matter of life or death for Arab societies. It’s a task that must be carried out by the state and cannot be left to religious institutions. There is an urgent need to open the gates of ijtihad, for it is unreasonable to seek solutions to problems of the year 2019 by going back to the products of minds that existed ten centuries ago.”

Heggy said hasty and ill-planned revolutions and rapid changes do not serve development projects. He cited the “Arab spring” uprisings, which, in his view, served the agenda of political Islam. These “revolutions” destroyed countries, such as Syria, Libya and Yemen, that used to be stable.

Although Heggy warned that tolerance in the Arab region had receded in recent decades, he pointed out that educational institutions, the media and other cultural bodies are platforms capable of dealing scientifically and objectively with this fatal flaw in the thinking patterns of the great majority in Arab societies.

Achieving significant success and progress in this area is difficult because the fruits of any effective reform programme will only become visible after a few years.