Renewing religious discourse: Between silence and clamour

Sunday 26/06/2016

Despite problems in Arab countries caused by extremist Islamist groups, intellectuals and clerics, let alone governments, have not created a new religious discourse that is more in line with the require­ments of the modern world and capable of filling the vacuum exploited by extremists.

There have been many calls about the need to “renew” religious discourse but this has not resulted in anything on the ground.

Egypt has seen the most calls for a renewal and redevelopment of religious discourse, due to the negative actions by religious extremists and the repercussions of the failed Muslim Brotherhood rule. In 2015, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called for a “renewal” of religious dialogue and specifically tasked al-Azhar with carrying it out.

Although more than one year has passed, there have been no real steps to achieve this from al-Azhar. Why is that? Is this due to laziness on the part of the country’s main religious authority or because al-Azhar is incapable or unwilling of making these changes?

Although a conference on renewing religious discourse, sponsored by Egypt’s Ministry of Religious Endowments — and attended by al-Azhar representatives — took place last November, it did not result in any effective action.

This lack of action is cause for concern and one must wonder why Egypt’s elite have not done more to heed the president’s call. Although action on the issue has been lacking, there has been a lot of talk about renewing religious discourse, with diverging views about what this could or should look like.

Some people want to see a change in how religious issues are discussed; others say that a renewal of religious discourse must, by necessity, be accompanied by a renewal of religious thought. Whatever the case, religious authorities have been unable to rally around a specific agenda and the issue has become politicised and lost all momentum.

Ultimately, it seems that most of those who should have been leading this issue prefer the status quo, albeit for a variety of reasons.

A broad section of mainstream cultural figures seems overly concerned with using this issue to beat their opponents over the head, whether official bodies, such as the presidency or the government or religious authorities, including al-Azhar or the Ministry of Religious Endowments. These figures prefer to criticise opponents for failing to adequately develop religious discourse and combat extremism rather than putting this behind them and working together to deal with this vital concern.

There are also those who have preferred not to take action and keep silent, particularly senior sheikhs and religious figures. They simply do not have the capability or the desire to push for renewal, because this might put them in a difficult position among their peers and supporters. Instead of rocking the boat, they prefer to keep silent and endure, even if this means living with extremism.

Many Salafists and their supporters are among this group, preferring silence and avoiding confrontation by focusing on secondary issues. They do not want to acknowledge that religious discourse has reached a crossroads and requires emergency action to set things on the right tract.

At the same time, this lack of action has allowed extremists to take the initiative to guard against any renewal of religious discourse, drowning out all rational voices and playing on people’s emotions that the idea of “renewing” religious discourse represents an attack on Islam.

As a result, the issue has become a political and social hot potato. Nobody wants to deal with it.

If we want to see movement on renewing religious discourse, everybody — and particularly those from official bodies — must deal with it seriously and the Egyptian government and its institutions must confirm that this will be an issue of constant attention for them.

Cultural and religious figures must understand the broad outlines of this new discourse and the objective of promoting it, particularly as the status quo will not only lead to the survival of the extremists but also create an environment that allows them to gain strength and spread their misguided views.