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Secularism is key to democracy
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 09 - 10 - 2013

An intrepid advocate of secularism, Murad Wahba's unabashed criticism of fundamentalism has earned him the contempt of religious extremists as well as some death threats. Wahba, who obtained his PhD from Alexandria University, has written several books on culture, modernity, and religious belief including, The Backwardness Germ, Philosophy of Creativity and Fundamentalism and Secularism.
It has been said that you are opposed to religions. Is this true?
(Laughing) Easy now. I was never against religions. What I am against is interfaith dialogue. Religions are absolute notions and there is no point of having a dialogue among absolute notions. A dialogue doesn't resolve the conflict. Interfaith dialogue is a delusion.
There is, however, an ongoing dialogue among civilisations?
It is not going to work. Every civilisation wants to prove that it is better than the other. I am in favour, however, of intercultural dialogues.
What is the situation of philosophy in Egypt now?
We don't have philosophy. We have philosophy professors who are worthy of respect but the material they teach is dead, lacking in creativity and depth.
Some claim you are an atheist because of your belief in secularism…
Accusing me of atheism is easy, and I'm sort of used to it. Philosophers have been at the receiving end of such charges since the sixth century BC.
Because philosophers are not satisfied with the superficial but try to get to the depth of things. If you do so you'll see things that other people don't, that they consider taboo. This is what happened to Socrates.
What is the meaning of secularism?
In 1987 the Arab Language Council determined the Arab word for secularism, al-almaniya, as derived from al-alam, meaning world. In this view being secular is being a part of the ever-changing world.
Why is there so much debate on secularism?
The term secular dates back to the sixteenth century, but its roots existed in Greek philosophy. Secularism is a state of mind in which an individual accepts the fact that he has no access to absolute knowledge. This is a human situation common to all civilisations. The opposite of secularism is religious fundamentalism. Fundamentalism fears secularism and sees it as an existential threat. Fundamentalists are totally attuned to this and willing to do anything to defend their backwardness.
It has been said that secularism is against religion?
There is no relation between the two, none at all. There are some issues that religion has nothing to do with. Take population increase for example. It is a scientific and social issue.
You argue that democracy is unattainable without secularism. Can you elaborate?
This is true. Democracy starts with secularism. It is only after secularism was established that — in the seventeenth century — the theory of social contract appeared. The idea was that society was made by man and not by a religious authority. People got together and made laws to govern themselves, and they abdicated some of their rights to the ruler in return for peace and safety. This is all an extension of the theory of secularism because it involves relativism in human relations. In the 18th century, the Age of Enlightenment, Kant used to say, “be brave and allow your mind to wander past boundaries”. I would argue that the mind can only be examined by the mind, because our mind has two parts, the part that thinks and the part that observes the thinking process. If I were a fundamentalist and I wished you to follow me I would be depriving you of your mind and your faculty to reason.
You draw a line between religion and religious authorities?
(Smiling) Yes, there is a difference between religion and religious authorities. Analysts always focus on the religious authorities and not religion. Religion is a message of faith. The problem is when man begins to contemplate the religious texts. Here you get two kinds of people. Some opt for fear and for rejection of all else while others want to move forward, understand, choose, and have faith. The theologians have their set of textual passages that they defend with their lives and consider anyone who contradicts them an atheist. In the nineteenth century liberalism appeared, its main assertion being that the authority of the individual is superior to the authority of society. Today, when you say that you are a liberal I have to ask if you have gone through the previous three phases. You have to go first through secularism, social contract and enlightenment before you reach democracy. Democracy is the culmination and not the beginning of this three-step sequence. We now imagine that democracy is all about the ballot boxes. We say that the absence of rigging is enough for democracy. This is wrong. The ballot box is the end of the journey not its beginning. You have to go through four phases before reaching the ballot box.
What is your reaction to what General Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi did?
The Muslim Brotherhood wanted to control the country and the army and then make the army live in a permanent state of war. The army begged to differ. The army believes that war is something to be decided by the army not anyone else. The conventional task of the army is to protect the country from outside enemies. Al-Sisi saw through the Muslim Brotherhood and stepped in to protect the country from destruction.
Do you want to see Al-Sisi run for president?
I admire General Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi for saving the country from civil war. He is a cautious and clever man. The matter of his candidacy is up to him. The people may encourage him to run, which is within his right. In the end it all depends on Al-Sisi's personality. He is aware of the whole picture and that is why he is busy putting the house in order. It is up to him to decide if it is in his interest to run for office or wait. But he is a capable man, and is fit to be a president of a major country such as Egypt.
Were you afraid that Egypt would slide backwards under the Muslim Brotherhood?
Egypt would have slid back to the Neolithic age. But the people saw through the Brotherhood. Fundamentalist thinking is determined. It lurks in waiting to assassinate any innovative idea. Let me add here that our cultural history is vulnerable, confined to bragging about a small group of intellectuals. We have no real protection, and this is the reason for our current troubles.
You seem to suggest that the Brotherhood is incapable of upholding democracy…
Democracy has four main components, which are secularism, social contract, enlightenment and liberalism. It took Europe four centuries of struggle against backwardness and reactionary thinking to move ahead. In Egypt some people consider secularism a crime, speak of divine rather than social contract, equate enlightenment with godlessness, and see liberalism as chaos. You cannot have democracy without secularism. If you denounce secularism as ungodly then you cannot have democracy. This is why I believe that the Brotherhood is incompatible with democracy.
Before the January Revolution Copts had withdrawn into their own cocoon. After the 25 January Revolution they became involved in political life. Why did this happen?
The Church wanted Copts to stay away from politics. There was an agreement between former president Mubarak and the Church to select Coptic figures in accordance with the views of the Church. In other words, when Copts were selected for parliament the selection was done according to Church standards. Just as we have Muslim fundamentalism we have Christian fundamentalism in this country. Both operate in the same manner, though there is a conflict between them. If you allow both free expression you end up with sectarian trouble.
When the Brotherhood took power many Copts left Egypt out of fear.
The idea of emigration is deeply engrained among Copts, and I will tell you why. Copts were told from the beginning that they should leave if they feel persecuted. In the time of Haile Selassie they left for Ethiopia. Then they went to Lebanon. America was next, then Australia. The idea of emigration is always alive in Coptic thinking. We are trying to liberate the Coptic mind from these fears. As long as Islamic fundamentalism is around emigration will be the spectre that doesn't leave. If you want to change things you have to spread secularism. This will reassure people and end religious conflicts. Everyone will start focussing on improving society and addressing the things that matter.
How do you view the burning of churches by Brotherhood supporters?
Such practices are not out of character for an organisation that is fundamentalist and terrorist at heart.
The courts have now banned the Brotherhood…
This is not enough. Court rulings only address the superficial aspects of the problem. The Brotherhood exists deeper down. The ongoing conflict is between an enlightened mind that emits light and a dark, fundamentalist mind that emits tyranny. The most important task is to spread enlightenment.
Why do you oppose the presence of clergymen on the 50-member committee that is writing the constitution?
The job of clergymen, regardless of the type of faith, is to take care of believers. Being a believer is not the same thing as being a citizen.
You can have multiple faiths within one country but you must not have conflicting loyalties. The job of clergymen is confined to believers. The clergyman's job has nothing to do with the political system, which is the job of politicians and the elite.
But Al-Azhar and the Church are two influential organisations in Egypt…
Within the 50-member committee now writing the constitution which religious views should be followed? A conflict is bound to emerge. But if the clergymen restrict themselves to matters of faith there will be no conflict. Problems among the believers can be handled by the clergy. But problems among citizens must be handled by politicians and the system.
Egyptian people are deeply religious…
The whole world is religious. We are deluding ourselves with the assumption that we are religious. Ongoing acts of murder, arson, extremism and terror speak louder than words. Those who are truly religious don't engage in such acts.
So you believe that the country is lawless?
That goes without saying. Allow me to clarify one thing. Laws have been absent since Pharaonic times. We are governed by myths and delusions not by reason. Our troubles are in part due to the absence of reason. When reason is absent the law is absent. Those who control people now are those who claim knowledge of an absolute truth.
Where is the role of the elite in all this?
I have been following the Egyptian elite and I am sad to say that they all defended the Brotherhood even in Mubarak's time. They used to defend this banned group so much that the MB managed to get into parliament with their help. The elite were supposed to lead the people but the opposite happened in the 30 June Revolution. The people led themselves. This is rather odd.
Are you optimistic about the new constitution?
The phrasing that keeps coming out of the 50-member committee is full of ambiguity. How can we write a secular constitution with a religious foundation? This is a contradiction in terms. We are fooling ourselves.
What is your take on the Arab Spring?
We had a refreshing spring of revolutions at first but the spring soon turned into autumn, mainly as a result of the counterrevolution led by the Brotherhood in Egypt. The Brotherhood insinuated itself in all state institutions. They are followers of backward-looking views that began in the thirteenth century, in the time of Ibn Taymia, on whose ideas they base their entire thinking. It is all about giving text precedence over reason, literal interpretation and unanimity. Anyone who uses his mind or breaks away from the unanimity is seen as an apostate. The revolution of the young was inevitable under the old regime which deprived them of any hope for a decent and dignified life. But the revolution didn't achieve its goals, mostly because it lacked leadership of the mind.
The January Revolution died on 28 January when Brotherhood members left prison and went to Tahrir Square and hijacked the revolution. There is a similarity here with the July 1952 Revolution. The two revolutions led to a collision between the army and the MB.
What did the 30 June Revolution lack?
There is an absence of philosophers. Every revolution needs philosophers and people. The June Revolution was a popular movement without philosophers, the reason being that we don't have philosophers in either Egypt or in the Arab world. We have professors of philosophy. It is hard to find a philosopher who is committed to radical change of the backward reality which we see around us. I cannot imagine a revolution continuing or succeeding without philosophers. The French, English and American revolutions were sparked off by philosophers. Revolutions reveal themselves in the streets as actions of emotion and excitability but if we read Europe's history in the Middle Ages, we notice how philosophers fought ferocious battles against ignorance and backwardness. The free thinkers fought for their beliefs every step of the way. Galileo was put on trial, Socrates made to drink poison. Many others died for the sake freedom and knowledge. Books were burned and confiscated, including that of Copernicus who pointed out that earth orbited the sun, which was to say that man was not the centre of the universe and couldn't possibly have access to absolute truth. This is why I define secularism as relativism, as opposed to absolutism.
One problem is that the cultural climate in Egypt is hostile to philosophy, so much so that the president of Ain Shams University asked me to stop teaching, saying that the students lose sleep because of the ideas I teach. This climate in which professors control students is backward.
You have called for a revival of the philosophy of Ibn Rushd, aka Averroes, a man who had great influence on Western culture...
It is hard to revive Ibn Rushd when Ibn Taymia is in power. We once held an international conference on Ibn Rushd at the Supreme Council of Culture. We invited major European philosophers, and one of the research papers was written by a Belgian historian specialised in Islamic philosophy. He was of the opinion that Ibn Rushd was a European philosopher, in the sense that he operated outside the boundaries of Muslim civilisation. The French philosopher Henri Corbin also believes that Ibn Rushd was marginal in Muslim civilisation — all of which goes to show that fundamentalist thinking had the upper hand in our culture.
What can elites and intellectuals do now?
Intellectuals must rise above petty squabbles and confront religious fundamentalism. This is not going to be an easy battle.
You lived under King Farouk and later presidents, which leader was your favourite?
Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who was able to stand up to both communism and the Brotherhood. He wasn't against social justice or faith but the elite, unfortunately, let him down. I have something interesting to tell you. Nasser used to consult me on educational affairs while Sadat fired me from university on the pretext that my ideas were inappropriate. Then Mubarak came to power and he restored me to my job but my freedom was limited. In the days of the king I was against the monarchy. I used to go to a communist research centre to learn about communism. But it was the army that staged the revolution that ended the monarchy.

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