Special Report: What the Pew Poll on Egypt Really Means

What Egyptians want, above all, is an Egyptian democracy. For many of them, this means a democracy that doesn’t view religion as either a backward relic to be surmounted and militantly policed (again, France) or an apolitical feel-good faith to be celebrated as long as it behaves (Great Britain).

Having participated along with millions of fellow Egyptians in the 18-day uprising that toppled the Mubarak regime last February, I welcomed the publication of the latest Pew Research Center poll on Egypt.  The poll results come as Egyptians continue to debate what form the country’s nascent democracy should take in the wake of the January 25th Revolution. As an academic conducting research in Egypt, I hoped the poll would provide concrete answers on what Egyptians think at this critical juncture of our country’s history. But the results of the poll, conducted March 24-April 7, have left many commentators and analysts more perplexed than reassured. For it appears that while most Egyptians want a democratic polity, they also want a religious one.

Here is how the numbers break down: The vast majority (71%) of the thousand Egyptians polled feel that democracy is preferable to any other form of government. At the same time, close to two-thirds said that Egypt’s laws should be derived from the Qur’an, with another quarter saying that while laws shouldn’t strictly adhere to the Qur’an, they should still be “in accordance with Islamic values and principles.” Around 50% feel that religiously-based parties should be allowed to participate in politics. These results match those of an earlier Pew poll conducted in the spring of 2010, a few months before the revolution – in that poll, no less than 95% of Egyptians felt that Islam should play a big role in politics, with almost half saying that Islam’s actual role in politics under Mubarak is too limited.

In short, both polls reveal that while a majority of Egyptians want democracy, many of them don’t subscribe to the view that democracy, by definition, entails secularism.

These results have many liberal commentators both in the West and in Egypt worried that a large number of Egyptians don’t grasp a seemingly unassailable fact of life – democracy and religion (and Islam in particular) don’t make for good company. But what if the liberal camp suspended its disbelief for a moment and saw the confusion as stemming not from the seemingly contradictory aspirations of Egyptians, but rather from the analytical framework being used to dissect and make sense of those aspirations? This framework is built around a basic assumption – that for Egypt (or any other Muslim-majority nation for that matter), the choice is between two mutually exclusive options, an Islamic political system or a democratic one.  Embedded in this assumption is an even more entrenched belief – that secularism is the norm, the natural state of affairs, while religion is superfluous, an optional add-on.

But what if we treated secularism in the same way liberals treat religion? In other words, what new possibilities would open up if we recognize treat secularism for what it is – a contingent human construction with a particular history that varies across time and place, a construction that possesses specific constraints and possibilities? And what if, as the most astute scholars of secularism have argued, we were to see the demarcation of “religion” as a private, apolitical affair as a peculiarly secular invention, rather than a timeless moral imperative? Indeed, it is very difficult to think about religion in our time outside of its definition by secularism. Secularism defines not only what counts as “authentic” religion, but also how religious people should act and what they should or shouldn’t “meddle” with.

But that’s precisely what many Egyptians are attempting to redefine every time they argue for the viability of a democratic system that takes seriously their religious commitments. And their arguments push us to rethink not only our conventional notions of secularism, but also our assumptions about religious politics.

At my neighborhood mosque in Cairo one Friday, a young woman distributed a short pamphlet detailing the differences between a “secular” state, a “theocratic” state, and an “Islamic” state. That the author of the pamphlet, unlike most liberal commentators, differentiates between the latter two is very important. Among other things, it demonstrates that whatever the shape an “Islamic state” is likely to take in Egypt, it will be different from burqa-banning France circa right-about-now, but also book-burning Rome circa the middle ages, which, after all, defined theocracy.

What Egyptians want, above all, is an Egyptian democracy. For many of them, this means a democracy that doesn’t view religion as either a backward relic to be surmounted and militantly policed (again, France) or an apolitical feel-good faith to be celebrated as long as it behaves (Great Britain).

Explaining the results of the Pew poll in the April 26th edition of the New York Times, the Egyptian analyst Amr El-Shobaki says that the results show how “average people enjoy a high degree of reconciliation between Islam and modern ideas.” But Islamism – and the socio-political movement it is most connected with in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood – is a modern idea. There is nothing “traditional” about the Brotherhood or its religious discourse. Indeed, the Brotherhood’s intellectual genealogy can be traced back, in part, to a late 19th century reform movement in the Middle East known as “Islamic modernism.”

The main aim of this diverse project was not to “reconcile” Islam with modernity. It was more radical than that.  Islamic modernists wanted to show that Islam, “correctly” understood and practiced, leads to modernity. Of course, the argument for Islamic modernism needed to be made exactly because it wasn’t self-evident. The same is not true for secularism, which, historically speaking, is a product of modernity. But there is a difference between acknowledging this history and between arguing that religious people must always struggle to become modern precisely because they are religious. To go back to the Pew Poll, it’s time to rethink the argument that a modern democracy, to be both really modern and democratic, must also pass a Western-defined litmus test of secularity.

Indeed, it is increasingly apparent that this line of reasoning, as applied to the current situation in Egypt, is leading nowhere. While for decades authoritarianism has been virtually synonymous with the Middle East, observers who diagnose Islam as the culprit do so on flimsy grounds. In fact, it is empirically problematic to attribute the historic lack of democracy in the region to Islam since (with the complex exceptions of Saudi Arabia and Iran), none of the regimes in power claim Islam as their raison d’etre, or are even perceived to be Islamic by their citizens. In reality, most of the Arab regimes and their autocrats – including Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak – were/are secular. What this tells us is that secularism doesn’t necessarily breed democracy.

This doesn’t mean that the converse is true – that Islam necessarily breeds democracy.  But there is also no reason to assume that it can’t.  Indeed, as the Islamic modernism example illustrates, a case for the compatibility of Islam and democracy has long been made by a variety of Muslim intellectuals and activists. Even a cursory scan of the editorial pages of Egyptian newspapers over the past months reveals that these attempts are still on-going. What troubles me is not that these arguments are being critically examined, questioned or critiqued – as all arguments should be – but that they are not. All too often, both Western and Egyptian secularists dismiss them out-of-hand as misguided, insincere or simply pointless – in short, as not worthy of serious engagement.

Certainly, there does exist some serious stumbling blocks in attempting to theorize democracy from within an Islamic frame. How to reconcile, for example, God’s sovereignty, a key article of Muslim faith, with popular sovereignty, a key pillar of democracy? How to guarantee the civil rights of non-Muslims within a system that officially privileges one religion over others? But there is a difference between recognizing that viable solutions to these issues have yet to be developed, and between arguing that Islam is intrinsically inimical to democracy.

Theoretical constructions of Islamic democracy aside, the nuts-and-bolts of democracy for most moderate Islamists would in the final analysis be recognizable to Western democrats.  What Islamists such as the Muslim Brothers want to see, at the end of the day, are political accountability and participation, the rule of law and the protection of human rights. This resonates closely with widely-accepted Western definitions of what constitutes a bare-bones democracy.  The difference, of course, is that “Islamic democrats” operate within a self-avowedly religious discursive space, rather than within discourses that find their philosophical or moral origin in secular liberalism. The difference is that, for them, religion is essential and secularism is optional.

Herein lies the crux of liberal anxieties about the attitudes the Pew poll reveals. Reversing the common slogan of Islamist movements, Islam for liberals is not the “solution,” but the “problem” when talking about political reform in the Middle East. Western observers and Egyptian secularists are skeptical of the sincerity of the Islamist commitment to democracy, contending that this commitment would amount to “one man, one vote, one time.” The Muslim Brotherhood, so the argument goes, may come to power by the ballot, but it would hold onto power by the bullet.

In 2004, I sat down Saad Eddin Ibrahim – one of the Arab world’s most celebrated democracy activists and a man who had paid a heavy price for his principles in Mubarak’s prisons – and asked him what he thought of the argument that democratically elected Islamists inevitably renege on democracy. Nonsense, he scoffed. “Where has that happened? Nowhere.”

Why then the continuing association of political Islam with the lack of democracy in the Middle East? We are back to our conventional analytical framework, a framework still shaped by an Enlightenment narrative of secular reason overcoming religious obscurantism to establish freedom, justice and, crucially, modernity for all. This narrative continues to structure variants of the remarkably resilient modernization theory.  Modernization theory in its classic formulation posited a sharp dichotomy between Tradition and Modernity.  Taking as their benchmark the Western experience (both imagined and real) of modernity, modernization theorists predicted that religion, a quintessentially “traditional” element, would gradually be marginalized in a secularized public sphere, allowing for the consolidation of liberal (Western-style) democracy.

If we are to understand this historic moment in Egypt – a moment that is dramatically reshaping the social and political landscape of the region – we must refine and improve our analytical framework beyond this narrative. As the Pew poll reveals, Egypt’s current political culture is complex and multi-faceted, eliding the stale binary opposition of “modern secularity” versus “traditional religiosity” that so often passes as “analysis” when it comes to commentary on the Middle East. Our conceptual frame should be as complex and multifaceted as the reality it aims to understand. This means not only asking hard questions of Islamist politics, but also scrutinizing secular norms of what democracies – and modernities – look like.

Yasmin Moll, a PhD candidate in anthropology at New York University, is a 2010-2011 Fulbright-Hays Fellow in Cairo. A documentary filmmaker, her latest film, The Women of Tahrir, won the Jury Award at the Social Issue Media Festival in New York in April.