Thursday, November 29, 2012

Leave Sharia alone

By Khalil al-Anani
Al-Ahram Weekly

The Arab Spring of democracy has deteriorated into a winter of mangled hopes. At the heart of the growing disappointment is the zealous portrayal of Sharia — Islamic law — as a political cause, as something to be enforced rather than experienced, as a tool of one-upmanship rather than an inspiration of noble ideals.

In Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, Sharia is being used by Islamist groups to mobilise supporters and discredit opponents. The damage of this tactic is not confined to the opponents of Islamists. The concept of Sharia itself, I am convinced, will suffer.

Islamist factions, especially those who found their voice after the Arab Spring, such as the Salafis and the jihadists, speak of Sharia at every turn. They use Sharia as a weapon in the current power struggle. In general, the advocates of Sharia are recasting their compatriots in two roles: those who those who support Sharia and those who oppose it. This is quite deplorable. In Islamic history, Sharia was never a goal in and of itself. It was mostly a means to promote the overall welfare of society. This is why the disputes of Sharia were limited in nature compared to what we see today.

Historically, the implementation of Sharia was not imposed from above, as the Salafis would have us think. The political and cultural concerns of society were reflected into Sharia, and the latter remained sensitive to the general needs of the population. This is why Muslim scholars came up with the brilliant idea of defining the “goals of Sharia” (maqased al-sharia), a set of objectives that was not in dispute by the general public. The “goals of Sharia” grew into a major branch of Islamic studies, leaving us with a rich tradition of innovative ideas on matters of public interest. According to Islamist scholars, the five main goals of Sharia were the protection of: religion; self; mind; life; and property. The Salafis have no time for any of that. What interests them is how to turn Sharia into a monolithic and abstract concept to wield like a baton against their opponents. Thus, the fact that Sharia is a malleable body of guiding principles escapes their notice.

Turning Sharia into dogma is a curse against which many scholars, including Al-Qaradawi, warned. To focus on partial texts and literal interpretation is just as harmful to Sharia as the tendency to ignore text to please the crowds, according to Al-Qaradawi.

A thorough exposition of the fine points of Sharia, or the Salafist understanding thereof, is beyond the scope of this article. What I wish to do here is uncover the unsavoury ways in which Sharia is being manipulated by the Islamists, not only to intimidate the rest of the population, but also to discredit each other.
Islamist factions are using Sharia to make political gains at the expense of their opponents. Come to think of it, most of the political criticism of President Mohamed Morsi doesn’t come from the liberals or so-called seculars, but from Islamists. Indeed, the jihadists are calling for a revolution against Morsi. Mohamed Al-Zawahri, brother of Ayman, has said in public that he doesn’t recognise Morsi as president. At present, the Salafis, the jihadists, and the rest of the ultra-conservative Islamists all denounce Morsi for failing to enforce Sharia.

Back in the seventh century, a conflict developed between two major Islamic factions over the bloodied shirt of Caliph Osman. This conflict, which took many lives before things eventually settled with the creation of the Umayad caliphate, reminds me of the current controversy over Sharia.
The Islamists are using Sharia to polarise opinion and control various aspects of public space. Proud of their ability to over-simplify Sharia through satellite broadcast, social networks, and other media outlets, the Islamists are turning Sharia into dogma, hoping to produce a biased mind-set among their supporters. They make no secret of their intent to use Sharia to intimidate their opponents.
This is sad news for Sharia. Instead of being a sensible approach to societal problems, Sharia is being remodelled into a prejudiced dogma.

Consider the actions now being justified in the name of Sharia. Consider the recent clashes in the streets of Tunisia, the acts of murder that happened in Libya during the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, or the menacing mobilisation of Salafis in Egypt, which can turn physically violent at any moment. Bloodshed and bias, murder and mayhem, are all being justified in the name of Sharia.
The Islamists, especially the Salafis, have created a fiction out of Sharia, and their narrative seems to attract followers by the thousands. Their success is due at least in part to the failure of the major ideologies, such as liberalism or socialism, to capture the imagination of the public. And the fact that our religious institutions seem incapable of offering leadership or producing credible role models is also part of the current dilemma.

As groups such as the Supporters of Sharia (Ansar Al-Sharia) gain ground in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Mali and Nigeria, one has to voice concern over the future of Sharia itself. The way in which the so-called supporters of Sharia try to enforce their own social and political vision on society is too risky, not only for their political future but also for the future of the concept they pretend to promote. Sharia is not responsible for what is happening now in Sudan and Afghanistan, but it will take the blame.
In fact, the only hope left for Sharia is for its self-appointed champions to leave it alone.

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