In mid-June, an Egyptian court upheld the death sentence against the country’s first freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi, whom the military deposed in July 2013. Death sentences against Morsi and 105 others were confirmed after Egypt’s grand mufti gave his approval. Many Islamic scholars (ulema) in the past spoke truth to power, for which they were jailed or executed. The mufti and the general who ousted Morsi, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, are instead sending democracy, freedom, justice and truth to the gallows.
Amnesty International described the trials as “grossly unfair” and “charades”. Emmad Shahin, an academic of international repute, was among 101 others sentenced to death in absentia. I contributed a chapter to a volume co-edited by John Esposito and Shahin.
Why are the world’s democrats so quiet?
We have long heard about Islam’s presumed inability to separate religion and politics. Do we hear those same voices ask now: why is the Egyptian government mixing religion and politics, sham judicial trails and sharia? Did anyone object to el-Sisi seeking sanction for a political legal ruling from a religious authority?
Instead, this month, the US has openly embraced el-Sisi’s regime. We have yet to hear democratic leaders unite in saying: we oppose the death penalty for Morsi.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott condemned the execution in Indonesia of two Australians, so will he denounce the death sentences imposed in Egypt? If not, is it unfair to conclude that the death penalty is wrong only when applied to “our” people?
Can Egypt really be said to be “restoring democracy”? That is the phrase US Secretary of State John Kerry used to justify the 2013 coup, which was followed by a deadly military crackdown against peaceful protesters in Cairo. The then-Middle East “peace envoy”, Tony Blair, hoped for a “rapid return to democratic rule” as he lent his backing to the regime and became its adviser on “economic reforms”.
What notion of peace condones – directly or otherwise – the killing of more than 800 peaceful protesters within a few hours at Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adaweya square on August 14, 2013? As Egypt’s then-defence minister, el-Sisi had “overall responsibility for the army’s role” in a slaughter comparable to China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
Why are most of the world’s otherwise eloquent, even roaring, democrats largely mute about the death of Egyptian democracy and its symbol, Morsi? Why does the democratic conscience of the so-called globalised and connected world appear so disconnectedly unshaken by the brutal crackdown?
The brutal business of killing politics
According to media reports and the Brookings Centre for Middle East Policy, it is “unlikely” the death sentence will be implemented. Regardless, the purpose is clear: to frighten Egyptians into submission so they dare not ask again for democracy. Under a regime such as el-Sisi’s, there is barely a space for politics, and certainly not for democratic politics; the only permissible politics is acquiescence to the dictatorial regime.
Imprisoning people and passing death sentences on a virtual assembly line sends a message to Egyptians: abandon politics altogether. The increasing use of torture, including sexual abuse, reinforces this message.
Seen from the perspective of American philosopher-activist Henry Thoreau, the repeated branding of the imprisoned as terrorists, or terrorist sympathisers, or enemies of the nation-state – a line echoed in national, regional and global media – hides the reality that the regime is terrorising the people and is arguably their most lethal enemy. In his landmark essay Resistance to Civil Government, Thoreau observed:
Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.
Faith and freedom defy state violence
The banning of political parties and sentencing to death of Morsi and others are, we are told, necessary to fight terrorism and threats to Egypt’s security. For more than a decade, security threats and terrorism have been mediatised as synonymous and both as Islamic. Whatever acceptability el-Sisi has to local and international elites is on account of his role as a “secular” warrior against what his spokesman has called religious fascism and terrorism.
This propaganda fits, as well as reproduces, the post-Cold War polarisation of international politics. The “evil” communist, according to anthropologist Joseba Zulaika, has been replaced with the new enemy baptised as terrorism (read Islamic).
We must puncture and resist, as Thoreau did, such a violent staging of the “clash of civilisations” thesis in the form of terrorism versus democracy, Islam versus the West and so on. What is at stake in Egypt and elsewhere is the freedom and democracy routinely denied and suppressed by invoking the bogeymen of religion and terrorism.
A different understanding of religion actually connects Christians in the West and Muslims, in fact people of all faiths across the world. This is not the religion of Egypt’s grand mufti, Shawki Allam, and his predecessor, Ali Gomaa, nor the likes of Florida pastor Terry Jones, nor the Buddhist monks inciting mass violence against their fellow Burmese. It an understanding shared by thinkers such as Thoreau, his contemporary Ralph Waldo Emerson, French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain and Abdul Ghaffar Khan, an Indian figure of monumental significance but unfortunately not well known.
Khan’s philosophy of peace, dear to people of many faiths organised under the banner of Khudaai Khidmatgaar (God’s Servants), flourished in the same place where, ironically, the Pakistani Taliban come from. People such as Khan harnessed religion for peace, justice and equality and to fight slavery, colonialism and humiliation. Theirs was a vision that transcended sectarian divides.
Ugly geopolitics and the beauty of sun-bright Mecca
The bravery with which peaceful democracy protesters confronted death in Cairo resonates with Khan’s philosophy of peace. He challenged the brutality of the British Empire as well as the injustices – including patriarchal and feudal – within his own society as follows:
I warn the English that we also have God who watches over us … I admit that they have got machine guns, army, guns and police, but we have got God. We [Indians] have also got patience [ṣabr].
The resolve of Egypt’s political prisoners recalls the spirit of Khan, who spent decades in prisons, and Emerson. Unlike Samuel Huntington, who would separate the West and Islam, Emerson connected them to assert:
I clap my hands in … joy and amazement, before the first opening to me of this august magnificence, old with the love and homage of innumerable ages, young with the life of life, the sun-bright Mecca of the desert. And what a future it opens! I feel a new heart beating with the love of the new beauty.
It is this beauty Emerson spoke of that is concealed by merchants of the clash of civilisations – much of the mainstream media, thinktanks, policymakers, politicians, profiteering business conglomerates, the military-industrial complex – so as to sell the ugly shape of their geopolitics. The el-Sisi regime aims to block the way to the future that Emerson saw through cowardly devices such as death sentences and torture.
After the death sentence, Morsi declared:
I am not afraid … I promise the revolutionaries that I will not be less courageous and steadfast than they are, and I will stick to my principles and stances in confronting the coup … The coup leaders seek to break the will of the revolution. I call on everyone to complete the revolution without fear.
If Morsi is hanged, will there be a Thoreau to write about the “Martyrdom of Mohammed Morsi”? The verse Thoreau quotes in “Remarks After the Hanging of John Brown” remains completely apt.
Tell men of high condition,
That rule affairs of state,
Their purpose is ambition,
Their practice only hate;
And if they once reply,
Then given them all the lie.
Irfan Ahmad is Associate Professor of Political Anthropology, Institute for Religion, Politics and Society at Australian Catholic University. This article first appeared in The Conversation on August 14, 2015.