One of the most iconic videos of the 2011 Egyptian revolution was a bearded man passionately declaring: "Whether you're a Christian, whether you're a Muslim, whether you're an atheist, you will demand your rights, and we will have our rights, one way or another". The 18 days of revolution that started on January 25th, 2011 saw Egyptians from all walks of life standing shoulder to shoulder – chanting, marching, protesting, and often dying together.
As we observe the fifth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, the memories of euphoria and triumph look particularly painful against the backdrop of the repression and brutality that it has since given way to. But on this day Egyptian youths do not only observe a glorious revolution in which they inspired the world and surprised themselves – they also observe that time when the revolution looked united.
Alas, that time is gone – five years on, the revolutionary camp has been cleft between Islamists and non-Islamists, with both sides claiming to represent the true spirit of Tahrir, and holding a long list of grievances against the other. It did not help that the Islamists were better organised to take advantage after the revolution, and that their leadership – mostly elders – chose to ally with the army in a bid to ensure a transition favourable to their side.
The division started early with a dispute over the role of Islam in any future regime, and, in a string of tragedies, it morphed into a catastrophic polarisation that grew successively worse, creating an opening for the counter-revolution to make a triumphant, vengeful return. Five years later, the polarisation is still with us, and little real progress has been made on the question: What is the role of Islam in any future state?
The predictable standard answers pit an imagined "Islamic" state vs a "secular" state – either Islam is both a political model and a religion, or Islam is a private religious matter completely detached and separated from politics. But there are several reasons why, given our cultural and historical context, both of these answers are problematic – not just in the case of Egypt, but across the Arab region.
The problem with the Islamic answer is that, in the words of Tunisian ex-president Muncif Marzouki: "There is no solution in 'Islam is the solution'". For years, Egypt's Islamists declared that they sought an Islamic state – but when they did take power, they presented no model. The Muslim Brotherhood led government talked about a Nahda project but the details of this project were never implemented, let alone revealed.
The secular answer is also problematic – not least because some of the most brutal regimes in the region, including Ben Ali's and Assad's, had for decades positioned themselves as champions of secularism. Granted, theirs was a secularism without democracy or human rights or liberty – it was a secularism that doesn't give religion breathing space, but rather exploits it for power. But whatever the case, their brutal history has given secularism a terrible name.
But the bigger problem with a narrow focus on either answer is that the primary demands of the revolutions – if one would collect their slogans and chants, and take a wider look at their context – were not particularly secularism or Islamism, but liberty and dignity. There was, and continues to be, a desire to rediscover the role of Islam in our future liberty. For freedom to become institutionalised in the Arab world, we have to relate it to our cultural and religious worldview.
This continues to be the circle we have to square – and perhaps the solution starts with defining what we mean by Islamic. Most Islamists use Islamic to refer to a kind of state; a particular model – upon which they do not agree. In the mind of many a young Muslim, an Islamic state is one modelled after medieval Islamic empires. Belief that that represents something authentic and prescribed, and nostalgia for past glory, play a part in this perception.
But Islamists themselves do not agree upon what this will look like – Saudi Arabia, Iran, and IS all claim to be Islamic states. It is far more apt to use the word Islamic as describing a quality rather than a model. To illustrate the difference – imagine what we mean when we talk about a "safe" car. Do we mean a particular kind of car branded as "Safe™", or do we mean a car designed with certain features and qualities to make it safe, like seat-belts, airbags, and anti-lock brakes?
Similarly – does it not make more sense to talk of Islamic as a set of values, rather than a historical model?
The shift would solve a number of problems. To start, it moves the conversation from one centered on imagined historical authenticity to one centered on values. We would have to identify a set of core values that a state must espouse in order to be worth the title Islamic –instead of arguing traditions, we'd be discussing social justice, equality, rule of law, representative decision making, and individual rights and liberties.
But the shift would also allow us to gauge the truth of any Islamic claim. When Hossein Askari, a professor at George Washington University, tried doing exactly that in 2014, he found that the countries that most represent "Islamicity" are Western countries, and that Muslim-majority countries didn't make the top 25. His rankings speak both about the universality of Islamic values and the hypocrisy of many a Muslim-majority country that claims it is Islamic.
The conversation is important, but is mostly unexplored. I tried opening a debate around the topic as early as August 2011, but nobody was prepared to listen back then; triumphalism ruled the day and polarisation was rising. Perhaps today, with the horror show that is IS becoming the latest contender to claiming the Islamic brand, the shock and anguish can make us reconsider and reopen the conversation.
I believe strongly that our future liberty does not belong to those who want to crawl under Islam to power, or to those who want to jump over it as if it doesn't exist. Those advocating wiping the slate clean, as if layers of history and culture do not exist within our collective Muslim psyche, are neither realistic nor helpful. We need to articulate an authentic vision of liberty from within Islam – but for that, we need to liberate Islam before expecting Islam to liberate us.