Radicals poison democracy’s tender buds

The term ‘Arab Spring’ has become a painful reminder of all that could have been. As each day passes, people’s hopes for a better life are being dashed. Give democracy time to work its magic, say the optimists, even as it is becoming evident that populations that came together to boot out autocratic rulers are worse off today than they ever were.

The fatal shooting of secularist Tunisian opposition leader Shukri Belaid by a hooded assassin was another nail in democracy’s coffin, prompting violent protests, strikes and claims that the ruling Islamist party Al Nahda had a hand in it, which it hotly denies. Belaid knew that radicals were out to get him when a cleric issued a fatwa against him last June, but he was courageous enough to carry out his duties regardless. Tunisia was once considered to be the Arab Spring’s poster child, but now its moderate open visage has been badly scarred.

Likewise, nobody wants to walk like an Egyptian any more. Those heart-warming two-year-old images of children excitedly getting their faces painted with the colours of the Egyptian flag in Tahrir Square, youth strumming guitars and Copts and Muslims protecting one another during prayer are being erased by scenes of street battles between Islamists and liberals, widespread molestation of female protesters and the roughing-up of protesters by security forces. The picture is so ugly that for the first time in recent history, foreign tourists and investors are staying away in droves while nations that just a year ago were keen to donate to Egypt’s future or provide loans are taking a wait-and-watch stance.

As in Tunisia, the lives of Egyptian opposition leaders are being threatened by preachers cloaking incitement to murder with so-called religious edicts. Speaking on the Salafist Al Hafez TV channel, Mahmoud Shaaban, a hard line cleric, called for the killing of prominent National Salvation Front (NSF) figures and former presidential candidates Mohammad Al Baradei and Hamdeen Sabahi, by virtue of Islamic law.

In response, the government has stepped up security around the homes of those liberal politicians. President Mohammad Mursi characterised the fatwa as being akin to “terrorism” and condemned “hate speech that falsely uses religion.” NSF, that harbours diverse opposition parties, denounced “the cancerous growth of terrorist groups cloaked by religion carrying out plots to liquidate the opposition morally and physically.”

Wagdi Ganem, an ultra-conservative Egyptian preacher who has been banned from the UK and other western countries for “stirring up hatred” and who indulged in a vulgar celebration of the death of the Coptic Pope, Shenouda III, has urged President Mursi to strike the opposition “with an iron fist,” adding “the verdict under Sharia for those who seek corruption on earth is to be fought or crucified or have their arms or legs cut off or be exiled from earth.”

Last year, Salafist preacher Ahmad Mahmoud Abdullah aka Abu Islam, owner of the private Egyptian TV channel Al Ummah, stirred a controversy when he shredded a Bible, before setting fire to the book in front of the US Embassy in Cairo. Not content with enraging Christians, last Wednesday, he launched a war on Egyptian womanhood by justifying rape in an online video. “They tell you women are a red line. They tell you that naked women who go to Tahrir Square, because they want to be raped, are a red line. And they ask Mursi and the Brotherhood to leave power,” he said. “Practice your femininity shaikha,” he yelled. “You see a woman with this fuzzy hair? A devil!”

It is incomprehensible that such firebrands distorting a peaceful, tolerant faith enjoy a substantial following in the 21st century. They represent the other side of the coin that drives Pastor Terry Jones, the Texas preacher who would not be dissuaded by President Barack Obama from burning copies of the Quran. They should, at the very least, be prosecuted for incitement to murder or rape, their televised hate-spewing forums closed down. However, while political pundits accused of defaming the president are being hauled off to court, haters cloaked in religious garb are being given a free rein in Egypt. Faraeen TV, owned by Tawfiq Okasha, has been permanently removed from air while Egypt’s answer to Jon Stewart, satirist Bassem Yousuf, has been dragged to court for hugging a pillow embossed with the president’s face.

Preachers issuing frivolous fatwas—because they disagree with someone’s political views—or rubber stamping the sexual abuse of women who are eager to play their part in their nation’s transformation, are far more dangerous than those who legitimately critique a government’s missteps. Moreover, such bigots, misogynists and assassination merchants have forfeited the right to call themselves Men of God and should be held to account for misrepresenting the very religion they claim to cherish.

In the final analysis, politics and religion are like oil and water in countries with populations owing allegiance to diverse faiths, ideologies and sectarian beliefs. Certainly, democracy cannot flourish when political pluralism and personal freedoms are its core staples. Faith can be democracy’s guiding light, but when and if it becomes an all-encompassing dynamic concept, democracy is annihilated to make way for theocracy. Tunisia and Egypt are currently tangoing between the two on the same path to destruction that is tragically consuming Iraq.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at heardonthegrapevines@yahoo.co.uk.

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