Salafis might accept procedural democracy — that is to say the vote and the ballot box — as a means that allows them to attain power. But do they accept the core values of democracy? Do they respect personal freedom, diversity, coexistence and mutual understanding? In this debate with a Salafi friend, Amr Ezzat pinpoints 12 contentious issues that attempt to shed light on conservative Islamist thinking.
1-He told me that the Islamists remained in Tahrir until Mubarak was brought down, but that they did not voice demands for implementing Islamic Sharia or emphasizing the Islamic identity since those demands ran the risk of dividing the protesters and jeopardizing the achievement of the common goal. I told him that we now need to garner a consensus to produce a constitution that expresses the demands of all Egyptians, but that Islamists now insist on incorporating what they declined to declare in the past. “How come you now accuse the others of dividing people?” I asked.
2-He told me that the situation is different now, since we are set to build the nation. And building the nation requires doing what is “right” rather than what receives a consensus. It is right to implement Sharia, which is a necessity for the Muslim majority, he said. I told him that I am counted among this Muslim majority he is speaking about and most of the members and supporters of the political powers are also counted among it, and all of us oppose what he calls for.
3-He told me that a Muslim who does not want Sharia implemented would be an atheist or in need of reviewing his or her beliefs. When I told him to deduct “the atheists” from that majority, he told me that those he calls atheists were only a minority. I called his attention to the result of the presidential election and asked him if he thought those who gave their votes to presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq wanted Sharia implemented, even though the focus of Shafiq’s campaign was evoking horror of the Islamists state, or whether he thought non-Muslims in Egypt were nearing half the population.
4-He told me that in Islam the majority does not necessarily possess the truth because truth is what God sent to his Prophet as understood by the righteous predecessors. He added that democracy contradicts with Islam since it could lead to results that violate this truth. He explained that Islamists accepted democracy because they thought it would bring them to power since the majority of people, they thought, supported the implementation of Sharia. “If the majority does not want Sharia, what would be the case?” I asked. He said that in that event democracy would be an ineffective way to implement Sharia.
5-He told me that democracy is also in contradiction with Islam because it makes “the truth,” which is the basis for making laws, something relative and dependent on lawmakers' discussions and votes. “Thank God those MPs were Muslims!” he said. “But what if they weren't?” I asked. He said in that case democracy would be an ineffective way to implement Sharia. “And in that case what can we do?” I asked. “We will have to look for another way or go back to our mosques,” he said.
6- He then told me that I was manipulating the conversation to evade the truth that the majority wants Sharia. "Is that democracy?" he asked. I told him that he said that in democracies laws are prepared in parliaments following debates and voting, and so MPs could propose whatever bills based on any frame of reference. Attempting to restrict this process in the name of Sharia is a suppression of democracy.
7-He told me that I therefore do not mind the implementation of a law derived from Sharia. I said yes, provided that it safeguards freedom and equality, which forms the basis for collective life in a democratic republic. Also, that law should be discussed to ensure it observes people's interests as they express them. He told me that, like him, I too reject democracy when it goes against my views. I told him that an illustrative example of my point is when some people gather in some place and decide that they are all equal owners of it and that everybody has a right to be different and that collective issues would be decided on through discussion and then a majority vote. When a certain individual proposes that we vote over expelling one of the group who does something that neither benefits nor harms the others, but which they just do not like, would that be right?
8-He thought about it for a while then asked, “what if they expelled him or her?” I said that is why there is a constitution or a preliminary agreement that restricts lesser agreements by safeguarding freedom and equality between people. He asked: "what if they reject to write the constitution this way because they have the intention to kick him out and because they believe there is an absolute truth that rises above the right to freedom and equality?" I told him there is no guarantee for democracy other than the people's agreement, otherwise the more powerful will crush the weaker and violate their freedom and right to equality.
9-He said that I am restricting the wish of a large sector of people who want to be governed by Sharia and what they think is right. I told him that with reference to the first part of our conversation, he had every right to be governed by Sharia and to use it to elicit ideas for politics, administration and the law, but that I reject to have my freedom restricted and to be deprived of a freedom that does not harm him in a direct way just because it violates what he thinks is right. He said that religion calls for such restriction and that by asking for that freedom I would be restricting his adherence to religion. I said "are you saying that I am suppressing your freedom to control my actions in conformance with what you think is right?" He said, "Yes."
10-He asked why I opposed Sharia. I said that to think that your ideas are the words of God and that they constitute the truth is something that has nothing to do with me, for I could contest how far your ideas are expressive of religion or I could have no faith in your religion at all. We both agree that the freedom of creed is absolute and should be safeguarded and that exercising that right does not violate democracy since we are all in search of legislation that achieves the people's interests and ensures their basic rights are protected.
11-He said that those guarantees that pepper my speech would make me, like him, reject democracy if it does not have freedom and equality as a basis for it and that he rejects democracy if it will not be a method to implement Sharia and so we would never agree. I said that he was right since I insist on my freedom and right to equality while he insists on restricting that.
12- He said that conflict was the solution since the power is sometimes needed to establish the truth. He added that Egyptians would have not been Muslims if it weren’t for the Islamic conquest of Egypt. I told him that Egypt has since taken strides to become a democratic republic and that Egypt was entering a new stage where political legitimacy emanates from the masses which did not raise the implementation of Sharia as a demand. He said that they did not want conflict at the beginning. I told him that he wants to use force to establish what he thinks is the truth, away from democratic participation. He said that this was legitimate. I said “do not ask me then why I do not want your understanding of Sharia implemented!”