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Where does Islam fit in new Arab governments?

September 30, 2011

The NYT has an important story today about the challenge some Arab states are facing as they transition from totalitarian secular governments to new leadership: What to do with religion. Many Muslim and non-Muslim scholars have long argued that, in Islam, there’s just no concept of separation of church and state (or masjid and state). And indeed, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, some are calling for the government to impose religious taxes, require interest-free banking and censor interfaith dialogue.

But others argue that their countries can still uphold Islamic values without forcing religion. Some scholars are calling this a “post-Islamist” approach. They are holding up Turkey as an example. NYT’s Anthony Shadid and David D. Kirkpatrick write:

The debates are deep enough that many in the region believe that the most important struggles may no longer occur between Islamists and secularists, but rather among the Islamists themselves, pitting the more puritanical against the more liberal.

In Egypt, an aspiring leader is looking for something “in between” Islamist and secular.

Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fotouh, a former Muslim Brotherhood leader who is running for president in Egypt, has joined several new breakaway political parties in arguing that the state should avoid interpreting or enforcing Islamic law, regulating religious taxes or barring a person from running for president based on gender or religion.

Which makes sense to me. But the quote at the very end of the piece highlights the very real struggle to sort out the place of religion in a democracy. This is something you might expect to hear from a conservative Christian in the U.S.

“Is democracy the voice of the majority?” asked Mohammed Nadi, a 26-year-old student at a recent Salafist protest in Cairo. “We as Islamists are the majority. Why do they want to impose on us the views of the minorities — the liberals and the secularists? That’s all I want to know.”

 

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