"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, November 12, 2012

What Kind of Egypt Should Exist?

Among some Coptic Christians, there is an understandable push for a more "secular" Egypt in this post-Mubarak era. Some Copts view this as the way to avoid a totalizing Islamicization of Egypt and the resultant suppression of Christianity in the country. But what would a "secular" Egypt look like? What exactly is secularism anyway? And are Christians so sure it is such a great thing? What about the experience of French Catholics in the aftermath of the "secularizing" French Revolution? Or Russian Orthodox in the aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution? Clearly secularism is not a monolith, nor certainly a panacea. It brings many problems of its own. A new book looks at all these questions: Hussein Ali Agrama, Questioning Secularism: Islam, Sovereignty, and the Rule of Law in Modern Egypt (University of Chicago Press, 2012),288pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:

The central question of the Arab Spring—what democracies should look like in the deeply religious countries of the Middle East—has developed into a vigorous debate over these nations’ secular identities. But what, exactly, is secularism? What has the West’s long familiarity with it inevitably obscured? In Questioning Secularism, Hussein Ali Agrama tackles these questions. Focusing on the fatwa councils and family law courts of Egypt just prior to the revolution, he delves deeply into the meaning of secularism itself and the ambiguities that lie at its heart.
Drawing on a precedent-setting case arising from the family law courts —the last courts in Egypt to use Shari‘a law—Agrama shows that secularism is a historical phenomenon that works through a series of paradoxes that it creates. Digging beneath the perceived differences between the West and Middle East, he highlights secularism’s dependence on the law and the problems that arise from it: the necessary involvement of state sovereign power in managing the private spiritual lives of citizens and the irreducible set of legal ambiguities such a relationship creates. Navigating a complex landscape between private and public domains, Questioning Secularism lays important groundwork for understanding the real meaning of secularism as it affects the real freedoms of a citizenry, an understanding of the utmost importance for so many countries that are now urgently facing new political possibilities.

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