- The Challenge of Political Islam: Non-Muslims and the Egyptian State
There could hardly be a more appropriate time than now to read Rachel M. Scott’s book The Challenge of Political Islam: Non-Muslims and the Egyptian State. In the wake of the revolution of 25 January 2011 that has shaken Egypt’s political order in a way not seen for decades, the questions Scott raises about how Egyptian intellectuals conceive of citizenship and difference are precisely those pressing on Egyptians’ minds. In February, the Egyptian military demolished a wall erected at an Egyptian monastery in Wadi al-Natrun: while the army claimed that the wall was built on state land and without the necessary permission of the authorities, Coptic Christians pointed to the incident as an unnecessary provocation, not least given that six monastery staff were injured during the demolition. Shortly thereafter, the murder of a priest in the Asyut governorate and the destruction of a church in the Hilwan governorate raised concerns about the reemergence of sectarian violence on Egyptian soil. Such incidents prompted a divide among Egyptians that was visible in the streets: two thousand Copts gathered in Tahrir Square on 23 February in protest, and by early March, a Coptic sit-in had brought to a halt all traffic in front of the Radio and Television Building in downtown Cairo.
In a historical moment like the one Egyptians are now living through, during which a whole range of previously unforeseen possibilities appear “on the table,” so to speak, Scott’s book is an invaluable guide to the existing intellectual landscape, particularly regarding currently noteworthy figures such as Tariq al-Bishri (the head of the committee [End Page 669] whose amendments to the constitution were approved by referendum), as well as Isam al-Aryan and Abd al-Munim Abu al-Futuh (both prominent Muslim Brotherhood figures currently vying for political influence). Al-Bishri, al-Aryan, and Abu al-Futuh are all connected to what Scott terms the Wasatiyya intellectual trend in Islamist thought. The Arabic term wasat means “center,” hence the use of the term wasatiyya to connote the centrist or moderate wing of the Islamist intellectual spectrum. Although Scott’s introduction promises an examination of “how Islamists are framing discussions of democracy and citizenship” (4), the book draws particular attention to the thought of Islamists in this Wasatiyya trend, four of whom she has selected for close analysis—Muhammad Salim al-Awwa, Fahmi Huwaydi, al-Bishri, and Muhammad Imara. The book’s narrative suggests that there is good reason to focus on such moderate Islamists, for owing in no small part to their efforts in reshaping the intellectual landscape, “citizenship is no longer considered an imported secular ideology but has gained legitimacy within the Islamist framework” (146).
The thought of these Wasatiyya intellectuals is presented in detail in the book’s second half, after chapters addressing the status of non-Muslims in “classical Islam” and, specifically, the dhimma (a contract that accorded Christians and Jews protection in exchange for the jizya, or poll tax); the rise of Islamism in Egypt; and Egyptian state attitudes to non-Muslims. Although these initial chapters provide important background for Scott’s discussion of the Wasatiyya intellectuals and their conceptions of citizenship and difference, I question, in retrospect, whether quite so much contextualization was necessary. While elegantly presented and well written, chapters 1–4 present material that is already familiar to observers of political Islam and Christian-Muslim relations in Egypt. Their principal virtue may rest in assimilating recent developments into these familiar debates, as for instance with the controversies surrounding the 2007 Muslim Brotherhood platform and its focus on the role of the clergy (61–62) and the 2009 state slaughter of swine against the wishes of Coptic farmers (82).
The book’s greatest strength and contribution to the literature is found in chapters 5–6, titled “Towards Citizenship” and “Citizenship in an Islamic State,” respectively. In these forty-four pages, Scott furnishes a keenly observed...