First posted on my short-lived blog Tharwalizations.
In a conference on civil dialogue that took place a few years ago, participants discussed the possibility of conducting a serious dialogue between Islamists and secularists. I remember that, at the time and in response to an Egyptian colleague who advocated dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood in his country, we coined the term “Copts, Women and Beer” to reefer to three main issues that one needs to deal with, which are: diversity issues, gender issues and privacy issue.
But perhaps, the three issues boil down to one thing really: the issue of boundaries and intersections between the public and private spheres. For so long as Islamist tend to expand the boundaries of the former at the expense of the latter, secularists will have a major problem. The slogan “the Quran is our constitution” is not the problem in itself. The problem is in how the Islamists tend to define the pronoun “our.”
Their tendency to include in this “our” of theirs all the citizens of Egypt, not to mention what they would describe as the Muslims World takes away the element of free choice from the formula, as those who don’t believe in the slogan of the Brotherhood find themselves included in this “our,” whether they like it or not. This does not create much room for establishing common grounds.
For this reason, all dialogue that has so far taken place between Egyptian Islamists and secularists tended to be of a tactical nature. The real issues separating the two sides have never been seriously dealt with. Meanwhile, freedom of conscience, despite statements to the contrary, remains unacknowledged by all major Islamist groups. For when one moves beyond the general affirmation towards the discussion of specific issues related to “Copts, women and beer,” that is, to issues of diversity, gender and privacy, specific objections voiced by the Islamists tend to belie any commitment to the general principle of freedom.
Unless ways are found to commit those Islamists that present themselves as moderate to certain clear public stands on such “details,” no dialogue between Islamists and secularists could be considered viable , and no agreement could be expected to prove lasting.