1.1 In the new Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists are the targets of a broad and massively popular campaign of arrest, exclusion and vilification, it's fashionable to repeat the old mantra of the Egyptian security state that religion and politics either are or should be separate domains of human activity. Many of those who argue this case oppose the formation of political parties with overtly religious or sectarian agendas. The arguments in favour of this position include the following:
1.2.1 Religion and politics do not mix because religion is about a human being's relationship with God and with other human beings at the individual, personal level, and not about the way society at large or the formal state is structured and managed. God and/or the founders of Islam (or any other religion) never intended their ideas to be the blueprint for any political agenda.
1.2.2 Religion and politics do not mix because giving religion a place in politics empowers the traditional arbiters of religious orthodoxy, who are mostly a group of reactionary, misogynistic, intolerant and puritanical men out of touch with the 'modern' world and the needs and desires of ordinary people.
1.2.3 Religion and politics do not mix because giving religious hierarchies a political role could be undemocratic because they might intervene in political decisions or legislative deliberations on the basis of their understanding of God's will, in contravention of the popular will as expressed in elections or by other means.
1.2.4 Religion and politics do not mix because political parties that advocate policies based on religion (such as the imposition of some version of Islamic sharia, for example) are socially divisive. Such parties automatically exclude people of other faiths (in the Egyptian case, Christians, Jews, Baha'is, atheists and so on).
1.2.5 Religion and politics do not mix because those who use religious slogans, imagery and other references in their political campaigning have an unfair advantage over those who do not, because these references resonate powerfully with ignorant, ill-educated people (whose votes have the same weight as those of 'more rational' people)
2.1 At first sight, some of these arguments might appear persuasive. They have certainly been common currency in political discourse in Egypt and many other Muslim-majority countries for many decades. The arguments do however imply certain assumptions that advocates might not have thought out thoroughly or articulated in public. These probably include the following:
2.2.1 The assumption that God has no interest in public affairs, that God sees a qualitative difference between caring about those you know and caring about those members of the wider community that you do not know. The implication is that God wants you to be charitable to your neighbour, for example, but He doesn't think you should take a position on whether the state spends your tax money on health care or on palaces for the president. God wants you to settle your differences with your mother-in-law amicably but He doesn't care whether or not your state goes to war with a neighbouring state.
2.2.2. The assumption that the traditional religious hierarchy – monolithic and impervious to change - represents either, at best, an unrealistic ideal that no politician should even seek to attain or implement or, at worst, a misguided and distorted version of the true will of God, that religions make excessive demands on believers and for the sake of expediency it is best to ignore or overrule religious prescriptions that would complicate public life. The Muslim hierarchy condemns interest payments, for example, but the need to be part of a world economy that depends on interest overrides the ban that the hierarchy would like to impose.
2.2.3 The assumption that sectarian identities are rigid, with impermeable barriers, and that it is undesirable to debate differences of opinion on religious matters in public. Under this schema the religious hierarchy cannot be challenged directly: the dissident believer's only recourse is to opt out of the debate.
2.2.4 The assumption that political parties should meet a higher standard of inclusivity than religious groups, which may legitimately restrict their membership or their message to people favourable to a certain ideology.
2.2.5 The assumption that there is a qualitative difference between the political choices made by religious people and those made by non-religious people, and that emotional appeals to abstract non-religious principles or 'values' – such as nationalism, class interest, social justice, liberation from oppression, for example – are more acceptable than appeals to religious sensibility.
3.1 I'm an agnostic, so I cannot rule on the validity of, for example, assumption 2.2.1 (that God has no interest in public affairs) or assumption 2.2.2 (that the religious hierarchy is misguided). But when large numbers of people accept these assumptions it has important implications for the health and smooth functioning of society as a whole, in the following ways:
3.2.1 (in response to assumption 2.2.1) Quietism, the belief that God wants us to withdraw from public life and devote ourselves to prayer and meditation in seclusion, has a place in most religions, certainly Islam and Christianity. But it is the exception rather than the rule. When people in open societies debate public issues with a moral dimension – abortion, for example, or the death penalty, even taxation and national security – their religious beliefs are bound to be factors in the debate. If people choose to take their guidance on these matters from their religious leaders, they should be free to do so. Even if their religious beliefs, as formulated by those leaders, are the sole determinant in the political decisions they take – for example, to vote against easy abortion or stem cell research – they should not feel compelled to 'invent' other, non-religious justifications for their decisions. “The Pope says so” is a good enough reason. People often make political decisions on grounds that might seem trivial or thoughtless to others. In a free society where significant numbers of people hold religious beliefs there is no practical alternative to this approach. To argue that people must put their religious beliefs aside when they take political decisions is an absurdity.
3.2.2 (in response to assumption 2.2.2) The possibility that religious hierarchies will make unrealistic demands on the political choices of believers is real and can lead to tensions in the public sphere. But in practice, even where religious leaders have been given formal roles, in the constitution for example, they have rarely dared to assert themselves politically beyond what the public and politicians will bear. Religious leaders who are also political actors tend to be acutely tuned to the level of public support they can muster. If levels of religious belief decline in society as a whole, religious leaders find it hard to resist making doctrinal concessions designed to keep waverers within their flock. In the end, it is believers who empower religious leaders, not religious leaders who unilaterally impose orthodoxy. If citizens disagree with religious leaders, they must have the courage to speak out, not seek devious ways to silence or marginalize the religious leaders.
3.2.3 (in response to argument 1.2.3) The argument that religious leaders should not be allowed to overrule the will of the people is a strong one, the best of all the reasons cited above. But this represents an extreme case of religious activism in the political sphere. It is in effect an argument against giving religious leaders a veto over political decisions, not an argument for denying them or their followers any voice in political debate.
3.2.4 (in response to assumption 2.2.3) Very few governments continue to impose sectarian identities on their citizens. The governments of majority-Muslim countries are unique in this regard, as far as I am aware. The practice whereby Muslim citizens remain Muslim for life and their children inherit their Muslimness is an outrageous violation of the rights of citizens and should be abolished as soon as possible. Those who advocate maintaining this system while simultaneously advocating the exclusion of religion from politics are hypocrites and/or cowards. Abolition of this system, a vestige of the Ottoman millet system, will automatically make the religious hierarchies more responsive to the beliefs of their followers, who would no longer be a captive audience. It would go some way towards creating a free market-place of ideas, where religions and other ideologies could compete for adherents on a level playing field.
3.2.5 (in response to assumption 2.2.4) There are no objectively valid grounds for discriminating between political parties with religious agendas and those with wholly secular agendas. So many gradations between the two are possible that any conceivable legislation that attempts to discriminate must open the field to subjective and whimsical interpretations of the law, which tend to bring the judicial system into disrepute. Egypt's attempts in this area over the last three years illustrate the impossibility of the task. Some Egyptian advocates of excluding religion from politics continue nonetheless to favour maintaining Islam as the country's state religion. This contradiction undermines their case from the start. For political purposes, religion is just another ideology. If religious rivals want to take their disputes into the political arena they should be free to do so, provided they refrain from violence or incitement to violence, as in any country where the rule of law prevails. In practice, political parties rarely choose to adopt exclusively sectarian agendas, for the reason that they want to win as many votes as possible.
3.2.6 (in response to assumption 2.2.5) Similarly, attempts to exclude religious references from political discourse are doomed to failure and will bring the judicial system into disrepute. To take the simplest example, the old National Democratic Party of Hosni Mubarak, although never actively Islamist, always arranged that its candidates had the crescent moon as their symbol on ballot papers. NDP organizers knew this gave them extra votes because of the positive Islamic associations of the crescent moon. Enforcing a ban on such religious references would require thorough monitoring of all campaign literature and all campaign speeches by all candidates – an unrealistic proposal. Besides, as we discussed in 3.2.1, religious belief is a legitimate factor in political decision-making.
4.1 In conclusion, the proposal to exclude religion from politics is misguided and impractical. Many of those who advocate this approach are likely to be people of vaguely deistic beliefs who want to use the political system and the security state to dilute the power of the religious hierarchies and reduce the electoral impact of the political forces that advocate obedience to those hierarchies. Even if one sympathizes with their long-term goals, one must find fault with their approach, which looks like a quick fix that seeks to achieve their objectives while conveniently avoiding open confrontation with the views they oppose.