Egypt & India: Dangerous hidden ideologies

Religious leaders and their followers exploit religion to control people. Photo: Hindutva activist (Facebook)

INDIA, October 13, 2013 — The Middle East provides a fascinating look at faith and the ways people practice it. Some countries like the UAE and other Gulf states allow people to freely practice their faith, even as they seek to preserve their Islamic way of life without forcing it on anyone. The only thing they expect from you is respect for their customs. If you want to know more they will gladly teach you.

There are also intolerant countries like Saudi Arabia, where there is no freedom of worship. The Saudis aggressively promote Wahhabism wherever they can impose it or get away with it.

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Even a casual observer of the way religion works in different parts of the world cannot miss how religious leaders and their followers exploit religion to control people. Followers are indoctrinated to believe they must force people to believe as they do, and a glance at the world map shows where religion is used to intimidate rather than give people the freedom to believe as they choose.

Egypt is symptomatic of any people who believe their freedom can be obtained by installing the right political system without giving any thought to the basic freedoms they deny each other in the most fundamental aspect of human life – the right of every individual to think and believe in God freely, without any compulsion or intimidation.

Over the last two years, a preponderance of Egyptians realized they made a mistake in electing the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood. With India’s elections next year, Indians need to carefully decide who they will bring into power and avoid making the wrong choice.

Politics based on the false premise that a society can be forced to change by an ideology ignores enough historical precedents that people must be willing to change first.

SEE RELATED: Egypt and the Middle East: Still major problems for Obama

People may be outwardly religious, but, it does not take much to figure out that religion has made little difference in all societies. It is a curious fact that no religious ideology has transformed any society, yet they all have fanatic adherents. Islamist religious militancy in places like the Middle East is matched by Hindutva in India, which after lying low for a period is being resurrected for risky political advantage. In the upcoming 2014 elections the Hindu fundamentalist group, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with its shadowy mentor the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is strategically playing the religious ideology card.

In Egypt, after democratically electing the Freedom & Justice Party, (aka The Muslim Brotherhood) Egyptians toppled that government for having a hidden agenda and not delivering on its promises of development. Was it illegal or was it the will of the country? Is the Western media right in terming it a coup? Teetering between regression to Hosni Mubarak-era autocracy and civil war what will happen to Egypt, which is now in absolute crisis? Whatever the case, the fact is like most societies, Egyptians fell prey to a political illusion. French political writer Jacques Ellul wrote in his book The Political Illusion, 25 years ago, that modern people believe politics can solve all their problems and idol worship a political ideology.

What happened in Egypt is a decades-long struggle over the nation’s identity between two authoritarian forces seeking power, the Islamists and a secular military state. With 84 million people, Egypt is the Arab world’s most populous nation. It won its independence from Britain after Gamal Abdel Nasser led a 1952 revolution. The Egyptian army from the beginning was against the Muslim Brotherhood, a growing and often violent underground Islamist movement. The Brotherhood exported its vision across the Middle East, concurrently co-opted and persecuted by successive military leaders in Egypt inclined to western secular influence.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Hindutva forces in India have a lot in common. Both have blood on their hands against minorities and strategically employ religious ideology controlling powerful political parties. Significant numbers of Egyptians want an Islamic state, so too many Indians hanker for a Hindu state. They disregard the fact that India is the home of the world’s second-largest Muslim population (about 200 million) comprising nearly 15% of India’s total population, besides Sikhs, Christians, etc. In Egypt, Coptic Christians who comprise ten per cent of the population are persecuted by the Muslim Brotherhood. Not surprisingly, they welcomed last month’s military coup that deposed Islamist President Morsi.

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Journalist Hugh Miles, contributing editor of Arab Media and Society, and author of Playing Cards In Cairo points out, “Islamism has become extremely popular, and what we’re really seeing now in Egypt is a clash between people who want Islam as their frame of reference, against people who want a more secular kind of European-style frame of reference,” Miles told RT, the first Russian 24/7 English-language news channel. “And that’s a very fundamental divide. It divides families and it divides Egypt. Probably, roughly half-and-half is the best guess.”

That assessment could probably apply to India on more or less the same basis.

Egypt has one of the longest records of trying to modernize in the Middle East. If a new Egypt arises out of the present situation, will its religious minorities feel secure since they don’t belong to the dominant religion in the country? On-going clashes between Muslims and Christians suggest they won’t, but the majority of Egyptians were unconcerned when they elected Morsi, and changed their minds only after it became clear his fundamentalist agenda took priority over development.

According to Yustina Saleh, a PhD in Political Science from Rutgers University, the concept of freedom of religious belief in Egypt is not as absolute as in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948. She argues  that the Egyptian Constitution, while offering protection of human rights and the right of freedom of belief, retains a significant escape clause - the subordination of Egyptian legislation to the Islamic Shari ’a - which can override those rights.

Indians ought to take note from several historical precedents. Wherever a majority community or political party, the clergy or a ruler employs religion to intimidate its own people, that country’s governance is based on pursuing an illusion, not real freedom.

Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s blunt message to Pakistan applies to any country. “It’s like that old story,” she warned Islamabad, “you can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbours. Eventually those snakes are going to turn on whoever has them in their backyard.”

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Frank Raj

Middle East and India based Frank Raj is the founding editor and publisher of ‘The International Indian’, the oldest magazine of Gulf-Indian society and history since 1992. He is listed in Arabian Business magazine’s 100 most influential Indians in the Gulf and is co-author of the upcoming publication ‘Universal Book of the Scriptures.’ He blogs at


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