It is often acknowledged that Christian tradition in what we commonly call ‘the West’ was transformed after the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian: what had been a subversive and marginalised practice originating with a poor man at the insignificant edge of the Roman Empire became part of the imperial power structures. This intimate connection of Christian belief with the exercise of power persists: think, for example, of Anglican bishops exercising power in the British House of Lords (even that connection with lords is deeply problematic for many). Christian complicity with power has often been criticised for underpinning patriarchy, colonialism, racism and other forms of oppression. Stanley Hauerwas and others describe this as ‘Constantinian Christianity’.
One of the consequences of Constantinian Christianity is what we might call the privatisation of belief, by which I here mean that only forms of practice supportive of existing power structures can take place in the public sphere, whereas practices that might question such power are repressed and consigned to the private sphere. For example, whilst in Britain both Houses of Parliament are routinely opened with prayer, attempts to engage in prayers of protest outside nuclear submarine bases often result in arrests. Such connections with power – and resistance to it – manifest themselves in other contexts too, as we have had the opportunity to witness these last few days in Egypt. Egypt’s revolution has not been an ‘Islamic revolution’, but Islam has been used by some protesters as a powerful tool to subvert the dominant paradigm.
Though direct comparisons between ‘Constantinian Christianity’ and the situation in Egypt are extremely problematic (as I’ll explain below), it is not unreasonable to note the ‘Constantinian’ nature of Mubarak’s regime, which, building on measures by his predecessors Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdul Nasser, sought to control every area of public life, including the mosque and the church. For example: Ahmed al Tayeb, the head of Al Azhar, one of the world’s premier institutions of Sunni scholarship, was a loyal Mubarak supporter and senior member of the National Democratic Party (none of the three claimed attributes in that name were in any way connected to reality), and both Tayeb and his predecessor, Sheikh Mohammad Sayed Tantawi, had been appointed by the president, resulting almost automatically in a certain measure of complicity with the regime.
Despite these factors, after the internet in Egypt was turned on again after several days of disconnection, reflections on resistance from within Al Azhar began to emerge. This short text regarding an appropriate response to the protests is clear about the way in which Muslims could respond to the protests:
A person may ask “How can we help them when some of them (who are protesting) are not religious?”
The principles of this religion, particularly enjoining the good and forbidding the evil, proves that we should be in the aid of anyone who works towards establishing a good or eradicating an evil, even if they are corrupt themselves. This is because we all, collectively, are included in the statement of Allah: “And cooperate in righteousness and piety, but do not cooperate in sin and aggression.” (Qur’an, 5:2)
The revolution has been notable for the diversity of the participants, but resistance has at times incorporated Muslim practice, perhaps building on opinions such as that from Sheikh Muhammad Abdul Maqsood quoted here. This video clip of protesters in Cairo overcoming the armed security services is well worth watching to the end (it’s just under 10 minutes long). Note the use of prayer beginning at about 3:25: even though the might of the forces railed against the protesters (including the violence of the water cannon) may have led them to feel a need for prayer, in this setting it is anything but a ‘privatised’ action. It is a performative act that serves to temper the aggression of the security forces who are directly facing the praying protesters, even as they are being attacked by the water cannon. Towards the end of the video, from about 8:15 onwards, the protesters successfully take the bridge, and many of them engage in renewed prayer.
For those seeking to compare Christian and Muslim prayer using examples such as these, many traps await, from Orientalism and racism, to methodological dead ends and intellectual dishonesty. The suggestion that we can equate what Christian and Muslim prayer means and does in these contexts is far from helpful in trying to understand what is taking place here. The parallels we can observe centre most dramatically on the extent to which these power structures seek to claim for themselves hegemony over all areas of life, and the creative ways in which such claims might be subverted. Whilst in no way seeking to diminish the power of the prayer for the participants, the performative nature of the Cairo protest perhaps works because the security forces recognise what is happening and it undermines the connection between the power they represent and the (supposedly) privatised practice that Muslims are expected to engage in. We are likely to understand such situations more readily by examining the social and political pressures involved for both the protesters and the security forces, rather than seeking to make broad statements equating Christian and Muslim beliefs and practices.