Egyptian Muslim clerics join a demonstration on February 1, 20 at Cairo s Tahrir Square as massive tides of protesters flooded Cairo for the biggest outpouring of anger yet in their relentless drive to oust President Hosni Mubarak’s regime. LONGARI/Getty Image
Mass demonstrations for democracy have spread overnight from Tunisia to Egypt to Jordan and throughout the Muslim world in ways that parallel a similar spread of liberation movements in Latin America a generation ago. Democracy toppled dictators and military juntas in countries like Brazil, Nicaragua and El Salvador once the post-Vatican II theology of liberation became the logic for mobilizing the public towards revolution. When I read that last week’s mass protests in Cairo began after worshipers poured out of mosques after Friday services and marched into the streets to demand democracy, I thought there might be parallels with Latin American religion. I asked a knowledgeable Muslim, “Is this a theology of liberation for Islam?” He answered, “Islam IS a theology of liberation.” Here’s how Muslim liberation theology differs from Catholicism’s.
Islam’s central premise for politics teaches that governments should be led by persons who are righteous. A government will be good when it is run by good Muslims. In that sense, every political change within Islam is also a religious change. By focusing on the faith of the politician, Islamic theology leaves little room to examine political systems. Obviously, Catholic America would prefer a saint to a scoundrel in the White House, but our theology of political change is fundamentally different from Muslim approaches. All Catholic political theology in general and Latin American liberation theology in particular is critical of the system, rather than of the politician.
Catholic tradition has traditionally applied the Just War theory to legitimate revolt against a tyrannical government. But in the 1970s we theologians of liberation* added a new analysis of how modern social structures are used to mask injustice and perpetuate oppression. A ruler like Somoza in Nicaragua or Jaruzelski in Poland – or Mubarak in Egypt — may hold elections so that he cannot be called a “dictator” in a strict sense. But the people live under a virtual dictatorship because the electoral system is rigged.
As the new theology of the 70s empowered Catholics to apply systematic analysis, we injected a moral dimension in political activity directed against an unjust regime. While Pope John Paul II was critical of aspects of liberation theology in Latin America, he applied its basic principles to his native Poland. Without trying to unravel this apparent contradiction of John Paul II, let us look at the same result on different continents: Catholic participation in bringing down unjust governments.
Islam’s theology of political liberation developed quite differently than Christianity’s. The Muslim approach of government-by-only-the-righteous may perhaps be traced to Islam’s origins. During their rapid rise to power as an empire, Muslims did not suffer centuries of oppression as a minority under the thumb of an alien ruler. Christianity, on the other hand, began as a religion persecuted for nearly three centuries by the Roman Empire. Needless to add, Jews have suffered as a minority for millennia. Those periods of minority status shaped a Jewish and Christian theology of living under governments that do not share your religious principles.
But while Islam did not need to differentiate political structures from politicians in the past, the present day is making new demands. While I am skeptical of the theological tools Muslims currently access, I am optimistic that new ones will emerge. To use one writer/theologian as an example of new things taking shape, I would cite the works of Tariq Ramadan. The Swiss theologian neither rushes to conform to contemporary secularism nor to adopt the rigid fundamentalism of the clash of civilizations school.
I don’t agree with all of Professor Ramadan’s opinions, but what I find significant is his openness to refashion the Muslim theological tools of interpretation. Much as we theologians of liberation reexamined the traditional theory of the Just War and made new applications to modern circumstances, Ramadan is developing a new interpretative key for an ancient faith. If the professor can connect with like-minded Muslim theologians instead of wasting time in side-shows with celebrities like Christopher Hitchens the final result of Egypt’s demonstrations may yet become historic.
*I was one of the theologians invited to the first conference of Theology in the Americas in 1975 that brought together Latin American and North American theologians.