AMERICAN IN ARABIA: To Pray or Not to Pray in Parliament, from Cairo to London
- A 2012 parliamentary session in Cairo.1 of 2
- UK's parliament is replete with Christianity.2 of 2
As people get hot in the mouth, protesting the right to pray in parliament in both Egypt and the UK, respectively, this month, Al Bawaba sees fit to cast an editorial eye at this contrasting but similar state of religious affairs. Inviting Brett Weer to give his two cents on this corresponding religious-secular debate, unfolding in the very same week in London and Cairo, Al Bawaba looks back at the dramatic fortnight in Anglo-Arab rites of governmental passage.
Recently there have been two uncannily parallel arguments in the halls of government in England and also in Egypt; should those MPs be allowed to pray in parliament. Or more accurately, should prayer have any place in the (secular) space of state affairs. The Brits want to get rid of the prayer and the Egyptians, maybe none more than the Islamist members, want to introduce it. One Salafi even took the initiative and performed the ‘call to prayer’ unsolicited within parliamentary chambers.
Announcing that it was ‘prayer’-o’clock during Egypt’s parliament raised quite a ruckus: a storm of indignation and distinct disassociation from this improper ‘private’ act. That the UK was considering banning already routinely included prayers from parliamentary sessions upset some of the British faithful or even traditionalists.
There were no two ways about the way that Egypt’s Speaker dealt with the incident, dismissing it as having no place in government, insisting that it should instead remain the preserve of the mosque. The 'offending' MP who was interrupted from reciting the 'Azan' (Muslim call to worshippers to 'hasten' to prayer) was told in no certain terms to 'shut up', and essentially take his religious affairs to a mosque : ”There is a mosque outside if you want." Said the Speaker to the Salafist.
Prayers will not be axed from the start of Britian's parliamentary sessions despite a controversial court ruling banning them in town halls, the Speaker has vowed. In stark contrast to the Egyptian secular speaker, here the Speaker was staunchly in favor of keeping the religious ingredient alive in UK rites and rituals of the state.
The Salafists' defense or plea to pray, in rejoinder to this rude dismissal, was to protest that they were not in a Christian state (i.e. they cited, the Vatican) and should freely be allowed to strictly observe prayers on schedule, whatever affairs they were partaking in when prayer times struck (or were ‘called’). Observant Muslims pray at intervals five times a day and have (comparable to the Church bell peal) a sung announcement to remind or summon them to prayer in accordance to the prescribed schedule.
A parliamentary storm in a, suitably British, tea-cup.
The UK, no stranger to pomp and ceremony in royal affairs as well as deeply entrenched in Whitehall, was confident that no such ban could pass, due to the force of tradition. Parliament still houses residual Christian practices in its government agenda. While rooted in religion, this government prayer ceremony preceding parliamentary sittings has seeped into cultural heritage. Hence its scrapping would upset more than than just the (dwindling) religious faithful of the UK. John Bercow insisted that laws dating back to 1689 mean any attempt to end the prayers in the Commons would fail. Sessions in both Houses begin with prayers. These follow the Christian faith only, but attendance is voluntary. The tradition appeared to be under threat following a landmark High Court judgment that outlawed formal acts of prayer at council (or local government) meetings. An atheist local councilor precipitated the debate and local or municipality prayer ban when he brought a case, speared by the National Secular Society, against a local council in Devon. He claimed to have felt disenfrahchised by the prayer ingredient to meeting proceedings. "Embarrassed and disadvantaged." What of the Copts in Egypt’s parliament (or indeed the non-practicing Muslim contingent, for whom prayer or faith was a private act relegated to the home)?
American in Arabia's Answer
For some, this debate of the right to pray freely (but forceably during state halls and sittings) is a matter of extreme importance and they have a very absolute answer --- either yes unconditionally or an unequivocal no. Perhaps this whole issue can be avoided if we ask a deeper question: Does God really want to be associated with the actions that occur within those meetings?
Perhaps prayer before a governmental gathering is akin to an opera singer opening a boxing match: it sounds good but is in stark contrast to the gratuitous actions that are about to take place. Ideally yes, beginning a meeting with a reverence towards one’s Creator would rouse in people their duty to honor Him and His creation, and potentially strike a sense of honor or duty into proceeding with added religious gravitas. In reality, it routinely plays out as an obligatory supplication to the Almighty for a blessing upon the affairs about to unfold (in our parliament scenario, politicians meeting to agree over special interests and marginalizing the already marginalized.)
Could we promote another ceremony at parliament that will not step on any religious toes but will, in the end, best represent the will of the higher power? How about globally, in every governmental session they read one of the 30 articles of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document agreed upon by all the countries of the United Nations.
The values such as right to equality which are included in the declaration would be embraced by the Copts in Egypt, the Shi’ite in Saudi or the Alawites of Syria. If we sear into the legislators’ consciences the inherent right of all people to be free of incarceration without charge, while endowed with the right to a nationality and the right, nay, the duty to express personal opinions, it will lead to more prayer. With more liberty, their constituents will be in the mood to beseech and praise, either at home or work. And should that place of work be ‘government’, then the strict segregation of religion with state is for each nation to rule upon individually.
In the recent month, three Indian politicians were caught watching pornography on their phones during a parliamentary meeting. One tried to use the excuse that he was researching a rape case that was going to be brought up later in the session. We can’t help but wonder if Article 5 was read, ‘No one has to be subject to degrading punishment”, he wouldn’t have had to do the 'research' that has led to his termination as a representative of the people. Agreed? And everyone said, ‘Amen”.
By Brett Weer