Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Securitising religion in Egypt and Russia

Is Sisi borrowing ideas from Putin?

By Brian Whitaker


A few days ago I wrote about a newly-emerging concept in Sisi's Egypt: the concept of "faith security". In essence this means suppressing unorthodox religious ideas in the name of security or the "protection" of society. It also harnesses al-Azhar, Egypt's supreme religious authority, in the service of the security apparatus.
"Faith security" in Egypt's case obviously includes suppressing violent religious elements along with Sisi's political foe, the Muslim Brotherhood, but – as evidenced by the recent blasphemy trial of TV presenter Islam el-Beheiry – it also means preventing challenges to orthodox belief from a liberal or rationalist perspective. In the words of al-Azhar, said without any hint of irony, it means not allowing people to "question what is certain [sic] in religion". 
In a tweet yesterday, Scott Long drew my attention to some fascinating parallels between "faith security" in Sisi's Egypt and the more developed concept of "spiritual security" (dukhovnaya bezopasnost) in Putin's Russia, where the Russian Orthodox Church plays a similar role to what Sisi seems to intend for al-Azhar.
In Russia, the special relationship between the Orthodox Church and the security apparatus was sealed at a symbolic ceremony in 2002 when a church was consecrated at the Lubianka headquarters of the KGB's successor, the Federal Security Bureau, which included an exchange of gifts between the Orthodox patriarch and the director of federal security.
The term "spiritual security" first appeared in a Russian newspaper in 1996 and the process of implementing it is said to have started a year later with the passing of Boris Yeltsin's misleadingly-named Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations. The background to that appears to have been moral panic about an alleged flood of foreign missionaries waging a "war for souls" in Russia after the collapse of the old Soviet Union. This was accompanied by dire warnings about "spiritual colonisers" and "totalitarian sects". 
Russia's "spiritual security" effort has not attracted much attention in the west but it has certainly taken hold in Russia and, as Julie Elkner says in an essay on the subject, is "increasingly being invoked by a range of political actors in a range of contexts":
"The Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church makes frequent reference to the concept, and the Russian Orthodox University's Law Faculty has instituted a course in 'Spiritual Security'. 
"Spiritual security has become an academic buzzword, presumably useful for securing the allocation of state funding for related research, and it has been the subject of discussions of school curriculum policy. 
"Paradoxically enough, the Communist Party has also taken up the notion of spiritual security as part of its ideological arsenal - in June 2003, for example, it was a Communist Party initiative that led to Russian parliamentary hearings being held on spiritual security.
"The new ideologues of spiritual security are also taking their cue from the Kremlin. Spiritual security is treated as an important subset of national security in a number of official policy documents adopted by Putin, including the National Security Concept of the Russian Federation ..."
A section in the National Security Concept, which was adopted in 2000, states:
"Assurance of the Russian Federation's national security also includes protecting the cultural and spiritual-moral legacy and the historical traditions and standards of public life ... There must be a state policy to maintain the population's spiritual and moral welfare ... and counter the adverse impact of foreign religious organisations and missionaries."
The result is a symbiotic relationship between church and security apparatus. The church gets protected from unwelcome competitors while the FSB security service is able, in Elkner's word, to "sacralise" itself. Elkner notes that for most Soviet citizens the Lubianka headquarters of the secret police was synonymous with terror but in embracing "spirital security" the FSB is seeking to erase that:
"Since the late 1990s, references to 'spirituality' have proliferated in FSB public relations materials. One of the key figures here has been Colonel Vasilii Stavitskii. During his tenure as head of FSB public relations in 1999-2001, Stavitskii published several volumes of poetry with a strong 'spiritual' bent, including Secrets of the Soul (1999); Light a Candle Mamma (1999), a book of 'spiritual-patriotic' poems for children; and Constellation of Love: Selected Verse (2000). Many of Stavitskii's poems have been set to music and produced as CDs, and are reportedly an obligatory feature of the entertainment at FSB functions ...
"Stavitskii's writings highlight the disturbing ways in which a resurgent cult of the secret police in Putin's Russia is intertwined with issues of spirituality. The danger is that by cloaking itself in spiritual rhetoric, the FSB will not only attain moral respectability, but will effectively place itself beyond the reach of any legitimate criticism, scrutiny or control."
Further reading:
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Tuesday, 9 June 2015  

No comments: