01/16/2012, 00.00
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Al-Azhar in defense of democracy and religious freedom

by Samir Khalil Samir
The Sunni University, a guide for the World Islamic world, offers some guidelines for the world born after the "Arab spring" on human rights, religious freedom, freedom of scientific and artistic research. This attempt to modernize the Muslim view on these issues has also been supported by the Christian Churches of Egypt.
Beirut (AsiaNews) - In recent days, the Islamic university of Al-Azhar has issued a "document on the fundamental freedoms", to provide guidance on the new Egyptian company founded by the "Arab Spring". In it, it defends freedom of religion, of opinion, of scientific research and artistic creativity. This is the second paper presented by Al-Azhar University to the nation. The first was presented on June 11th and is titled: "Recommendations for the future of Egypt."

Everything was created by the new rector al-Tayyeb, who, as it is known, studied in Paris and at the Sorbonne. He is trying to give the university of Al-Azhar a bit of independence. Since the time of Nasser, that is, for almost 60 years, the university has remained under the control of the Egyptian government. In this way its financial support was assured, but as the spokesperson of Islam in Egypt, it lost importance in the Islamic world. Now the university wants to go back to being the spokesperson for the World of Islam - a moderate form of Islam - as in the past occurred in the early twentieth century.

In this regard, the president has chosen a few collaborators, led by Mahmoud Azab, a known personality and former professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the Institute of Oriental Languages in Paris, who arrived in Egypt a year ago; he is now the head of cultural and religious dialogue [1].

This professor is a friend of mine, and was even my student when I taught Arab Christian philosophy at the University of Cairo. After the Arab Spring in Egypt, he sought ways to dialogue with the Islamists and the laity, to create a bridge between the religious leaders of Al-Azhar and the lay intellectuals and others.

On 11 June they submitted the first document, "Recommendations for the future of Egypt", summarized in 11 points.
For the future of Egypt
The first point highlights "One national constitutional and democratic
state; equality for all citizens; Sharia as one of the sources of legislation". Note that the official translation of the document, made by the government, instead of "one source", states that Sharia is "the source" of law. In this sense, government and the military seem to be more Islamist than Al-Azhar.

The second point regards "universal suffrage and freedom of information".
The third is "fundamental freedom of thought and opinion; human rights for men, women, children; diversity; citizenship, the only criterion of responsibility within society"[2].
The fourth is the "spirit of dialogue and mutual respect in the relationship between the different components of the nation."
The fifth is the "respect for international agreements (implied: the agreement with Israel and other countries)."
The sixth: "Respect for the dignity of the Egyptian nation (against abuse by police and the army)."
The seventh is the "progress in teaching and scientific research."
The eighth is "priorities of development and social justice, against corruption and unemployment."
The ninth, "solid ties between Egypt and the Arab countries";
The tenth, "Independence of the institution of Al-Azhar" (in response to Islamists and Salafists who accuse it of complicity with national powers).
And finally the eleventh: "Al-Azhar is the only competent entity regarding Islamic affairs." With this claim they want to not only be independent from government, but also to be the only ones who can speak for Islam (in response to Islamists and Salafists). Now in the Muslim world each group claims to be the voice of Islam, creating confusion and conflicts in the Umma.

The government has welcomed the document, and a positive response also came from the liberal parties and Islamists: it is an attempt to devise a joint project to build the new Egypt. For the writing of the document, a number of intellectuals were invited; Coptic Orthodox, Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans were also present.

It will take some time to measure the impact it will have, because, to my amazement, this document has not had a major impact.
The fundamental freedoms
The text published last week ("Document on the fundamental freedoms") is not widely known: my friends in Cairo knew little about it; a university professor, engaged in politics, did not even have the text. The publicizing of the document has been done rather by some Western journalists.

This second text, officially published on 8 January of this year, but released a few days later, was made by Al-Azhar but also obtained the approval of the Christian Churches, as well as the various Islamic groups. Only the group of so-called "Christians of Maspero" did not approve it. They consider it a good document, but would like to see these perspectives emerge from the whole nation and not only from Al-Azhar.

In any case, the document has a great value because Al-Azhar is an authority in Islam. It is an institution in a country - Egypt - which is 90% Sunni: when Al-Azhar speaks, everyone listens.

In the past, Al-Azhar was frowned upon by the laity. But this document, while not denying a Muslim foundation, remains open to the forces of modernity, so I think it will be able to garner a unanimous feeling within the country. Christians, for their part, have seen that this document is the best one can get in the current situation and for this reason have approved it.

The long text of this second document consists of 4 points:
1) Freedom of faith;
2) Freedom of opinion and expression;
3) Freedom of scientific research;
4) Freedom of artistic and literary creation
Islam in support of scientific and artistic research
In the third and fourth point they tried to speak to the intellectuals. In particular, in the third point, they remind readers that once Islam was at the forefront of scientific research, but today only the West is creative in this field, together with Japan, Korea, China, India. For this reason it is time to awaken the Islamic world and contribute to scientific research.

The fourth is to push for greater artistic creativity in the Arab world, promoting the use of language. It emphasizes the importance of leaving each artist and intellectual free to express themselves, placing as the only limit - mentioned here and there - "that they do not offend the religious sensibilities of the people." Where by "religious sensitivities" they mean the sensibilities of the members of the "three revealed religions", i.e. Islam, Christianity, Judaism.

In these two points one sees a criticism of the West (the affair of the Danish cartoons against Mohammed is still alive [3]). This attitude of criticizing religion should not enter into the freedom of artists. In this, the Islamic concept of freedom is different from the West. But it should be appreciated that in an Islamic country there is being emphasized the fact that not even the other two "revealed" or "heavenly" religions, i.e., Christianity and Judaism, should be offended.

Of course, there remains the problem of images of the prophet Muhammad. According to the purest Islamists, Islam should not portray the prophet or men, although it may depict plants, animals, etc. In contrast, many Muslim intellectuals recall that the entire Persian, Turkish, or Indian traditions (the period of the Mughals), depict humans and Muhammad himself.
Introduction: Agreement between Sharia law and human rights
The key part of the new document is found in the introduction and the first two points.

In the introduction, it states that it is necessary to "find a relationship between the global principles of Islamic Sharia law with fundamental freedoms": what is sought therefore is a harmony between the principles of Sharia law and fundamental human rights, "approved by all international agreements that represent the civilizing experience of the Egyptian people. " In practice, Al-Azhar University recognizes the value of the UN charter on human rights. And according to the document, these rights are: freedom of belief, freedom of expression, freedom of scientific research, artistic freedom.

It is interesting to note that the document always speaks of "the principles of Sharia" or the "goals (maqâsid) of Sharia." The Islamic canonists of the Middle Ages distinguished between the "goals" and the "decisions of Sharia". This allows the intention to be preserved, relativizing the implementation and finding always new and more appropriate results, whilst saving the purpose of the law. This distinction is very important because it saves and opens the literal application of the principle of interpretation.

Al-Azhar also said that there is no conflict between democracy and Sharia. This is also a very sensitive point. The document states that it is indeed necessary in a democratic evolution of society to allow the nation to live in peace and harmony with God.

The introduction concludes with an attack on Islamist trends. Without naming any group, it takes aim at people who under the pretext of making order, using the criterion of "ordering the good, prohibiting evil"[4]  and limit general and particular freedoms. This "does not conform to the civilization and the evolution of modern Egypt." This justification is important, because it opposes civilization and modernity to the opinion of the Islamsts, and speaks of societal change.

The point is to criticize the Islamist trends, the Salafis, who claim to apply the Qur'an and Islamic law, using precisely the term "ordering the good and forbid evil." But in doing this - says Al-Azhar - they limit the freedom of people and this is contrary to modern thought prevalent in Egypt. The correct interpretation is instead given by those who follow the "golden mean".
First point: religious freedom (without conversion)
The first point states that "religious freedom is the cornerstone of the construction of modern society and is based on the concept of perfect citizenship, established on the absolute equality among all, in their duties and rights. This is confirmed by the obvious religious texts, as well as by the principles of the constitution and the law."

To claim this harmony between human rights and the Qur'an on religious freedom, they cite two well-known verses: "There is no compulsion in religion. The right path stands out clear from error" (Qur'an 2/256).
And also: "Say: The Truth [comes] from your Lord: so whoever wills - let him believe; and whoever wills - let him disbelieve "(Quran 18:29)[5]. Consequently, they claim that "every manifestation of intolerance in religion, or persecution, or to distinguish between people in the name of religion, is a crime."
"All people in society have the right to have the opinion they choose, which does not affect the right of society to preserve the heavenly religions[6] , because the divine religions have a sacred character."

This part is typically Islamic, but it is also acceptable to Christians. In practice, it follows thought very common in Egypt, that religious matters are not to be touched. By experience, all realize that if you touch on religious matters, there is a risk of conflict and death.

Among other things, the document states that all heavenly religions were born in the Arab world (which of course means in Palestine and Arabia).

The published text is interesting, but in fact avoids a fundamental problem: that of conversion from one religion to another. In the abstract it is stated that in matters of religion, everyone is entitled to his opinion, but sets a limit through the principle that "religious sensibilities should not be offended," it is not clear how far one can go.

The meaning is "one should not provoke the common feelings." So if one converts in private, it is okay, but if one proselytizes, if one makes public one's choice, if one publicizes it, it is not acceptable and may risk even death.

I have often argued with my Muslim friends, saying that this principle is applied in a partial manner. In fact, when a known Christian converts to Islam, it is advertised in newspapers, books, television, etc ... and they do proselytism. But they justifythis with the fact that Islam "is the only true religion." It would be good if there were a deeper discussion on this item because clarity is required on the issue of "conversion."

On the other hand, the document stresses that being a Christian or a Muslim should not affect the choice of a job, hiring, careers, etc..., which unfortunately takes place continually.

The text says that one must reject "those who use the anathema" (takfîr), that is, to call and consider the other kâfir. Here it refers again to the Salafists, who easily dismiss persons and gropus as "kâfir", wicked. These sentences are very common among the Islamic groups, by Sunnis against Shiites, by minority groups against others...

For some time the authorities have been demanding that the Islamic world stop this practice of disavowing the other within Islam, but to no avail.

To justify this position, Al-Azhar mentions the Imam Malek, that is, Anas Ibn Malik (711-795), founder of the Sunni legal schools (Malekites), mainly in North Africa, Egypt, following the Shafi'i school of Imam Shafi (767-820). The citation says: "If someone says that an opinion could be interpreted as ungodliness from 100 points of view, but that it can be interpreted as a thought of faith under at least one aspect, then you must accept it under the aspect of faith and not allowed to interpret it as impiety." It's very similar to the principle that St. Ignatius of Loyola gives at the beginning of his Spiritual Exercises (No. 22), in which he requests that believers interpret the words of others always in the most positive way possible, saying: "It is necessary to suppose that a good Christian must be willing to defend rather than to condemn the statement of another."
This is the basis of mutual respect. Another quote of Malek says: "If there is no conflict between reason and tradition, the reason is to be preferred, and the tradition is to be interpreted according to reason." This is also a great and important principle that we find in Averroes. Unfortunately, in the Islamic world today it is not applied very much, in practice.
Second point: Freedom of opinion
The second point concerns the freedom of opinion and expression. Al-Azhar insists that this is the mother of all freedoms, and it manifests itself "with the free expression of opinions through all the means of expression: writing, art, internet, ... This allows for the freedom of society: the parties, civil society, television. It also implies the freedom to access sources of information to form an opinion. This freedom must be guaranteed by a constitutional text in order to become an ordinary right."

In Egypt - the document states - there is also guaranteed the freedom to criticize, even with strong expressions, provided that the criticism is constructive. But the limit is "not to offend the other." And again, the principle is introduced of respecting the beliefs of the three divine religions, their rites and customs. If this is not done, "we risk destroying the social fabric and the firmness of the nation." "It is no one's right", it says, "to cause sectarian tensions in the name of freedom of expression."

It then states that freedom of opinion and expression "is the place of the examination of democracy" and asks, especially of the media, to educate young people to this dimension "with tolerance and broad horizons." The dialogue must always have the upper hand over intolerance.
To understand this document, it should be noted that in the Egyptian context and in the current global Islamic context, religious fanaticism and intolerance are prevalent.

In the last week in Tunis, the Salafis blocked Manouba university in the capital, because they wanted to require students to wear the niqab, the full veil (in Tunisia even the ordinary veil is banned).

In this context, a document like that of Al-Azhar is a great step forward, especially because it comes from the highest Islamic authority in Egypt, respected by Sunni Islam all over the world. If they are able to apply these criteria, there will be a profound change: the government in Cairo may be Islamic, but at least it will ensure tolerance and respect for religions. If it becomes the inspiration for the new government, it will be a new step not only for Egypt but also for other Islamic countries. In fact, we must remember that fundamentalism was born in Egypt, funded by Saudi Arabia in the recent past and today by Qatar.
Respect for each other
Behind all this Al-Azhar affirms democracy as an expression and guarantee of freedom, and stresses that the limit is the respect for others. Even the West needs to rediscover respect for the other. Sometimes in the West, the democracies - especially after '68 - have become the occasion to accuse and destroy the other's thinking, without any respect, because of which dialogue has become violent.

I remember taking part in the protest in Paris, where it was preached that "it is forbidden to forbid" ("Il est interdit d'interdire!") and then an absolute freedom was claimed, against everything and everyone. This eliminates respect for religions, traditions, the elders, ancestors: in short, everything upon which entire societies and peoples in Asia, Africa and even in the West are based.

These signed documents from Al-Azhar are thus a step forward, even if precisely the person responsible for these beautiful texts, Mahmoud Azab, is the one who suggested cutting the relationship between Al-Azhar and the Vatican at the beginning of 2011[7] .

[1] All Islamic institutions, when they talk about dialogue, mentioning cultural and religious dialogue, never just "religious dialogue". This reminds me of the vision of Benedict XVI, who said that dialogue among religions must be first and foremost a cultural dialogue and had joined the Secretariat for Interreligious Dialogue with that of Culture.
[2] These first three points are also detailed in the document released in recent days.
[3] Cfr. AsiaNews.it, 02/02/2006 Threats and dismissals for the Muhammad cartoons, and 02/03/2006 The Mohammed cartoon strips: Islam shows its darkest face.
[4] The Quranic expression is: 3/104, 3/110, 7/199, 9/71, etc.. Many sayings attributed to Muhammad (hadith) reflect the expression.
[5] But I permit myself to point out that the rest of the verse is almost never cited: "Verily we have prepared for the unjust a fire whose flames surround them, and when begging to drink, will drink of water like molten metal, which will burn their faces. What a horrible drink, what an awful abode!"
[6] A typically Muslim expression to indicate the 3 religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The last being always claimed as the only true religion, which cancels all previous versions.
[7] Cf. AsiaNews.it, 01/20/2011 The Islamic University of Al Azhar University suspends dialogue with the Vatican and 01/21/2011 Al Azhar against the Vatican: pettiness and politics.

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See also
Truth and justice not lies and superficiality on massacre of Copts
Muslim Brotherhood wants to gag every Egyptian, Jasmine Revolution leader says
Egypt, clashes between police and demonstrators: 12 dead and nearly 500 injured
Young Egyptian leader calls on West to back anti-Islamist struggle
Amnesty for Jasmine Revolution participants, silence for Coptic victims of Maspero massacre


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