03/28/2017, 15.38
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Secularism and citizenship: how Al Azhar could influence Arab-Islamic countries

by Luca Galantini

The Cairo conference studies proposals for equal rights for Christians and Muslims, and for a State separation from religion. Regional constitutions and especially the Arab League and Organization of the Islamic Conference Human Rights Charter need to be addressed. All this just one month before Pope Francis’ visit to Egypt.

Milan (AsiaNews) - At the end of February a conference of international importance was held at the university Al Azhar in Cairo. It involved the political and cultural world and the representatives of the Islamic and Christian faiths of over fifty States of the Arab Muslim world.

The courageous initiative promoted by the imam of Al Azhar Ahmad al-Tayyeb openly wanted to put two delicate issues for the political governments of the Arab and Muslim world on the table for discussion: the "necessity" of the secular state, or independence from Islamic religious law, and the primacy of the principle of citizenship, which means the full equality of rights of every individual member of a State, regardless of membership of a particular religion, therefore, without any discrimination for the so-called "religious minorities" different from Islam.

The revolutionary conclusions of this conference will most likely echo very significantly over time, especially in light of the upcoming papal trip to Egypt.

The two central issues arising from the conference - secular state and citizenship, that full equality of all citizens regardless of faith - are closely intertwined. They cannot be solved separately, and touch the raw nerve of the political system of the Arab world, or the subordination of civil law to religious law, Sharia law, the constitutional systems and even in the Charter of Human Rights of the Arab League and Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the two international political institutions which bring together Arab countries and the Islamic faith.

If these bold proposals for reform that have been issued by the Al-Azhar conference are to become more than mere declarations of principle, and concretely affect the political and cultural fabric of Muslim thought, then the Arab League 2004 Bill of Rights Human and the OIC Declaration on Human rights in Islam need to be thoroughly revised sooner rather than later, in order to promote the realization of 'constitutionally' secular states, not theocratic or otherwise dependent on the formula of "official State religion".

Regarding the first point raised in the Al-Azhar conclusions - the secular state -  currently, these two human rights charters, always affirmed the primacy of Islamic religion as an ethical foundation, and legal regulatory the sovereignty of Arab States and the Muslim faith. The OIC Declaration of Human Rights has a radically God-centered and confessional State setting, stating in the preamble that all human rights and duties are binding according to the divine commandments in the book of God's revelation; that all rights and freedoms of the Declaration are subject to the provisions of shari'a (Articles 24 and 25); that every individual can express his thoughts as long as it does not conflict with the principles of Islamic law (Article 22); that Islam is the natural religion of man, and that the offenses and the penalties provided by each State Party to the Declaration shall be exclusively those already required by shari'a (Articles 10 and 19).

The Arab League Charter of Human Rights while dampening the confessional vision of the OIC, unfortunately does not eliminate the misunderstandings concerning the Islamic religious origin of the laws of the State: in fact, the Charter has adopted the preamble to the Declaration of the OIC, which defines the rights as derived from the shari'a, but most importantly in no way demands that the Arab League states commit themselves to including these innovative principles introduced in the field of human rights in their political systems. Therefore it is more a declaration of intent rather than a treaty between the Arab states on human rights.

The role of moral suasion on nation states by treaties and international agreements on the promotion of human rights is widely acknowledged in recent history: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, the Nice EU Charter contributed to the promotion of human rights even within political systems of nation states.

Unfortunately this day has yet to come for the Arab and Muslim world: the Charters of human rights of the Arab League and OIC are not able to promote a shared effort to promote a secular vision of the rule of law, prejudice towards the sclerotic confessional vision of political regimes. The result is that most of the constitutions of Arab States and Muslims today recognizes that Islam is the state religion and that Sharia is the main source of the system of state laws.

With a few exceptions, such as Albania in Europe, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan in Asia, in Turkey, the secular state is also a chimera: in different Constitutions recently adopted in Muslim countries crossed by the season of the Arab Spring, Sharia law is explicitly cited as the source of law, or otherwise, Islam remains the state religion. This happened in Bahrain, Iraq, but also in countries far more open to reforms such as Tunisia and Egypt.

The question well described by the scholar Maurice Borrmans remains unresolved to this day; that is that Islam has to solve the problem of its claim to be both religious and political society and state:  din, dunya and dawla. The protection of individual rights, by the mere fact of being citizens of the same State in full equality must first address the recognition, in the charters of human rights in Arab and Muslim countries, the secular values upon which the states are founded, in which religions can freely express themselves with full respect of each other's diversity.

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