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Egypt: Political Fatwas Draw Fire
Egypt: Political Fatwas Draw Fire
Egypt’s ruling party often accuses its Islamist opponents of exploiting religion to achieve political ends
Sunday, December 2,2007 04:03
by Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani Allafrica.com

Inter Press Service (Johannesburg) :Egypt"s ruling party often accuses its Islamist opponents of exploiting religion to achieve political ends. But in the wake of several controversial fatwas -- religious edicts -- issued by the grand imam of the influential Al-Azhar Islamic establishment, critics are now accusing the state of playing the religion card.

"Recent fatwas have exploited religion to excuse the government"s bad policies," Gamal Zahran, political science professor at Suez Canal University and independent member of parliament, told IPS. "The grand imam"s role is now limited to justifying the regime"s behaviour," Zahran said.

On Oct. 8, Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, grand imam of Al-Azhar, declared that those found guilty of libel should receive 80 lashes by flogging. Tantawi, who made the statement at a religious festival also attended by President Hosni Mubarak, cited a passage of the Koran as the basis for his ruling.

The grand imam"s declaration was not received well by critics of the government, who viewed it as an attempt to justify recent moves against the independent press. Only weeks earlier, several independent and opposition journalists had been given prison sentences for publishing "false information" about senior figures of Mubarak"s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).

Established in the 10th century, Cairo"s Al-Azhar is today considered the foremost institution for Islamic jurisprudence in the Sunni-Muslim world. Since the 1950s, however, it has been closely managed by the state, with its leaders being handpicked by the president. Tantawi -- whose detractors call him "the state"s sheikh" -- was appointed by Mubarak in 1996 amid considerable controversy regarding his qualifications for the post.

Though Tantawi insists that his statement on libel does not refer specifically to journalists, members of the press are expressing outrage.

"The pronouncement was political, not religious, in nature," Yehia Qulash, a member of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate press council, told IPS, "It constituted an insult both to Islam and to the Al-Azhar religious establishment."

Critics also point out that the Koranic verse on which Tantawi based his judgment refers specifically to accusations against "virtuous women" in the absence of proof.

Two weeks after the pronouncement on libel the grand imam stirred controversy again when he reportedly declared that there were no religious objections to the succession of political power from father to son. Such a transferral of authority does not conflict with Islamic Law, he said, as long as the transition comes within the context of "free and fair elections".

The pronouncement was seen as an obvious reference to Mubarak"s 43-year- old son, Gamal, who currently holds a leading position within the NDP. The younger Mubarak"s political ascendancy in recent years has led to speculation that he is being groomed by the ruling party to replace his aging father as president of the republic.

"Tantawi is using his spiritual authority to support the ruling party"s plan for the inheritance of the presidency," said Zahran, "His behaviour hardly befits such a venerable religious institution."

Tantawi has not been the only state-appointed Islamic authority to issue rulings viewed as being on behalf of the current regime. Egyptian Grand Mufti Sheikh Ali Gomaa -- who heads the Dar al-Iftaa, the country"s highest Islamic legal authority -- has also made a number of recent statements that detractors say were politically motivated. Like the head of Al-Azhar, the grand mufti is appointed directly by the president.

In early November, Gomaa declared that drivers should not be found guilty for killing pedestrians who "deliberately stand still" in front of oncoming vehicles. The statement, critics note, came less than a week after a woman was reportedly run over and killed by a police van while trying to prevent the detention of a relative.

At a Nov. 13 press conference, Gomaa insisted his rulings lacked any political motivations. "There is absolutely no relationship between the Dar al-Iftaa and the so-called "politicising" of fatwas," he said.

But critics -- including members of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood movement -- say the recent fatwas confirm the allegiance of state-run Islamic institutions with the ruling regime.

"Why don"t they issue fatwas against election-rigging, police torture or industrial monopolies?" asked Saad al-Husseini, a prominent Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarian, "Or against the foreign occupations of Palestine and Iraq?"

"The brotherhood believes that religious rulings should be applied to all circumstances," al-Husseini told IPS, "The regime, by contrast, only resorts to religion when it is in its interests."

He went on to criticise fatwas delivered by state-appointed individuals rather than by a council of Muslim scholars elected by popular vote or in parliament. "An elected council would issue its rulings in the service of the general good, not in the interests of a particular political party," al-Husseini said.

According to Zahran, one of several MPs to urge Tantawi"s removal from office, the recent judgments merely serve to show the ruling party"s political insecurity. "Only a weak regime would resort to exploiting religion to justify its own corruption and despotism," he said.


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