June 29, 2011
Al-Azhar Document: A Promising Step in Need of Clearer Safeguards
Recently, Sheikh al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayeb, Egypt’s highest Sunni Muslim religious authority, responded to the nation’s constitutional debates and severe sectarian rifts by issuing an eleven-point program for a democratic Egypt named Al-Azhar Document. Al-Azhar University is the oldest and most important institution for Sunni Muslim teaching in the world. Al-Azhar officials, prominent Egyptian intellectuals, and a few religious scholars discussed and approved the document, which makes some promising steps toward guaranteeing legal protections and rights for religious minorities, especially Christians, before its release on June 20. The proposed eleven-point program aims to establish “a modern, democratic and constitutional state” based on Sharia law. In general, Al-Azhar Document received favorable responses in Egypt for its moderate stance and stress on national unity. Yet, particular conditions of the Al-Azhar Document are not clear enough to prevent potential political abuses in the future. Al-Ahram, the Egyptian government’s newspaper, called the Al-Azhar Document “historic” because it clearly opposes the creation of a theocratic state and outlines the role of religion within the context of a civil state. Sheikh al-Azhar disparaged those who abuse religion to incite sectarian strife or to aggravate political disputes. The document endorses equal rights and civic responsibilities for every citizen regardless of his/her religious affiliation. Furthermore, citizens may turn to their own religious authorities in matters regarding personal status cases. Yet, the document recognizes and grants freedoms to only three religions, namely Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. In so doing, al-Azhar continues to neglect the political needs of the historically persecuted Baha’i community of Egypt. Another stipulation identifies Sharia law as the basis for the Constitution and legislation. Salah Elissa, secularist writer and supporter of a civil state, criticized this condition saying, “If new laws need the consent of Al-Azhar, then that immediately means we are in a religious, and not a civil, state.” In response, al-Azhar researcher and scholar involved in drafting the document, Abde-Moeti Bayoumi, argued that the Supreme Constitutional Court will be responsible for approving new laws, but al-Azhar will have an advisory role. Al-Azhar Document identifies the Parliament as the sole legislative body, which is directly elected and has equal representation. Free, direct elections—an essential component of the eleven-point program—hold government officials accountable to the people, thus legitimizing the citizens’ legislative power. The document endorses a separation of powers, which will ensure the Parliament’s independence. Yet, al-Azhar’s unclear advisory role in passing legislation could encroach upon parliamentary independence. When announcing Al-Azhar Document, al-Tayeb stated, “We need a serious commitment to universal human rights, the rights of women and children.” The document upholds this commitment by promising universal health care, improved education, and socially conscious economic strategies. In response, independent daily newspaper al-Shorouk praised this document as “revolutionary.” The document also grants freedom of expression, but within the confines of Islamic principles and morals. However, this key restriction ultimately contradicts the very freedoms of speech and of expression. In the future, this stipulation has the potential to be abused to convict bloggers and activists who criticize Islam, Sharia law, or the government, thus recalling the Mubarak regime's repression of activists. Lastly, the document calls for the reinstatement al-Azhar as an independent entity free from government control, further promoting the creation of a civil state. Sheikh Gamal Qotb, former head of al-Azhar’s fatwa council, contended that, unless the Ministry of Religious Endowments separates from the government as well, Egypt could not be a true civil state. Furthermore, the document identifies al-Azhar as the highest authority on Islamic jurisprudence and on the nature of the religion-state relationship. This stipulation introduces another ambiguity to al-Azhar’s future political role in the civil state. The Al-Azhar Document takes a strong initial step toward mending interreligious relationships, guaranteeing rights to religious minorities, providing for equal rights, and creating a civil state. Yet, some stipulations of the eleven-point program remain vague, allowing potential abuses that could threaten the envisioned civil state.