Court Case Casts Doubts On Secularism in Egypt

Accused of apostasy, an Egyptian scholar faces the long arm of his country's Islamic movement.

THE world of Ebtehal Younes has fallen apart in the last month. A professor of French civilization and literature at Cairo University, she is happily married to a respected Egyptian academic named Nasr Hamid Abu Zeid, a specialist in early Islamic political thought.

But her marriage is being threatened by a bizarre court case that calls into question the vitality of secular law in Egypt at a time when Islamic militants are attacking the government.

In their detailed petition to an Egyptian civil court, a group of Islamist lawyers has argued that Dr. Abu Zeid has betrayed his faith because his writings challenge fundamentalist interpretations of Islam. The lawyers are believed to be close to the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned but tolerated Islamist political group that has been linked to more radical Muslims who want to create an Islamic state in Egypt.

"Apostasy dissolves a marriage," the lawyers wrote, arguing that according to Muslim traditions no Muslim woman should live with an apostate. They are seeking a court order demanding that Dr. Younes either separate from her husband or be considered an adultress.

The case, Abu Zeid says, is but the latest chapter in a campaign by Egypt's mainstream Islamist movement to intimidate liberal Muslims who have criticized the intellectual foundations of fundamentalism. An associate professor of Arabic at Cairo University, Abu Zeid has a long string of publications to his credit.

"It began when I would not quietly accept my failure to gain promotion [as a full professor at Cairo University], after it was blocked on nonacademic grounds," Abu Zeid explains. "That stirred up a lot of controversy as to whether Cairo University was a secular or religious institution.

"This court case is an attempt to support those who criticized my work by trying to convict me of apostasy and then destroy my marriage," he adds.

The case first opened earlier in June at a civil court in Greater Cairo and was promptly adjourned until Nov. 4 at the request of the prosecuting lawyers, who requested time to consult Egypt's leading Islamic institution, Al-Azhar University.

The institution will establish an ad hoc committee to judge whether Zeid's work is anti-Islamic. Religious scholars associated with Al-Azhar have been widely criticized for encouraging religious intolerance.

"When we first saw this accusation in the paper, I thought it was just another silly attack on my husband," Younes explains bitterly. "But when our lawyer told us that it was a serious case, all I felt was disgust. Who can imagine that Egyptian law would permit such an interference?"

Despite the shock the case has generated among Egyptians, the lawyers have a legal right to bring it before Egypt's civil courts. An archaic statute allows any concerned individual to raise a case that concerns the "rights of God." The dense legal document put forward by the lawyers argues that the protection of the purity of Egypt's Muslim society necessitates the separation of Younes and Abu Zeid.

The fact that Al-Azhar is being brought into the case disturbs observers who say that it marks another step in the Islamization of Egyptian political life. That trend began in the 1970s, when then-President Anwar Sadat decided to increase his image as a pious Muslim by declaring sharia or Islamic holy law as the foundation of Egyptian law. Using this as their legal argument, Islamists have been pushing increasingly in recent years to extend the application of sharia through every aspect of the legal code .

A LEADING Egyptian lawyer says that the fact that the case was not rejected out of hand by the presiding judge reflects the changing political climate in Egypt and the pervasive influence of fundamentalism in state institutions. He says the case has worrying consequences for Egypt's future as a secular state where individuals have the freedom of speech and expression.

"For some years Egyptian judges have been working in Saudi Arabia on secondment [unpaid leave] in return for large salaries and this has had an influence on their attitudes," complains the lawyer, who requested to remain anonymous. "The Saudi system is strictly according to the sharia."

For his part, Zeid is infuriated by the attempt to label him an apostate. "I consider myself a better Muslim than any of them," he says. "I am trying to protect Islam from political manipulation. Let us understand Islam as a historical and social phenomenon. This doesn't mean that we ignore its sacred source, but we must remember that it has been revealed in the interests of humanity."

Meanwhile, his wife must come to terms with a case that is likely to drag on for years. Should the court rule against their marriage, she could be faced with the choice of leaving her husband or being condemned as an adultress. According to sharia, the punishment for adultery is death by stoning.

Abu Zeid has already received threatening anonymous letters that underline that the immediate risk in this situation is not that the courts will move against the couple but that the legal action by moderate Islamists will inspire their militant cousins to take the law into their own hands.

Last June, Farag Fouda, like Abu Zeid an Egyptian academic with the habit of arguing publicly against the Islamists, was gunned down in front of his office. His killers are now on trial in Cairo. Key to their defense is that an ad hoc committee of Al-Azhar had declared Fouda's writings as anti-Islam.

For Abu Zeid, the parallels are discomforting.

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