To end Egypt's violence, a truce on Islamic fatwas

Both sides in Egypt's violent struggle to restart democracy have evoked Islamic edicts. Yet a democracy based on liberty of conscience requires a separation of mosque and state.

AP Photo
Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb, second right, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the pre-eminent institute of Islamic learning in the Sunni Muslim world, welcomes Coptic Christian clergymen in Cairo, Egypt, Oct. 5.

In many societies, religious individuals often feel competing loyalties between their faith and their government. The tension is usually resolved through law, elections, and other peaceful accommodations. Not so in today’s Egypt, center of the Arab world and home to rising violence over how to blend Islam and democracy.

In the three months since the Army ousted an elected government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt has seen pitched street battles with hundreds killed. Few people can predict when the violence will end or whether a divided nation will descend into civil war.

Yet the weapons of choice are not only bullets.

Both sides are using dueling fatwas in this struggle to define the nation’s identity. They are enlisting Islamic scholars to issue fatwas, religious edicts, favoring their respective causes.

The former grand mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa, for example, was seen in a recent video telling soldiers, “When somebody comes who tries to divide you, then kill them, whoever they are,” according to The New York Times. Meanwhile, a popular Egyptian-born cleric, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, issued a fatwa denouncing the removal of President Mohamed Morsi. He also called for foreign intervention, which led some in Al-Azhar University – the highest institutional authority in Sunni Islam – to cite him for “high treason.” 

Employing Islam for violence is usually the tactic of militant jihadists fighting the West. But in Egypt, the fatwa wars are pitting Muslim against Muslim. And in an odd twist, both sides want to either restore or improve the democracy that was begun after the 2011 revolution.

The military-controlled interim government is now drawing up a new constitution. It may decide to ban political parties with a “religious reference.” In addition, the Muslim Brotherhood, despite its remaining popularity in rural areas, has been outlawed. Most of its leaders are in jail.

Two-thirds of Egyptians say in a poll that they support the proposed ban, especially after witnessing the recent religious-tinged violence. The dueling fatwas are widely seen as a cynical play for power.

Since the 2011 revolution and the Brotherhood’s heavy-handed tactics while it was in power, more Egyptians understand the need for rule of law, secular governance, and equality between the majority Muslims and minority faiths, notably Coptic Christians.

Islam’s spiritual demand for its followers to live in harmony with others can be the basis for Egypt to build a tolerant, inclusive democracy. Evoking religious edicts, either for violence or political gain, works against the goal of cooperation and progress in a diverse society.

Egyptians must sheath the sword of religion as they try again to fulfill the spirit of the Arab Spring and ensure the individual liberty of conscience and a fully representative government.

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