25 July 2010
Ever since the elections of its Guidance Bureau at the beginning of this year, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has spared no effort to benefit from the current political mobility by enhancing its opportunities to assume power. The Brotherhood’s strategy to turn this objective into reality has run along three axes. First, the Brotherhood has been keen on engaging in dialogue with political parties, and is flirting with the newly-formed National Front for Change headed by the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed ElBaradei who is seen by some political observers as a possible candidate for the presidency. The MB has also been bolstering its image in the media as a peaceful movement, and has disclaimed responsibility for the violence attributed to it in the past, especially during the 1950s and 60s. Finally, the Brotherhood has been reaching out to Copts.
Little more than manoeuvre
To improve the Brothers’ image in the eyes of Copts, Essam al-Erian, a leading figure in the party and member of the Guidance Bureau, outlined a plan urging the group’s leaders to enhance their relationship with Copts. He recommended they pay courtesy visits to their Coptic neighbours on their feast days and support them in times of hardship. He assigned Abdel-Rahman al-Bar, another Guidance Bureau member and professor at the Islamic al-Azhar University, to write a research paper on Islam’s vision vis-à-vis the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims.
Yet the practices followed by the MB since its foundation in 1928, as well as the stances and views voiced by the groups’ leaders and theorists, belie such claims. Rather, they indicate that the current spirit of tolerance and moderation is little more than a manoeuvre to enhance the party’s image. It is worthwhile, however, to investigate the fatwas (religious opinions) issued by the group’s mufti on issues that concern Copts. If the MB is sincere in its desire to reach out to Copts, it has to issue a new formal document signed by Sheikh Mohamed Abdullah al-Khatib, the MB’s mufti, proposing a new stand based upon equal citizenship rights and the belief in civic state. Otherwise the latest efforts will prove no more than a public relations campaign void of any real meaning.
What freedom of faith
Among the basic concerns by advocates of the civic state—including Copts—is the freedom of faith. This includes the right of non-Muslims to build places of worship. Manipulative as they may be, MB leaders never give a clear-cut answer to this question. Instead they maintain a well-calculated balance between their real beliefs and the positive image they wish to project. Upon reviewing al-Daawa magazine, the MB’s mouthpiece, it takes little effort to grasp the group’s real position. In a fatwa on the possibility of the building of churches in Muslim regions, Sheikh al-Khatib says that: “Muslim lands could be divided into three categories. In areas established by Muslims such as the modern Maadi and 10th of Ramadan neighbourhoods, the erection of churches is banned. In areas invaded by Muslims through the use of force, such as Alexandria, no new churches or places of worship for non-Muslims should be established; some scholars say that existing ones should be razed while others say they should not be demolished. If churches are pulled down for any reason, they should not be reconstructed. In regions peacefully seized by Muslims, existing churches should be left intact but no new ones are to be built.”
Since, with the passage of time old churches are bound to fall down; the ban to reconstruct new ones or restore the damaged means that there will practically be no churches at all in the future. And since Christians would thus be allowed no place whatsoever to worship, it is all-too-obvious that they have no place in an ‘Islamic country’.
If the passage quoted above no longer expresses the Brothers’ stance on this fundamental issue, the group—Sheikh al-Khatib in particular—should publish a retraction attached with an apology to the Egyptian people. Such statements have worked to undermine national unity and social peace; espoused by thousands of young fanatics they led them to kill Copts and plunder their property in the recent years.
When it comes to the rights of non-Muslims in Muslim nations, Sheikh al-Khatib said that ‘people of the book’ living in Muslim regions hold the nationality of the Muslim State and should abide by provisions of Islamic law, except when it comes to purely religious issues. They are not expected to perform Muslim prayers or pay Muslim zakat, but the hudud (Islamic criminal law) should be applied to them.
This fatwa directly implies that any non-Muslim indicted for theft should have his or her limbs severed, and should be stoned for adultery.
What I find catastrophic, however, is that: “non-Muslims are not required to perform the duty of jihad [fighting in defence of the homeland].” Such a statement in no way corresponds with citizenship rights. The Brotherhood, in this way, turns military service—as stipulated by modern law—into a religious duty. Furthermore, it ignores the fact that Copts fought side by side with Muslims in the wars of 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973, and sacrificed their lives in defence of the homeland. The late General Fouad Aziz Ghali was one of the greatest heroes of 1973 war.
Disrespecting other faith
In addition to their content, the language of al-Khatib’s fatwas is no less disdainful to non-Muslim faiths. He dubs non-Muslims “those people” and calls churches “those things”. The fatwas stipulate that Copts are prohibited from publicly displaying their faith, and consider national unity—the common belonging of Muslims and non-Muslims to the same homeland—as equivalent to relinquishing Islamic belonging, and hence faith. Such propositions, if embraced by ordinary people, would create an atmosphere of incitement and hatred.
In light of the above, it is no exaggeration to say that if the MB were to rule Egypt it would deal a fatal blow to the principles of equality, citizenship and national unity. Hence the Brothers should choose one of two options: either to publicly declare that those fatwas no longer express their outlook vis-à-vis non-Muslims, or to act consistently and disclose their true convictions—however fanatic and sectarian they might be. Yet they should in no way speak in the name of Islam, since there is a plethora of Islamic scholars who espouse a strong belief in equality and freedom of faith.
Last but not least, an indicative story is worthy citing. When a MB delegate visited the leftist, nationalist Tagammu Party a few weeks ago, the group’s leading figure, Mohamed Ali Beshir, said publicly that Muslim votes should go only to fellow Muslims and the Brothers would not nominate or vote for a non-Muslim.