Freedoms of belief, expression, and creativity
Following the recent release of al-Azhar’s Bill of Freedoms and Rights, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyib hosted a meeting on Wednesday 11 January
Freedoms of belief, expression, and creativity
Following the recent release of al-Azhar’s Bill of Freedoms and Rights, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyib hosted a meeting on Wednesday 11 January at the premises of Beit al-Eila (The Family Home) in Cairo, which was attended by the leaders of the various religious and political streams in Egypt. Participating were the Premier Kamal al-Ganzouri, Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the head of the Islamic Freedom and Justice party Mohamed Mursi, the head of the Salafi al-Nour Party, Emad Abdel-Ghaffour, the head of the liberal Wafd party Sayed al-Badawi, the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood Mohamed Badie, and Sheikh Muhammad Hassaan of the Salafi movement. Presidential contenders Amr Moussa, Abdel-Muneim Abul-Fotouh, Selim al-Awwa and Hamdein Sabahi also attended.
Partners, but no action
A Church source told Watani that al-Tayyib and Badie described Copts as partners in the homeland, and that Hassaan stressed that the rights of Copts, whom he described as a crucial component of the community, should be respected. Watani was also told that al-Azhar’s recently released Bill of Freedoms, which stresses the freedoms of belief, expression and creativity, was unanimously approved by the attendants.
All the attendants signed the al-Azhar Bill of Freedoms and Rights but, despite the unanimous endorsement, they did not draft or sign any work plan to incorporate the principles cited in the bill into Egypt’s new constitution.
Tuesday 10 January, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyib announced that al-Azhar, the world topmost authority on Sunni Islam, was issuing a bill of basic freedoms and rights to serve as the basis of the new Egyptian constitution.
The document lists freedom of belief, opinion, expression, scientific research, and art and literary creativity, which Sheikh Tayyib said reflect al-Azhar’s vision for society. He explained that equality must be based on a solid foundation of citizenship, partnership, equal opportunity, and rights and duties. Sheikh Tayyib stressed that freedom of belief goes against tendencies to label people as infidels, condemn other beliefs, or propensities to doubt the intentions of the faithful.
The al-Azhar Bill guarantees the right to obtain the information necessary to express an opinion, while respecting the beliefs and rituals of the three Abrahamic faiths (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism). Sheikh Tayyib said this was necessary to preserve the nation’s fabric and national security, as well as to prevent sectarian strife.
He said the freedoms declared should apply to the media, political parties and civil society organisations, as well as to the arts, in order to allow for constructive criticism of society, while taking into account ethical values and religious sensitivities.
The revolutionary spirit
The Bill stresses the importance of preserving the Tahrir Square spirit which united all the children of the homeland and lasted throughout 18 days of revolution that changed the course of Egyptian history. It emphasises that national harmony alone can guard all the components that go into forming the Egyptian nation without any hegemony, exclusion or bias. It also upholds the principle that civilians should be tried before bornal, not military courts; that political prisoners should be set free; and that adequate compensations should be paid to the victims who fell during the revolution.
Al-Azhar’s Bill calls for the democratic building of the State institutions and the hand-over of power to civilians according to the declared timeframe; stressing the elimination of repressive policies. It also advocates the return of Egypt’s regional role, and stresses the role of the Armed Forces in protecting Egypt.
Pope Shenouda III who applauded al-Azhar’s Freedoms Documents pointed out in his speech to the common grounds between Egypt’s Muslims and Christians, national unity and citizenship rights.
Many in Egypt sensed the Beit al-Eila meeting was held in an inexplicable rush, and that the show of sympathy it hosted was unprecedented. Various explanations for the event were volunteered in the media: several analysts said it was a tactic by the Military Council to contain the fear and worry that are engulfing the Egyptian street in anticipation for the 25 January Revolution’s first anniversary, a large sector of the public fear a second revolution. Others believe that, by setting the Constitution basic guidelines that stress freedom and citizenship rights for all Egyptians, the al-Azhar Bill is an attempt to pull the rug from under the Islamic-majority parliament which is expected to elect the constituent assembly that would draft the new constitution.
There is also the hypothesis that the meeting came to restore the pivotal role of al-Azhar and the Church in reconciling different political forces and working to unite the people, which directly influences the political movement.
Abdel-Rehim Aly, expert in Islamic Studies, told Watani the meeting reflected al-Azhar’s keeneness for the inclusion of Egyptians from across the religious and political spectrum, including the revolutionaries, to achieve a national consensus on basic freedoms. The aim, Mr Aly said, was that there would be no risk of jeopardising the community’s basic constants and principles concerning freedoms.
Mr Aly believes the unprecedented warmth with which Pope Shenouda was greeted by such Islamist figures as Mr Awwa and Sheikh Hassaan who had harshly attacked the Church and his person on several occasions before, was an attempt at reassurance by figures of political Islam. It was Selim al-Awwa who proagated the preposterous lie that monasteries and churches in Egypt were stockpiling arms, which had aroused the hostility of many Muslims against the Copts. Sheikh Hassaan and several prominent Salafi sheikhs branded Christians as apostates; and the Muslim Brotherhood had explicitly declared that Copts should be banned from running for Egypt’s presidency.
Mr Aly insists that Pope Shenouda is too shrewd to be fooled by such a show of rapprochement while the policies and stances of the Islamists remain unchaged. Neither did Mr Awwa appologise for his unfounded allegations, nor did the Salafis or MB retract any of their hostile declarations. The Pope, according to Mr Aly, was neveretheless sufficiently wise to take part in the meeting in order to endorse the Bill of Freedoms and Rights, to confirm the freedom of belief.
Win them over
The journalist Salah Eissa explained to Watani that he belived al-Azhar took the initiative to formualte a document that would preserve basic freedoms, and to garner a consensus on it, in the wake of the election of an Islamist-dominated parliament.
Mr Eissa thinks that the attempt by the Islamic figures at the Beit al-Eila meeting to ease the strained ties with Pope Shenouda indicates they realise that the declared extremist hostility towards Copts has exceeded all limits. He suggested that the Islamists’ feigned rapprochement might even be out of a sense of guilt, especially following the series of violent attacks against Copts following the 25 January Revolution.
These streams are new in the political process, Mr Eissa says, and some of them lack experience; with time, they will gain sufficient experience to realise that, on pragamtic grounds, they cannot maintain hostilities against Copts.
“We should try to win over these political streams,” Mr Eissa said, “because they have become a political reality.”