Book review: Al-Azhar looking for a new role in Egypt

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Sunday 2 Jun 2013

Researcher George Fahmi analyses official statements of the oldest religious institution in Egypt to see how its role transformed after the January 25 Revolution

Al-Ahram center for political and Strategic studies

Haii a’la al hurreya .. Al-Azhar wa a’maleyet al tahaul al democraty (Hail to Freedom: Al-Azhar and the Democratic Transition) by George Fahmi, Cairo: Badael Series-Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, 2013. 28pp.

Researcher and PhD student at the European University, Geroge Fahmi studies three key documents produced by Al-Azhar religious institution in post-revolution Egypt. The study starts with the hypothesis that Al-Azhar’s role in Egypt undertook a major shift after the revolution, playing a moderating role during the transition to democracy through attempting to bridge gaps and build consensus via gatherings, conferences and events that involved politicians, intellectuals and others.

It’s known, however, that political opposition groups and intellectuals never ceased to criticise Al-Azhar and its sheikhs during the Mubarak era, accusing them of working against freedoms and rights through supporting the police state. And there are various incidences where this role was evident. A known story in 1994 was when Al-Azhar’s sheikh requested the right to censor artistic work that dealt with religious content, and that this role should come above the Ministry of Culture.

As soon as Mubarak fell and the new currents of change took precedence, bringing to rule and power the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists and jihadists, the relative power and independence of Al-Azhar institution came under threat, especially if the Brotherhood succeeded in recreating the Mubarak regime and placing the president above the constitution.

The documents under discussion include first and foremost the so-called "Al-Azhar Document for the Independence of Egypt," released in June 2011 following extended discussions involving scholars and thinkers from diverse backgrounds. They all agreed to the importance of setting out agreed to principles on the relation between Islam and the state in the coming phase within the framework of a consensus strategy.

In December 2011, Al-Azhar document "In Support for Arab Spring Revolutions" was issued. Its first article underlines that the legitimacy of the ruling power, religiously speaking, is dependent on the people’s acceptance and their free choice through a public, transparent, fair and democratic process. The document also rejected calling those who seek freedom and democracy “traitors,” and condemned the use of force against peaceful demonstrations, stating that this alone eliminates the legitimacy of authority. At the same time, the document requested that revolutionaries not seek blood or external intervention, and unite in their dream for freedom and justice, rising above sectarian, racial or religious divisions and going back to citizenship rights.

The last of the documents is the "Document for Religious Freedoms" released in January 2012 following a number of incidents where certain religious sects sought to force on society their own versions of virtue and the prevention of vice. The document noted a number of basic freedoms, starting with freedom of faith, deeming criminal any forced subjection to religion or discrimination based on religion. Freedom of opinion and expression via any means — whether writing, speech, artistic products or digital communication — in addition to media and journalism freedoms, was affirmed. Also freedom of scientific research and creativity, underlining that the limits to freedom are society’s reception of, and ability to understand, new scientific products.

In truth, the three documents today have no more influence than the ink used in printing them. Their defence of freedoms and rights are just words to clear the conscience, without a single legal or political influence in reality, or even ability to reduce sectarian tension, division or to bring closer disparate political movements. Indeed, all indications show that these gaps are widening.

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