Egypt’s new draft constitution gives a critical government role to the fundamentalist al-Azhar University, an Islamic center that was lavishly praised by President Barack Obama in his June 2009 “New Beginning” speech in Cairo.
Al-Azhar’s Islamic leadership will get to decide whether Egypt’s laws comply with Islam’s far-reaching “Shariah” laws about conduct, speech, lifestyle and religion, according to the draft constitution, which was hurriedly completed last week by a panel dominated by Islamists.
Back in 2009, Obama declared that Americans owe a debt to al-Azhar.
“It was Islam at places like al-Azhar that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment,” he claimed.
“For over a thousand years, al-Azhar has stood as a beacon of Islamic learning,” Obama said in the second sentence of his much-lauded 2009 speech.
Now, however, al-Azhar’s “role in the government of Egypt and its administration of Shariah spells the end of any remaining freedom in Egyptian society,” said Robert Spencer, an expert on Islam who predicted in 2009 that Egypt’s voters would elect Islamic fundamentalists.
“Al-Azhar is not ‘moderate’ or ‘extremist’ … [but] is the foremost exponent of Sunni orthodoxy,” throughout the Arab world, he told The Daily Caller.
That orthodoxy ensures that it can and will use its constitutional power to push for Islamic-style laws that mandate “second-class ‘dhimmi’ status for non-Muslims, institutionalized discrimination against women, and sharp restrictions on the freedom of speech, particularly in regard to Islam,” Spencer said.
Since 973, al-Azhar has trained Sunni imams, and its top leaders have issued so-called “fatwas.” They’re rules for behavior and speech, and are based on the Koran and the sayings of Islam’s primary prophet, Mohammad, who died nearly 1,400 years ago.
Fatwas are not laws, but Islam’s Shariah law assumes that civil law complies with the fatwas.
Al-Azhar’s role is established in several articles of the draft constitution.
Article 2 says that “Islam is the religion of the state… [and] the principles of Shariah are the main source of legislation.”
That far-reaching claim is elaborated in article 219, which says “the principles of Shariah include general evidence and foundations, rules and jurisprudence as well as sources accepted by doctrines of Sunni Islam and the majority of Muslim scholars.”
Though the old constitution also declared the principles of Shariah as the basis of law, the new constitution establishes al-Azhar as the effective courthouse for judging legislation’s compliance with Shariah.
“Al-Azhar … takes the task of preaching [Sunni-style] Islam in Egypt and in the whole world [and] scholars of al-Azhar should be consulted in all matters related to Shariah,” says the draft.
One area where al-Azhar will likely play a role is in deciding the extent of free speech.
“Insulting prophets and messengers is forbidden,” according to article 44 of the constitution, ensuring the government will have to decide if criticism of laws that implement Islam’s Shariah — all of which is based on Islamic texts — should be treated as an insult of Islam’s primary prophet, Muhammad.
Al-Azhar’s role is not spelled out in detail, so its Islamic judgments can be ignored by a hostile legislature or judiciary.
But Egypt’s politics are now dominated by Islamists who regard al-Azhar as the leading source of Islamic law, or Shariah. Also, Islamic theocracies — such as Saudi Arabia’s — thoroughly blend Islam and government, giving religious figures great influence over how laws are drafted and implemented.
The draft constitution is expected to win quick national approval in a referendum unless it is stopped by Egypt’s largely secular Supreme Court. However, the court’s work was paralyzed Dec. 2 by a large mob of Islamists who blocked access to courthouse.
The aggressiveness of the Islamists’ mob seems to echo some of the aggressiveness of the Islamic doctrine taught at al-Azhar, say critics.
In April 2002, for example, al-Azhar’s chief imam endorsed the murder of Israeli civilians by suicide-killers, Andrew Bostom, author of the 2012 book, “The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism: From Sacred Texts to Solemn History,” told TheDC.
Obama spent several childhood years in Indonesia, home to a less aggressive brand of Islam, and may not have known of al-Azhar’s history when he praised it in his 2009 speech.
“I have come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” he said. “America and Islam are not exclusive… they overlap, and share common principles — principles of justice and progress, tolerance, and the dignity of all human beings,” he said.
Obama chose to have his speech jointly hosted by al-Azhar and Cairo University. He praised Cairo’s lecturers and students, and al-Azhar’s leadership and trainee imams, telling them that “together you represent the harmony between tradition and progress.”
He gave Islam the credit for developing algebra and the compass, and early medical breakthroughs, while saying “I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.”
His audience included a few invited members of the now-dominant Muslim Brotherhood movement. In 2009, the movement was largely suppressed by the Hosni Mubarak, the country’s secular dictator, who Obama urged to resign in 2011.
But Obama’s statements also reflect the failure of the White House to appreciate the popularity of Egypt’s Islamists, including Muslim Brotherhood. “They don’t have majority support in Egypt,” he told Fox’s Bill O’Reilly in February 2011.
“Here’s the thing that we have to understand, there are a whole bunch of secular folks in Egypt, there are a whole bunch of educators and civil society in Egypt that wants to come to the fore as well,” he told O’Reilly.
“It’s important for us not to say that our own only two options are either the Muslim Brotherhood or a suppressed people,” he said.
Islamists, including the brotherhood and the more fundamentalists “salafis,” now dominate Egypt’s democratic politics. Together, they won roughly 75 percent of parliamentary seats in elections held in 2011 and 2012, and held 75 percent of the seats on the panel that drafted the new constitution.
They also won a narrow 52 percent victory in the presidential election for Mohammed Morsi, a top leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, in June 2012.