'Al-Ahram': Sharia state would 'preserve life, justice'

Egypt widest-circulation newspaper editorial maintains anti-Israel line, says Sharia is about 'equality,' and fears of Islamic state are overblown.

By OREN KESSLER
August 4, 2011 18:00
4 minute read.
Egyptian shop owners read newspapers in Cairo.

egypt newspaper_311 reuters. (photo credit: Peter Andrews / Reuters)

 
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While Egypt's former president and interior minister stand trial for corruption, another debate threatens to rip open divisions over the shape the country will take in the post-Hosni Mubarak era: the role of religion.

In an editorial this week, Al- Ahram – Egypt’s state-run, highest-circulation paper – argued that the debate over whether Egypt should have an Islamic or secular state is “a gross waste of time.”

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“One reason for the acrimony of this debate is that the nature of the Islamic state is unclear. For many people, an Islamic state is a culmination of Shari’a, and Shari’a is all about corporal punishment,” it said. “This is untrue. Shari’a is not about stoning and flagellation and the severing of limbs, but about preserving life and enforcing justice.”

The editorial conceded that a wide swath of Egyptians favor some kind of Islamic basis for the country’s constitution and legal code, and that Islamist forces are eager to exploit those sentiments for their own benefit. Still, it said, fears over the creation of a Shari’a-based constitution, are unfounded.

“Those who stand for an Islamic state want to bank on widely-held sentiments to catapult themselves to power. And those who propose a secular state, mostly the Copts and liberals, do so because they fear a situation in which the majority would oppress the minority.”

“Islamic Shari’a is about obligations as much as it is about rights,” the paper argued. “Shari’a is also about equality. The Prophet Muhammad admonished Muslims against punishing the poor and letting the rich get away. He said, ‘societies before you failed because they let the thieves go if they were rich and punished them if they were poor.’”



A Shari’a-based state, it said, would still respect the rights of minorities. “When Caliph Omar visited Jerusalem, he stepped out of the church to pray, for fear that if he prayed inside Muslims would be tempted to do the same in the future, which may endanger the sanctity of this Christian house of worship,” it said.

“Islam doesn't believe in authority by the mosque. The church may have had political ambitions in Europe, but in Al-Azhar, the grand imam is just a learned scholar, running his own institution and not society at large.”

Cairo’s Al-Azhar University is the Sunni Islamic world’s preeminent center of learning.

“The controversy over whether to have a secular or religious state has become burdensome, divisive and futile. Often it inspires fanaticism rather than good sense,” the paper concluded. “The Copts are here to stay. They are part of the fabric of this country, and they will remain so in the future, equal and proud. They are citizens and their identity is connected to the country, not to their religion. So could the media please quit encouraging this useless debate?”

A similar editorial would have been unthinkable under the three-decade rule of Mubarak or his predecessors Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser, all of whom kept a tight lid on the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements. But while the 136-year-old Al- Ahram seems to have abandoned its anti-Islamist line in the post-Mubarak era, the paper's steady diet of anti- Israel content remains unchanged. The “regional” section of last week’s weekly English edition included the headlines “To Gaza with dignity,” “The Zionist project falters,” “The case for a boycott” and “Children tormented in the name of the law.” The last headline appears above the subheading: “Israeli occupation authorities are imprisoning Palestinian children at will, often on bogus or trumped-up charges, writes Khaled Amayreh in occupied Jerusalem.”

With Mubarak, his sons and former underlings in a humiliating public trial, Egypt’s Islamists are riding a wave of momentum. Mubarak’s trial resumes August 15, and that of ex-Interior Minister Habib al- Adly is ongoing.

Last week a coalition of the Brotherhood and ultra-fundamentalist Salafi groups staged a massive show of strength that drew tens of thousands to Cairo's iconic Tahrir Square. Comparing itself to the Salafis, the Brotherhood has shrewdly portrayed itself as a moderate, pragmatist movement offering equal rights to women and minorities.

“On Friday, as the hardliners were overwhelming Tahrir with chants for Shari'a, the MB was making inclusive gestures such as opening its stage to Coptic prayer, and it later criticized the Salafists’ use of Islamist slogans as antithetical to national unity,” Dina Girguis and Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy wrote Thursday.

“To further cement its claim to representing the Egyptian center, the MB declared its commitment to retaining the country’s Islamic identity. According to the Brotherhood, recent events prove that acceptance of Shari’a principles is widely shared throughout Egypt’s various factions.”

“By accommodating Islamists at the expense of the revolutionary protesters while publicly – particularly in the international arena – casting hardliners as a national security threat, the SCAF is seemingly reverting to the former regime’s formula of using Islamists to ward off domestic and international pressure for expanding liberties,” they wrote, referring to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that replaced Mubarak. “This tactic may backfire, however, inspiring some Islamists to push for even greater power.”

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