Voices from the Arab press: Freedom of Belief and Religion in Egypt

In the past few weeks, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi repeated an important point in several of the speeches he delivered: the need to respect the freedom of religion and belief.

EGYPTIAN PRESIDENT Sisi speaks remotely during the 76th Session of the General Assembly at UN headquarters, New York, September 21.  (photo credit: (MARY ALTAFFER /POOL VIA REUTERS))
EGYPTIAN PRESIDENT Sisi speaks remotely during the 76th Session of the General Assembly at UN headquarters, New York, September 21.
(photo credit: (MARY ALTAFFER /POOL VIA REUTERS))

Freedom of Belief and Religion in Egypt

Al-Ahram, Egypt, September 20

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In the past few weeks, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi repeated an important point in several of the speeches he delivered: the need to respect the freedom of religion and belief. In parallel with the president’s remarks, Sheikh Ahmad Karima, professor of comparative jurisprudence and Islamic law at Al-Azhar University, provided evidence that such freedom had strong origins in Islamic law itself. In the Koranic text, Sheikh Karima pointed out, there were several verses confirming man’s freedom to choose how to practice his belief. In an interview aired on national television last week, Sheikh Karima warned against those who claimed to speak on behalf of Islam and monopolize religion in our country. Each person, he emphasized, had the right to observe in his own way.

Another point raised by the sheikh was the origin of this monopoly. According to his analysis, it was the Ottomans who changed the discourse surrounding religion in the Middle East, and turned it from a religion that can be practiced in a multitude of ways into a religion that must only be practiced based on one law. This was also the source of a lot of our region’s religious strife. Unfortunately, despite these clarifications from leading religious scholars, extremists in our midst still insist on the correctness of their religious interpretations and worldviews. They automatically attack any attempt to reform religion and vehemently oppose the principles of equality, tolerance, and social cohesion. We thus have no other choice but to confront them through all means available at our disposal. We must take advantage of media outlets to spread a different message of tolerance and hope. We must enact legislative reforms that enhance people’s rights to practice religion freely, through whatever rituals they see fit. President Sisi provided a great example in authorizing the establishment and expansion of churches alongside mosques. The only way to battle religious fundamentalism is to educate the masses against it and outlaw the activity of extremists. Only then will we convince the public that their ideas are dangerous and must be decried and condemned by all of us. 

– Ahmed Abdel Tawab 

Connect, Care, Communicate

Al-Watan, Kuwait, September 21

A 25-year-old girl committed suicide last week by throwing herself from the sixth floor of a mall. She died a few days later in the hospital after succumbing to her injuries. According to several of her relatives, she had been suffering from depression due to family disputes. This news is not only shocking and catastrophic but also upsetting. In covering the incident, newspapers and media outlets didn’t focus on the struggles that led the woman to take her own life but questioned, instead, whether this poor girl can be “prayed for.” Is this really what concerns us? Instead of trying to empathize with the miserable life of this poor girl, what we’re focused on instead is whether she deserves religious condemnation for ending her life. Whenever the topic of suicide is brought up in the news, commentators immediately remark that the victim “died an infidel” or was “vexed by the devil.” In other words, there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding that depression is an acute disease that often cannot be controlled. It isn’t simply “cured” by prayer, fasting, or pilgrimage. It is associated with a chemical imbalance in one’s brain, and, similarly to many other diseases, has a clear medical diagnosis. Undermining the victim’s suffering or questioning his or her religiousness is cruel. People who suffer from depression struggle with a real disease that suffocates their soul, destroys their livelihood, and consumes their sanity.

The number of suicides in the world is more than the victims of wars and premeditated killings combined, standing at some 3,000 suicides per day. Suicide is the No. 1 cause of death for adolescents and adults under age 35. Around the world, someone commits suicide every 40 seconds. Men commit suicide three times more than women. These terrifying numbers explain the size and severity of the mental health problem. Therefore, the World Health Organization and the World Anti-Suicide Association launched the slogan “connect, care, communicate” to encourage people to support their friends, colleagues, and loved ones. Let’s live up to that slogan. Let’s make a better effort to understand, and support, those who are battling with their mental health.

 – Khaled Montaser

Is Turkey’s Accession to the European Union Dead?

Al-Arab, London, September 21

Last August, The Economist editorial board suggested what most of us have known and believed for a long time: that Turkey’s EU accession process is dead. The Turkish government was quick to respond. In a letter published by Turkey’s deputy foreign minister and head of EU Affairs, Faruk Kaymakci, the Turkish government claimed that “the European Union doesn’t have the luxury of rejecting a more democratic Turkey, which would fulfill all objective criteria required for membership.” Truth be told, Kaymakci’s point was a valid one. But the option of a “more democratic Turkey” doesn’t exist. In fact, the opposite is true. Once again, the prominent role that Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs plays in the 2022 budget is underlined, with the directorate’s allocations exceeding those of seven ministries, including the Interior Ministry, the Foreign Affairs Ministry, and the presidency. 

This aligns with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s long-stated intent to create a “religious generation,” which is reflected in the Turkish school curriculum. This also includes a reference to Turkish domination of the world and the new world order under Islam. The prominent role played by the directorate, particularly its president, Ali Erbas (who has just been reappointed), is reflected in the way Erbas has supported the government’s plans to control social media. Turkey is an ostensibly secular country. In any case, both the preamble and Article 24 of the Turkish Constitution state that no one is allowed to exploit religion for the purpose of personal or political influence. However, this has been the case since Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002.

Accordingly, former AKP MP and columnist Rasul Toson has argued that the principle of secularism should either be removed from the constitution or redefined, so as not to prevent religious people from practicing their religion. The imam of Hagia Sophia also believed that secularism should be removed from the constitution, and that the republic should be returned to “factory settings” when there was no secularism in 1921 and 1924. In a recent ceremony marking the beginning of the judicial year, Erdogan announced that he would put forward plans for the drafting of a new constitution in the first few months of 2022 and that a referendum would be held if necessary. The president of Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals also supported the proposal. So in 2023, the centenary of the founding of the Turkish Republic, Turkey can be equipped with a new Islamic constitution. 

– Robert Ellis 

 TURKISH PRESIDENT Recep Tayyip Erdogan (center) and Religious Affairs Directorate head Ali Erbas (right) pray, alongside Court of Cassation president Mehmet Akarca, at a ceremony in Ankara, September 1.  (credit: MURAT CETINMUHURDAR/PRESIDENTIAL PRESS OFFICE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS) TURKISH PRESIDENT Recep Tayyip Erdogan (center) and Religious Affairs Directorate head Ali Erbas (right) pray, alongside Court of Cassation president Mehmet Akarca, at a ceremony in Ankara, September 1. (credit: MURAT CETINMUHURDAR/PRESIDENTIAL PRESS OFFICE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Arming the Indo-Pacific and the New World Order

Asharq Al-Awsat, London, September 21

US president Donald Trump spread terror in American political circles about the dangers of China as a real and imminent threat to the American economy. His fear expressed itself today with the AUKUS Agreement signed between Washington, London, and Canberra, under the guidance of President Joe Biden. The armaments wars in the Indo-Pacific region are real and alive. But one player has been left outside the new trilateral pact: France. Paris not only lost a major submarine sales deal to the United States but has actually been excluded from the agreement. The reason for leaving Paris out of the agreement is simple: Washington doesn’t trust the Europeans as reliable partners in its possible confrontation with China and Russia. The European Union considers China its second-largest trading partner after America, and Germany, which leads the EU, calls for more cooperation with the Russians, even feeling that it has gone too far in its dispute with them over Ukraine.

Washington wants strong allies that advance its interests. After all, interests govern international relations, not friendships. France was angered by the Australian and American position, which “stabbed it in the back,” as Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian put it. The new trilateral alliance consisting of America, Britain, and Australia held secret meetings to finalize the terms of their pact. Yet France was not completely excluded as it claims. President Macron knew that talks were taking place, but he held off on rejecting them until they became a reality. Now, President Biden is buying time to wait for the storm to pass, with the hope that France’s anger subsidies. But in fact, the whole world is waiting to see the French response.

Can Biden provide compensation to France? The French say that their anger isn’t so much about losing the submarine deal to the US, because it can find a buyer to replace Australia, but more a shock at being excluded from an alliance in which Europe was supposed to have a seat. But what France doesn’t want to hear is that the European Union is at its weakest, both economically and politically.

So what are France’s options? There are two main options: Either France negotiates a role in this up-and-coming alliance and gets a seat at the table, or it enhances its relations with China and Russia in defiance of the US. Of course, this matter won’t be determined by France alone but will also be shaped by the European Union. There’s also the possibility that AUKUS is expanded to include additional countries, such as India, Japan, or South Korea – all of which view China as a strategic threat. The international system is being reformed following America’s withdrawal from the Middle East. The presence of a nuclear power led by Washington in waters opposite China is something that Beijing has not taken into account. However, China’s main leverage against the US remains economic. The American decision to leave France out of the AUKUS Agreement is meant to send a clear message to the world: If you’re not actively fighting alongside the US, you’re against it. – Amal Abd Al-Aziz Al-Hazani

Translated by Asaf Zilberfarb.