Position of Islam Questioned in Egypt
CAIRO (IPS) -- Another constitutional debate has erupted this month after a
number of academics and rights activists called for the amendment of Article 2
of the national charter that defines a role for Islam.
Article states that "Islam is the religion of the state" and that "Islamic Law
constitutes the principle source of legislation."
Critics of the amendment proposal say the demand will only serve to inflame
passions between the country's minority Christian community and its Muslim
Safwat el-Sherif, head of the Shura Council (the consultative house of
parliament), said that diluting the role of Islam in the constitution "would
only lead to sectarian strife" between Muslims and Christians.
"Islam is the religion of the state, but that doesn't mean that it is forced on
non-Muslims," El-Sherif said in on state television.
Constitutional issues have been at the forefront of public debate since
December, when President Hosni Mubarak called for the amendment of 34 articles
of the national charter. While Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP)
has portrayed the move as marking "a new era of political reform," most
opposition figures say the proposed changes will only further cement the NDP's
grip on political authority.
articles up for amendment cover a number of contentious issues, ranging from the
limits of presidential authority, judicial supervision of the electoral process,
to anti-terror legislation. Article 2, however, is not on the list of proposed
role of Islamic Law as "a main source" of legislation has been stipulated in
Egypt's constitution throughout modern history. In 1980, however, former
president Anwar Sadat -- while also changing the article governing presidential
term limits -- altered the text to "the main source of legislation."
a handful of liberal reformers are calling for the relevant article to be
changed, saying it has led to a policy of official discrimination against
early March, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHR) sent a petition
to the office of the President stating that the current text of Article 2 had
resulted in "court rulings denying citizens their right to embrace their adopted
document signed by more than 100 writers, academics, rights activists and
"intellectuals" went on to state that Article 2 had been used "to create and
spread an atmosphere of extremism" to the detriment of personal, scientific and
According to the petitioners, the article has also been used to justify an
"overwhelming encroachment of religious formalities on all aspects of social,
cultural, political and economic life." Educational curricula and state-owned
media, they stated, have become "principal sources for propagating religious
closing, signatories expressed hopes of "stopping the homeland from sliding into
ruptures along confessional lines and religious extremism like those breaking up
certain neighbouring countries."
CIHR has not been the only organisation to call for the dilution, or even the
elimination, of Islam's constitutional role.
handful of small associations claiming to represent expatriate Coptic Christians
in Europe and North America have also alleged that Article II has contributed to
an official bias against Christians in Egypt.
"The state's declaration that Islam is the official religion represents a
violation and humiliation against other religions, especially Coptic
Christians," the Geneva-based Copts United proclaimed recently on its website,
"and will ultimately prevent Copts from enjoying their full political and civil
despite frequent accusations by such groups of persecution and official
discrimination, the Coptic Church in Egypt has roundly rejected the notion of
amending the constitutional article in question.
Coptic Church head Pope Shenouda III warned followers last month that pushing
for the amendment of Article 2 would only "result in agitating Egyptian
Muslims." According to the independent weekly Al-Dustour, Shenouda removed the
bishop of a major diocese in Cairo from his position as church spokesman after
he publicly contradicted the church's official position on the subject.
Coptic Christians -- Egypt's oldest and largest Christian denomination -- are
estimated to represent roughly 10 percent of the population, although the figure
is widely disputed. The rest of the country of 70 million is almost exclusively
Meanwhile, spokesmen for the country's largest opposition group, the Muslim
Brotherhood, have also criticised calls for a reformulation of the article.
"Islamic law has been applied to transactions and individual relationships since
the introduction of Islam into Egypt," Brotherhood MP Ahmed Abu Baraka said.
"The reference to Islamic law in the current constitution was hardly an
innovation -- it was preceded in this by the earlier charters of 1923 and 1964."
Those advocating a rewording of Article 2, however, say their primary objection
is to Islamic Law representing the only source of legislation.
"Islamic law should be one of many sources of legislation, not its single
source," Hossam Bahgat, chairman of the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for
Personal Rights and a signatory to the CIHR petition told IPS. "I stand for a
civil state for all citizens and therefore request the impartiality of the state
in terms of citizens' religious beliefs."
According to Diaa Rashwan, an analyst at the state-run al-Ahram Centre for
Political and Strategic Studies, the current focus on Article 2 has served to
divert attention from more pressing constitutional issues.
"While talking about Article 2, which isn't even being considered for amendment,
most of them are ignoring the real problems," Rashwan told IPS. "Why don't they
call for the amendment of Article 77, which puts no term limits on the
presidency and which adversely effects the rights of all Egyptians?"
Rashwan added: "It's also strange they're calling for the change on behalf of
Coptic rights when Pope Shenouda himself -- along with most other Christian
denominations -- has already rejected the idea."
Source: International Press Service