Guestview: Yes to interfaith harmony, no to religious police in Egypt

January 8, 2013

(Grand Mufti of Egypt Sheikh Ali Gomaa at the opening ceremony of the 15th General Conference of the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Amman September 27, 2010. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed)

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Ali Gomaa is the Grand Mufti of Egypt.

By Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa

The beginning of a new year presents us with an opportunity to engage in serious introspection and take account of ourselves and the communities in which we live. This is a particularly pressing need within the context of contemporary Egypt, which continues to pass through a sensitive period of transition. The events of the past year, indeed of the past two years, underscore the absolute necessity of maintaining national unity in our beloved land. Acrimonious political debates must not detract us from this overriding imperative.

Perhaps the most important matter that needs to be addressed in Egypt today is the promotion of interreligious harmony. It is no secret that our Christian brothers and sisters have sometimes been made to feel uncomfortable during an unstable period. This is why the I have have made a special effort during this Christmas season to publicaly congratulate all of Egypt’s Christian churches on their holidays. In a statement, I prayed that the spirit of the holidays prevails and that all the country’s citizens – indeed, all citizens of the world – strengthen their resolve to work for the spreading of love, peace on Earth, goodwill and the brotherhood of all.

I also took the occasion to clarify that wishing Christians well on the birth of the Prophet Jesus (peace be upon him) is in fact a praiseworthy and encouraged action within Islam because it is a verbal expression of the desire to promote peaceful and harmonious relations between neighbors, fellow citizens and brothers and sisters in mankind.  Indeed, the births of the prophets are landmark historical events. They represent a sudden flourish of divinely inspired men who come to Earth to preach peace and security and to spread a message of happiness and guidance to humanity at large. As I prayed on the occasion of Christmas, “I beseech God to increase our precious Egypt in fraternal sentiment, love, strong relations and goodness, and to preserve our blessed land as a symbol of peace and security always.”

(A Muslim holding the Koran (top L) and a Coptic Christian holding a cross are carried through opposition supporters in Tahrir Square in Cairo February 6, 2011. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez)

I went on to stress the importance of all citizens partaking in one another’s occasions and celebrations by wishing them well and congratulating them, for we are today in dire need of spreading feelings of brotherhood and national unity and curbing divisions. Muslims and Christians alike are encouraged to transform sentiments of solidarity into true unity for the sake of the welfare of Egypt, and not in the interests of individual advancement or sectarian gain. This is crucial so that we may leave to future generations a pluralistic, humane culture at the root of which is true faith, a commitment to justice and love between the peoples of this great land.

The fear of division is also what must motivate us to reject calls to imitate other societies and cultures. Recently, there have been calls to institute a committee for the “promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice.” Some fear this will amount to little more than a morality police that exercises illegitimate authority to compel people to behave in ways they have deemed most appropriate. But  Egypt is a complex society. It is here that different visions of religion and the good life vie with one another. While we of course observe the limits of our culture and heritage, it is precisely our heritage that recognises this as a foreign imposition on our culture and way of life. This sort of idiotic thinking is one that seeks to further destabilise what is already a tense situation. Egypt’s religious scholars have long guided the people to act in ways that conform to their religious commitments, but have never thought this required any type of invasive policing.

Furthermore, these self-proclaimed scholars and untrained amateurs who attempt to issue fatwas are not to be regarded as authentic scholars. Their fatwas are more like unscholarly statements made according to their whims and desires and have no weight in the legal science of fatwa. It is a misnomer to use the term fatwa for these unscholarly opinions, which go against both the principles of Sharia and established science of fatwas, which both stress the scholarly qualifications of the mufti involved.

(Members of Saudi Arabia’s Committee for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, or religious police, perform dusk prayers with Saudi youth outside coffee shops in Riyadh June 27, 2010. The men conducted prayers during half-time of the World Cup soccer match between Germany and England, which they had been watching. The police have been ensuring that people watching World Cup soccer matches at coffee shops say their prayers during the duration of the soccer tournament. REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed)

Egypt’s religious tradition is anchored in a moderate, tolerant view of Islam. We believe that Islamic law guarantees freedom of conscience and expression within the bounds of common decency and equal rights for women. And as head of Egypt’s agency of Islamic jurisprudence, I maintain that the religious establishment is committed to these values.

The paradigm of these wise scholars is best represented by Al-Azhar University, whose humane tradition of learning and service remains the only safeguard for a tolerant and moderate Egypt.

The promotion of harmony was the premier lesson of the great prophets who left for us lofty values and perennial principles for living together cooperatively as humans. It is now upon us to take up this example seriously and refrain from unnecessary division for the sake of our country. Any attempt to sow discord among the people of this land must be opposed in the strongest terms possible. I have no doubt that forces that seek to divide Egyptian Muslims from Egyptian Christians – and Egyptian Muslims and Christians amongst themselves – will ultimately fail. Egypt has been a symbol of coexistence for centuries and will continue to be by the grace of God. Islam will have a place in Egypt’s democracy. But it will be as a pillar of tolerance and harmony, never as a means of oppression.

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