al-Monitor Middle East Published Articles

Is Sufism the Answer to Extremism in Egypt?

Egypt Sufism Extremism
(Peter Crawford)

This article was first published at al-Monitor.

If the Egyptian government wants to combat the spread of radical religious ideology, it would do well to return to its Muslim roots. At a conference held at the headquarters of the Azamiyah Order in Cairo on April 21, which Al-Monitor attended, presenters argued that Sufi Islam is the authentic expression of Egypt’s Muslims.

The conference emphasized the brotherly bond between Muslims and Christians, following the Palm Sunday bombings on April 9. But Sufis are singled out as infidels by the Islamic State (IS), too.

“I have told President [Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi to take care of the Sufi leaders,” Sheikh Alaa Abu al-Azayem told Al-Monitor. “We are the ones who stand against terrorism, fighting not with weapons but ideas.”

Sufism is widely considered the default setting for Egypt’s Muslim community, and tombs of popular Sufi saints dot the landscape up and down the Nile…

Please click here to read the full article at al-Monitor:
Atlantic Council Middle East Published Articles

The Blasphemy Law is Here to Stay

This article was first published at Egypt Source.

Naoot Beheiry
Fatima Naaot (L) and Islam Beheiry

Among the many battlegrounds between liberal and conservative visions for Egypt is the blasphemy law, with Islam al-Beheiry and Fatima Naoot its latest victims.

Naoot was recently sentenced to three years and fined 20,000 Egyptian pounds ($2,500) for statements critical of the Eid al-Adha ritual of slaughtering animals. Beheiry’s very public spat with Al-Azhar, meanwhile, concerns the right of the citizen to question, research, and promulgate revisionist interpretations of Islamic heritage.

That his one year prison sentence for contempt of religion followed an acquittal from another court on similar charges reveals a society and judiciary not yet settled on the proper balance between freedom of belief and expression and the protection of religion, both demanded by the nation’s constitution.

Public figures criticized both the Beheiry and Naoot verdicts. In Beheiry’s case, one prominent politician penned an op-ed in the national daily, Al-Ahram, calling the blasphemy law “disgraceful to Egypt.” Many have expressed alarm over what appears to be a recent increase in formal accusations. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) noted in a 2014 report that blasphemy cases increased from three in 2011 to 13 in 2013, averaging about one per month since the revolution. EIPR lead researcher Ishak Ibrahim told EgyptSource that another 17 cases were filed last year.

While local and international rights groups have called for the law to be amended or repealed, Ibrahim favors the strategy of referring a case to the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC). He fears that kind of legislative push might backfire and result in an increase in punishments. There is greater hope, he thinks, that the SCC might rule the blasphemy law to be unconstitutional. This would be on the basis of Articles 64 and 65, which to Ibrahim are clear. They state that freedom of belief is “absolute” and freedom of thought and opinion is “guaranteed,” inclusive of the right to express and publish.

But in an interview with EgyptSource one of Egypt’s senior judges described his understanding of the legal context of blasphemy law, more formally known as contempt of religions. He requested anonymity due to the fact that Beheiry’s file is still working its way through the judicial system, and made clear his comments do not refer to any specific case. In principle, he believes the law in current form to be just and in accordance with the constitution.

The SCC, he said, has already settled the issue. Case 44 of 1988 on the organization of political parties confirmed that “freedom of expression is a fundamental right, inherent in the very nature of a democratic regime and essential to the free formation of the public will.” Meanwhile, Case 8 of 1996, which addressed the question of wearing the veil in schools, described the relation of the right of expression to religious belief. “Freedom of belief, in principle, means for the individual not to be forced to adopt a belief he does not believe in,” the judge related from the court brief. But it also prohibited one “to side with one belief in a manner that would be prejudicial to another by denying, belittling, or ridiculing it.”

According to Khaled Hassan, a liberal Muslim researcher with the Center for Arab-West Understanding, this what Beheiry has done. It is not the content of his argument that is inappropriate, but the presentation. Beheiry’s style on television, he says, is provocative, on occasion offensive, and belittles the belief of millions of Muslims.

EIPR’s Ibrahim explains thatin the court verdict that saw Beheiry sentenced, he was found guilty of “insulting Islamic sanctities, the Sunnah, and the four imams [referring to the founders of the four principle Islamic schools of jurisprudence], considered a tearing down of the constants of Islam.” But the judge who acquitted Beheiry, Ibrahim related, ruled that nothing he said was in violation of the law. The case demonstrates that determining the boundaries of ridicule is left in the hands of the individual judge, who issues a verdict according to his own judgement.

Lawyer Hamdy al-Assyouti has defended many accused on a pro bono basis, and is the author of Blasphemy in Egypt which details 23 cases. He told EgyptSource that he tries to keep the judge’s focus on the law, not religion. Too often, he said, either mob pressure or a judge’s personal conservatism will cause him to ignore legitimate reasons to dismiss a case.

Beheiry was prosecuted on the basis of Article 98(f) of the Penal Code, passed in 1981 following sectarian riots in the Cairo neighborhood of al-Zawiya al-Hamra. Originally meant for protection against sectarian violence, it has become a tool exploited for oppression, Assyouti said. But this article, the judge explained, is not in the blasphemy section at all. Rather, it is included under the section dealing with crimes against the state. The text of the law designates a fine or jail term “against any person who exploits religion to propagate … extremist thoughts with intent to enflame civil strife, defame or show contempt for a revealed religion … or harm national unity.” In the judge’s opinion it only applies when one intends to cause disorder in society.

The formal contempt of religion laws are Articles 160 and 161, which prohibit the disturbance of religious rituals, printing and publishing distorted religious texts, and the public mocking of religious ceremonies. These, along with Article 98(f), do allow prosecution against those who attack religion, such as Abu Islam who was sentenced to five years in prison, after appeal, for tearing a copy of the Bible while protesting the anti-Islam film, The Innocence of Muslims. The judge believes a “sarcastic manner” that attacks the “core of religious belief” is necessary to establish guilt. This, he says, is required to protect society from instability, especially societies like Egypt which show great respect toward religion. He quoted former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, saying, “Freedom of speech is not a license. It does entail exercising responsibility and judgment.”

But he is clear this does not represent a curb on freedom of expression. “The mere propagation of non-belief in the revealed religions or of Islam,” he told EgyptSource, “does not in itself violate the provision of the Penal Code.”

For this reason there is no need to change the legislation, he believes, and in any case such efforts will not be successful. He explained that the legal process is long, involving review by the Ministry of Justice, the State Council, and the High Committee for Legal Reform, and in this case likely also Al-Azhar, which he expects will never accept diminishing the protection of religion. Legislation must also reflect social realities, he added, as necessary public dialogue would reveal non-acceptance by the great majority of a religious society.

So despite the controversies—and perhaps injustices—witnessed in recent cases, the judge’s opinion is firm. “The blasphemy law will never change,” he said. “It secures the faith of Egyptians and is not in conflict with the constitution.” Meanwhile in defense of individuals like Beheiry, Naoot, and many others, activists labor on, fully aware of all the challenges. “I believe in the freedom of belief,” said Assyouti. “But in the climate we are living in, expanding this freedom will be very difficult.”

Please click here for my earlier article that provides an alternate take on the blasphemy law.

Atlantic Council Middle East Published Articles

Women’s Rights through the Printed Word: Extending Liberal Values to Ordinary Women

Tahani al-Gibali
Tahani al-Gibali

From my recent article on Egypt Source:

If liberal values are going to spread in Egyptian society, politics is not the answer. Women are.

“The normal woman has a job, goes to market, and raises her family, but she is not part of a political party,” said Youssef Habib, editor-in-chief of the newly launched women’s magazine Lu’lu’a, or Pearl.

“Most Egyptian women think they are simply a servant in the home,” he continued. “We say no, you are a partner, and you are very important.”

Part of the research for this article included attending a festive gala with prominent Egyptian female personalities, and included the stinging quip below:

The name Lu’lu’a is drawn in comparison with the Egyptian woman. Like the sand in the shell which endures great pressure, she emerges beautiful. This point was made by Fatima Naout, the social and political commentator and self-described godmother of the magazine who is a hero of the liberal cause.

Naout headlined a gala affair hosted by Lu’lu’a to celebrate the launch of the magazine’s first bimonthly edition. Honored guests included luminaries such as Tahani al-Gibali, Lamis Gaber, and Farida al-Shobashi, in addition to Samira Qilada, mother of a January 25 martyred daughter.

Angham al-Gammal, a female co-founder of the magazine with Habib and Latif, also insists the magazine is non-political and does not belong to any particular trend. However true in intention, as Naout spoke of Maryam, Qilada’s daughter, she betrayed the sympathies of almost all in attendance.

“The martyrs have already taken their reward. They have gone to the place of beauty, justice, truth, and light,” she said, “a place where there are no Muslim Brothers.”

But the magazine is also a social initiative with a strong, though controversial message:

Latif hopes to take the subjects of the magazine directly to marginalized communities in at least one meeting per month. As such, he described Lu’lu’a as an initiative more than a simple business venture. Their team recently held an awareness meeting with over 150 teachers and 500 students from four private girls-only high schools. They discussed the importance of self-esteem and education, and the dangers of sexual harassment and early marriage.

Early marriage, in fact, is the cover story for issue one, and received the condemnation of Gaber, whose journalistic commentary includes calling the hijab a devaluation of women.

“If you want to silence a people,” she addressed the gathering, “silence the women, marry them early, and a whole generation will emerge ignorant.”

But lest a conservative public receive this message as godless, the editors assert they have a religious vision as well:

The magazine also seeks to accord with Egyptian religiosity, unwilling to cede the discourse on women to Islamists.

“Our core vision,” said Latif, “is that God created the woman and her value comes from him.”

From the conclusion, holding up the magazine as an example of Egyptian liberals trying to touch the people, whereas political leaders are often seen as elite:

Indeed, the revolution changed Egypt, but more is needed to transform the people. If liberal politics falter here, liberal Egyptians must extend the message themselves – socially.

Please click here to read the whole article at Egypt Source.



A Salafi Speaks in Church on Shenouda

Fatima Naout and a surprise Salafi guest

The evening was supposed to be about Fatima Naout and Pope Shenouda. It turned out to be so much more.

That it included Fatima Naout is semi-exceptional in itself. St. Mark’s  Coptic Orthodox Church in Maadi invited her to be the keynote presenter for a memorial service for Pope Shenouda. Naout is a Muslim.

Yet she is well known in Egypt – and celebrated by Copts – as a staunch defender of citizenship, liberal principles, and Coptic rights. There are many Muslims like her, of course, but she goes further. She has memorized many verses of the Bible and lauds Christians over the sublime teachings of their religion.

She stated she loves to go to church because she is jealous of Christians. She finds much in Islam to be their antithesis.

During her presentation Naout made many beautiful remarks about Pope Shenouda, and was received warmly. It was not until the end, however, that the evening got really interesting.

Mahmoud arrived, complete with the full length beard marking a Muslim of Salafi persuasion.

He was noticed quickly, and must have explained himself sufficiently, for before too long he was brought to the front to speak. He apologized for being late, and offered his condolences over the death of Pope Shenouda, offering kind words about their spiritual leader.

The church was electrified. In the days after Pope Shenouda’s death a popular Salafi preacher forbade Muslims from saying the common cultural expression over a death, ‘God have mercy on him.’ Shenouda was an infidel, and the head of the infidels, and God would not have mercy on an infidel, especially one who brought such sectarian tension to Egypt and wished to create an independent Coptic state.

In parliament the Muslim Brotherhood speaker Saad al-Katatni paused proceedings and asked everyone to stand for a moment of silence out of respect for Pope Shenouda. The Salafi members stayed in their seats, except for those who chose to walk out.

The entrance of a Salafi into a memorial for Pope Shenouda, then, caused quite a stir. Later on Naout’s Christian secretary apologized to Mahmoud publically. When she saw him come in she immediately feared he was going to blow himself up in the church.

Mahmoud stated he was afraid himself. Before coming in he thought he would be searched rudely, if not barred at the gate. Instead, he was astounded at his welcome.

These confessions came later. After his two minute offer of condolences the service ended with a final hymn, and all exited. Mahmoud, however, had a crowd around him outside.

Naout and Mahmoud

Some wanted to get a point across, though were friendly in doing so. It was certainly an opportunity to address a Salafi on their own turf, with numbers in their favor. Mahmoud was gracious and didn’t seem to be bothered by his instant celebrity.

Most of those present, however, simply offered their welcome, and thanked him for coming. He was invited back, so that he might see how Christians pray and get a fuller picture of the faith and the community. He appeared willing to do so.

The whole while Naout was still inside speaking with the organizers of the service, but made a point to speak to Mahmoud. When she exited and found him, the crowd around them doubled in size.

Eventually it led to a spontaneous second seminar. Naout and Mahmoud sat at a quickly arranged table and simply talked about their understandings of religion. Several in the crowd asked questions.

By this time Mahmoud’s story was known, though he repeated it for those who did not hear. He came only to hear Naout speak.

After the revolution the Muslim Brotherhood launched a campaign entitled, ‘Listen to us, don’t listen about us.’ Aware of their poor reputation in the press and their late entry into the revolution, the Brotherhood enjoined people to learn directly from the organization about its principles and values.

Mahmoud wanted to do the same, in reverse.

Given that Naout has such a poor reputation among Salafis, he heard about her presentation and came to the church to listen. Unfortunately, he was late and missed most of it. Yet the swell of attention and the interest of Naout to engage with such an open attitude led to his invitation to speak directly to the whole assembly.

I identified with him, had respect and sympathy for him, but advised him to think twice about doing it. I probably shouldn’t have, but it was my reaction after having been in his shoes. I will never regret wearing them, but I feared he was unprepared, and I feared the Coptic audience.

Several weeks ago I was in Tahrir Square, and I stumbled upon a tent representing the Coalition to Support New Muslims. This was a group that provoked/responded to – depending on perspective – great sectarian tension over the summer concerning a woman named Camilia Shehata. She was the wife of a priest who disappeared, fueling rumors she had been either, one, kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam, or two, converted willingly and was kidnapped by the church to prevent the announcement.

The Coalition to Support New Muslims rallied behind her according to their interpretation, and led multiple marches of thousands of conservative Muslims. On one occasion they marched threateningly past the Coptic Cathedral, the seat of Pope Shenouda.

I had long been curious about this group, but had no idea how to get in contact with them. By this occasion in Tahrir Square the Camilia Shehata issue had long since passed, but here I was at their doorstep.

I was received warmly and learned extensively of their perspectives. Despite the fact that Shehata appeared publically with her husband and child on satellite television and confessed her belief in Christianity, the Coalition held to the fact that she had indeed converted, and the church pressured her to return. Of note, the television station she appeared on was foreign based, and she spoke from abroad.

After a little while, though, the conversation changed. There were ten to fifteen people in the tent, and they began asking accusatory questions about Christianity. The Coalition, incidentally, had begun as individual members identified themselves on Paltalk, a popular chat service that hosts multiple rooms for interfaith, um, dialogue.

In reality it is a place of proselytizing, on all sides. The Muslims of the Coalition were long practiced at combating Christian witness on the site, and doing their best to convince in the other direction.

Unlike Mahmoud, they did not have the attitude of ‘listening to us, not about us’ to learn, but to pick Christianity apart. After finishing the basics about the Coalition and Camilia Shehata, they turned their sights on me.

It was not pleasant. A question would be posed, an answer attempted, and then someone else would jump in from a different direction. They were not rude, just purposed, and in the end, annoying (not all, of course, mostly one in particular). It was as if they had never interacted with a real live Christian before, and certainly not a foreigner.

And now, Mahmoud was in the same place.

He handled himself well, as did the audience. The only challenge came from Naout. She asked him about the difference between Quranic verses composed early in Mecca, which are largely irenic, with those from when he later resided, and ruled, in Medina. This is from where ‘verses of the sword’ issue, and most Muslim exegetes consider later revelation to abrogate the earlier. How could he, a kind and open-minded Muslim, accept such commands to kill and discriminate?

It was the sort of question I feared for him, as Naout is well versed in these matters and a strong personality, while Mahmoud, presumably, just wanted to learn. He ducked deftly enough, and no one was out for blood. The overwhelming sentiment in the audience was gratefulness that a Salafi had joined them. The evening ended with the idea Mahmoud could return with other Salafi colleagues, ones able to answer the question well, and the church could host them in seminars to get to know each other better. Fr. Butrous of St. Mark’s Church even offered to visit a Salafi mosque to do the same on their turf. Mahmoud indicated these were good ideas.

They are, in fact, beautiful ideas. The beauty stems from both sides, though in different manners. Mahmoud made the effort to get to know the other. He risked his own community’s condemnation by offering condolences for the pope. He even risked the chance the police guard outside the church might have misunderstood his intentions and gotten into trouble.

The beauty of the church stems from their reception. Copts feel under tremendous pressure from Islamists in general, and Salafis in particular. By and large, they did not take their unprecedented opportunity to lay into a Salafi who was actually kind hearted enough to listen to what could have been their many legitimate complaints. Instead, they welcomed him, and made certain his visit was appreciated.

It is beautiful, but it is also revealing. The Coptic Church is widely panned as being an insular institution whose people have grown more and more isolated within its walls. Salafis can be understood somewhat similarly. There is very little connection between the two groups, and as such, acrimony is frequent on both sides.

I cannot say what the real Salafi attitude is toward Christians, if it differs from that of many of their high profile leaders. Yet the church attitude demonstrated that even if Christians are isolated, they desire to be known. Most may not desire it enough to be as brave as Mahmoud, but when offered a chance to interact with a Salafi, they jumped at the chance. They are desperate to give a good, and corrective, impression.

Naout closed the impromptu session by referring back to Pope Shenouda. She claimed this evening was ‘one of his miracles’. Indeed, had the pope not died, this memorial service would not have been held, Naout would not have been present, and Mahmoud would never have set foot in a church. Is it a miracle?

The answer is probably dependant on theology. Is it safe to say it is a miracle of the revolution? Is God arranging to bring the diverse strands of Egyptian belief closer and closer together? Is it just a token sociological accident? Or has good already begun to emerge from Pope Shenouda’s death?

Regardless, greater interaction between Copts and Salafis, Islamists and liberals, urbanites and villagers, and all manner of Egyptians is desperately necessary. Tonight, Pope Shenouda, Fatima Naout, and Mahmoud all circumstantially intertwined to begin a small chapter.

Or should it be labeled ‘providentially’?


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