Thu, Nov 01, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Newly democratic Egypt divided on Islam’s role in politics

The Muslim-majority country is at a critical juncture in its democratization, where it must draft a constitution that some want to be based on Shariah law, while others want a purely secular document

By Aya Batrawy  /  AP, MECCA, Saudi Arabia

Illustration: Mountain People

Now that she has finished the hajj and is returning home to Egypt, Magda Bagnied says her family will no doubt try to convince her to put on the headscarf to demonstrate her religiosity after a pilgrimage meant to cleanse her of sin and bring her closer to God.

She fully expects that from her parents. However, she does not want that kind of pressure from her government or leaders.

“Leave religion to the people,” said Bagnied, a media professor at Ahram Canadian University, in Cairo’s suburbs.

The annual pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest sites offers Muslims a chance to reaffirm their faith and root themselves more firmly in their beliefs. It comes at a time when several Arab nations are facing a similar issue on a political level after uprisings that toppled longtime leaders and brought Islamists to greater power: The question of how much a government should be rooted in Islam.

Egypt in particular is struggling with that question. Elections since the fall last year of former of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak elevated Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood was vaulted to become the country’s strongest political force, along with even more conservative Islamists known as Salafis, who follow a strict Saudi-style interpretation of Islam.

As pilgrims were making their way around the Kaaba, the cube-shaped structure in Mecca that observant Muslims pray toward five times a day, and performing an elaborate set of rituals in Saudi Arabia over the past week, Egypt was in a bitter struggle over the writing of the new constitution.

Salafis are pressing for the document to explicitly root Egypt’s laws in Shariah. That has raised liberals’ fears that it will bring stricter implementation of Islamic law and empower Muslim clerics in a political role, limiting women’s rights and freedoms of worship and expression. The assembly writing the constitution is dominated by the Brotherhood and Salafis.

The Egyptians who performed the pilgrimage this year may be united in the importance they give to their faith in their lives. Yet it does not mean they all agree on the mix of religion and politics. More than 90,000 Egyptians were on the pilgrimage, which largely wrapped up on Monday. They hailed from all segments of Egyptian society, the rich and the poor, and from all corners of the Arab world’s most populous nation.

Wearing the seamless terrycloth garments worn by male pilgrims to symbolize equality and unity during hajj, Sayid Zeid said Egypt’s constitution should represent all Egyptians and it must be based on the Koran.

How can it be both, given the large Christian minority and the sector of liberal Muslims?

“Shariah will be applied by God ... It should be applied as it came down from God,” said Zeid, who is a reporter with Egypt’s state television, though he was performing the hajj, not covering it.

For some, it seemed only natural that Islamic law would benefit a Muslim-majority nation, putting aside questions of who would interpret it or implement it.

Making his way to midday prayers at Mecca’s Grand Mosque, which houses the Kaaba, Abdel-Muntalib el-Fikky said there is no reason to fear Shariah or the Islamists.

“Why are we all here? We are all here for God,” he said of the pilgrims. “Our constitution, God willing, will be good. It will move us forward.”

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