Archive - May 12, 2016

Egyptian Parliament Attempts to Repeal Blasphemy Law
Germany Trying to Squeeze Round Mosques into Square Church Structures

Egyptian Parliament Attempts to Repeal Blasphemy Law

Guest post by Areej Hassan

ِA fierce debate is currently taking place in Egypt’s Parliament over whether the country’s blasphemy law should be repealed. In response to the recent rise in blasphemy accusations against religious, political, and media personalities, as well as some of the country’s Christian minority, 100 out of a total 596 Egyptian Members of Parliament (MPs)s support a proposed bill to repeal the law.

The blasphemy law, or Article 98(f) of Egypt’s penal code, states:

Detention for a period of not less than six months and not exceeding five years, or paying a fine of not less than five hundred pounds and not exceeding one thousand pounds shall be the penalty inflicted on whoever exploits and uses the religion in advocating and propagating by talk or in writing, or by any other method, extremist thoughts with the aim of instigating sedition and division or disdaining and contempting any of the heavenly religions or the sects belonging thereto, or prejudicing national unity or social peace.

The most famous of the MPs who support the proposed bill is Dr. Amna Naseer, who is also a teacher of Islamic Jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. She is highly regarded by many Egyptians. With regard to the bill, Dr. Naseer stated that “Islam urges people to believe and does not call for imprisonment as punishment for anyone’s thoughts. For the sake of protecting my religion and the freedom of the Shari’a, I agree that the defamation of religion law should be repealed. This bill would also ensure that three of the freedoms enumerated in the constitution– thought, speech, and artistic expression– are protected.”

Standing in opposition to this bill are members of the Islamist Al-Noor Party, such as MP Muhammad Ismail. Ismail explained that calling for the repeal of the law would essentially be a call to chaos. He believes that the repeal would be extremely harmful to society, though he doesn’t explain how any harm could arise. He rejects the concept of challenging ideas with other ideas, arguing that insults to religion should be an exception to that concept.

Between these two positions are those who want only to amend the law. Those who are in this camp acknowledge that the current law is problematic. However, because they also believe that a blasphemy law for the protection of sacred beliefs is necessary, they argue that the current law need only be amended so that it is not applied unfairly to those undeserving of its punishments.

Imad Jad, a Christian MP who also supports the bill’s adoption and the blasphemy law’s complete repeal, said, in response to those who want to only amend the law, that if Parliament does not repeal the law in its entirety, he and other MPs will try other means to repeal the law. He has expressed his support of Dr. Naseer’s statement and also believes that the law’s existence serves to harm more than help the Islamic religion.

When Egyptian scholars of Islam were asked for their opinions regarding this new bill, Al-Azhar University’s Deputy, Abbas Shouman, explained that Al-Azhar is opposed to blasphemy against all religions, regardless of whether there is a blasphemy law in place. However, because Al-Azhar scholars themselves are not members of Parliament, they will not interfere in Parliament’s decision-making.

The fact that the proposed bill has the support of a highly respected MP like Dr. Naseer is a very promising sign. What makes this current debate so significant is the absence of the “Islamic vs. secular” division that has plagued Muslim-majority countries for so long.

The participation of mainstream Muslim scholars like Dr. Naseer in such a debate is extremely powerful in shifting people’s attitudes towards certain issues. Had the likes of Dr. Naseer been absent from this debate and had the only parties debating this issue been members of the Islamist Al-Nour Party vs. members of secular parties, the debate would have been unproductive. In such a scenario, the Al-Nour party, no matter how extreme, would have been presented and viewed as representing Muslim interests, while those from the secular parties, no matter how moderate, would have been viewed as representing any number of anti-Islamic interests.

It is refreshing to see scholars of Islam and other Muslims standing in opposition to Egypt’s blasphemy law on religious grounds, arguing that such measures are actually harmful and even antithetical to their religion, thus wresting power from parties like Al-Nour and their purported claim to speak as the sole voice of Islam and Muslims in Egypt.

Though it’s still uncertain whether this debate will lead to an actual repeal of Egypt’s blasphemy law, the fact that a debate is taking place at all, and with such nuanced arguments, is definitely a step in the right direction.

Areej Hassan is Director of Media and Research at the Center for Islam and Religious Freedom. She has a B.A. in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University.

Germany Trying to Squeeze Round Mosques into Square Church Structures

A Lutheran bishop in Germany, Ilse Junkermann, has called on Muslims in Germany to organize themselves the way the major, i.e. Catholic and Lutheran, churches in Germany are organized, namely top-down in a single organization, or at least in denominational organizations.

The presumption that the structures of the major Christian churches should be accepted as normative and demanded of other religions in Germany deserves rigorous, critical questioning. For one thing, not even all the Christians in Germany accept these structures (Evangelical and other Christians tend to opt out of the state-recognized churches). Plus, significantly, when Germany became a nation-state, these structures for the Catholic and Lutheran churches were already in place. These already-existing church structures shaped the way the state structured its relations with these two church groups, not vice versa.

Trying now to impose the structures of Catholic and Lutheran Christians on Muslims in Germany is, moreover, risky. As I have observed previously, “Entangling … explorations of Islam with governmental attempts to sanction one viewpoint over another…is more likely to stifle than encourage the much needed open, free public space for explorations of the meaning of Islam.”

In Sunni Islam, the branch followed by most Muslims in Germany, the capacity to accommodate internal diversity has developed organically over 1,400 years. While the coming and going of local political powers as well as empires led from time to time to relative centralization of religious structure, overall the broad distribution of authority in Sunni Islam is inherent to its vibrancy and flexibility.

Today the Muslim-majority countries with the most rigid centralization of religion tend also to be among the most theologically stagnant, where religion is often reduced to a political tool of the state, and the main concern of the state when it comes to religion is control. Many of the theologically dynamic minds of modern Islam tend to flee from such restrictive settings to open, free, diverse environments, without a religious hierarchy oriented to the needs of the state trying to establish an artificial uniformity of thought.

The reason Bishop Junkermann gives for Muslims in Germany to organize centrally is unsettling. She asserts, “Precisely at times of religious pluralization, the state has an interest in religiosity not being relegated to back alleys and clubhouses.” Her concern here is the interest of the state, not the interests of Muslims, nor the protection of religious freedom in Germany. By contrast in countries such as the U.S. and Canada, Muslims organize themselves however, and in as many different ways, as they themselves determine is appropriate; in these countries Muslims institutions are numerous and they are flourishing participants in and contributors to society.

It is unlikely that an artificially, externally imposed hierarchy could have serious credibility among all of Germany’s ca. 4.5 million Muslims, who are diverse not only in ethnic background but, not least of all, in their theological schools and interpretive approaches. The diversity among Germany’s Muslims is part of Islam itself.

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.