Category - Egypt

1
Forgiving ISIS
2
Islam and Democracy in 2015
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Abu Zayd: face terrorism with thinking, not fragility, in religious discourse
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Dare we hope? The fate of Egyptian rights defenders.
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Update on CCHR Dissident Yara Sallam
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In Solidarity With a Great Dissident

Forgiving ISIS

In all of the back-and-forth since the recent beheadings of Coptic Christians by ISIS, one reaction is startling  — that of Coptic Bishop Angaelos, who extended forgiveness.  See here.  Forgiveness is hardly an obvious or natural response and is certainly not an easy one.  It is not something to which anyone has a right and it does not preclude condemning or fighting ISIS.  Why did Bishop Angaelos forgive?  He explains:

It may seem unbelievable to some of your readers, but as a Christian and a Christian minister I have a responsibility to myself and to others to guide them down this path of forgiveness. We don’t forgive the act because the act is heinous. But we do forgive the killers from the depths of our hearts. Otherwise, we would become consumed by anger and hatred. It becomes a spiral of violence that has no place in this world.

Bishop Angaelos was able to see a purpose in these horrific deaths:

I learned a long time ago that when one prays, one prays for the best outcome, not knowing what that outcome would be. Of course, I prayed that they would be safe. But I also prayed that, when the moment came, they would have the peace and strength to be able to get through it. It doesn’t change my view of God that these 21 men died in this way. They were sacrificed, but so much has come out of it. They brought the imminent dangers to marginalized peoples, not just Christians, but Yazidis and others in the Middle East, to the attention of the whole world.

He calls for united efforts on behalf of persecuted Christians — and all those who are denied their religious freedom.

I would like to see us all start to work towards human rights generally, because when we’re divided into different departments or organizations any change will be fragmented. If you look at the rights of every individual, God-given rights, we can all start to work together and safeguard any people who are persecuted anywhere. Of course, the vast majority of persecution falls squarely right now on Christians in the Middle East and that needs to be addressed. But, as a Christian, I will never be comfortable just safeguarding the rights of Christians. We need to help everyone.

His and other reactions to persecution on the part of Christians, ranging from non-violent protest to behind-the-scenes diplomacy to taking up arms, will be the subject of a major conference that the Center for Civil and Human Rights is holding in Rome on December 10-12, 2015.  Entitled “Under Caesar’s Sword: An International Conference on Christian Response to Persecution,” the conference commemorates the 50th anniversary of Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty.

All are invited!

Islam and Democracy in 2015

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In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s gradual but unmistakable centralization of power continues apace. Turkey, Egypt, Iran – all have at various times tried one kind or another of hybrid between Islamism and democracy. Which raises what may be the most vital long-term political question for Muslims: Is Islam compatible with democracy? The question is vital not just because non-Muslims frequently put it to Muslims. It also is the case that people the world over, including a vast majority of Muslims, aspire to live in democracies. More than two decades ago, Francis Fukuyama’s famous “end of History” thesis declared liberal democracy the winner in humankind’s age-old contest of ideas. Fukuyama’s declaration was premature at best, but it remains true that words such as “democracy” and “freedom” continue to have a grip on billions of people. The late Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi probably spoke for most jihadis when he rejected democracy as “a religion and disbelief.” But in most majority-Muslim countries, people emphatically reject the Zarqawi thesis: they say they want democracy (even if they do not trust the United States to help them achieve it).

As anyone who lives in a democracy knows, however, the word “democracy” is, empirically speaking, a container into which all manner of content can be poured. Some (too few) social scientists, such as Frederic Schaffer, have explored the subjective aspect of democracy – how people in different times and places mean different things by it. Precisely what various Muslims mean by it is in need of further investigation. But it is clear that for at least large numbers of devout Muslims, liberal democracy, at least as currently practiced in the West, is a stumbling block.

When North Americans, Europeans, and, increasingly, Latin Americans say “democracy,” they mean “liberal democracy.” Liberal democracy takes various institutional forms across countries, but in general it is an attempt to marry individual rights and popular government. As has been pointed out many times, both of these things cannot be maximized all the time: sometimes the majority wants to violate individual rights, and sometimes certain notions of individual rights go against popular opinion. In such moments, a polity must choose one or the other. But it is the sustained, consensual attempt to keep individual rights and majority rule together that defines liberal democracy.

Already, some cultures have difficulty with liberal democracy for its attachment to individual rights – as opposed to group rights, or to a strong notion of rights at all. Lee Kwan Yew, éminence grise of Singapore, is famous for saying that Westerners value individual freedoms, whereas Asians value honest and effective government.

The matter becomes even more complicated for many faithful Muslims when individual liberties are interpreted in the 21st-century Western manner. When the United States was founded in the late 18th century, the chief threat to liberty was thought to be government, which possessed coercive power and tended toward centralization. Thus the American Bill of Rights lists rights of individuals against the state. In the 21st century, by contrast, most Western elites hold that the chief threats to individual liberty come from society – traditional institutions such as churches, families, even cultures – and that the state ought to safeguard liberty from those things. Hence the culture wars that we are perpetually reassured do not exist.

A traditional Muslim may want to have a guaranteed voice in who governs, but will likely not want to live under laws and courts that seek to weaken the role of Islam – including clergy, mosques, and schools – in public life. Democracy, then, must take on a different modifier – perhaps constitutional, which denotes the rule of law.

I consider this question, among many others, in my new book Confronting Political Islam: Six Lessons from the West’s Past. By “West’s past” I mean not encounters between the Western and Muslim “worlds,” but rather the West’s own internal ideological struggles over the past 500 years – between, among others, monarchism and republicanism in the 19th century and communism and liberal democracy in the 20th. One lesson is that hybrid ideologies and institutions may emerge from a long struggle. Such happened in the late 19th century as “conservative liberalism,” a fusion of monarchism and republicanism, emerged in most European states. We may hope for another kind of fusion – Islamic democracy – in the Middle East. But the degeneration of democracy in Turkey over the past two years bodes ill.

Abu Zayd: face terrorism with thinking, not fragility, in religious discourse

Today 12 people were murdered, including four cartoonists, in Paris in an attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Muslim scholar Nasr Abu Zayd (1943-2010) experienced persecution in Egypt when he tried to exercise intellectual freedom. In a 2009 interview conducted by James Le Sueur, Abu Zayd talked of the importance of not being terrorized by those who use aggression to oppose other viewpoints to the point that people “give away any kind of academic integrity.”

Abu Zayd and Le Sueur in Holland, 2009

Abu Zayd and Le Sueur in Holland, 2009

In the interview he also discussed the problem of some Muslims responding to art, cartoons included, with violence today. Starting at 1:50:17 he comments on the Salman Rushdie case and similar situations today.

Abu Zayd saw the core of the problem as the “fragility” of religious discourse among Muslims.  This, he argued, is what must change. He said, “The religious discourse in the Muslim world are [sic] so fragile that a nothing would present a threat to an entire civilization called the Islamic civilization.”

Abu Zayd rejected this fragility. He instead saw challenge and thoughtful response to challenge as integral to healthy, robust, rich engagement by people of faith with their own religion. When facing differing, even opposing, views in arts and cartoons, Abu Zayd wanted to see fellow Muslims,

respond in a civil, rational way to any kind of challenge. Muslims should take this as a challenge, not a threat. [When] it is a threat, you immediately, you know, make retaliation. But in case of a challenge, you have to think about what was said. Criticism of religion, criticism of religious figures, is something that is very important to the development of religious ideas themselves, and the history of every religion is the history of…going beyond the challenge of the dogma, and only when the dogma is challenged, only after being challenged it is able to reconstruct itself. Otherwise it would be frozen. This is the history of the development of all religions.

Similarly the former Prime Minister of Indonesia Kyai Haji Abdurrahman Wahid (1940-2009) rejected the idea that God is so weak, so fragile, that God would need human defense against blasphemy. He too did not fear challenge. In his essay, “God Needs No Defense,” he argued, “Defending freedom of expression is by no means synonymous with personally countenancing or encouraging disrespect towards others’ religious beliefs, but it does imply greater faith in the judgment of God, than of man.” (And by the way “God Needs No Defense” is available in Arabic too.)

Press releases today denouncing this terrorist attack in Paris will not suffice. Active rejection of fragility and embrace of challenge are needed.

A glimmer of hope seemed to emerge from Egypt this morning. According to various news reports, Alaa Abdel Fattah was released on bail following his conviction in absentia in June over charges of violating a 2013 law that seeks to curtail protests (Law 107 of 2013). A prominent blogger and political activist, Abdel Fattah was originally sentenced to 15 years. Following today’s retrial, he will be released from prison and have his case transferred to a new court in an apparent attempt to avoid potential “embarrasment”.

 

Sadly, my former classmate and friend, Yara Sallam (NDLS LL.M. Class of 2010) has not been so fortunate. As noted in a recent post here, Yara was detained by the Egyptian authorities on 21 June 2014 following her alleged participation in a peaceful march against the same 2013 protest law. This draconian law has been widely criticized by human rights organizations for breaching fundamental human rights standards. It allows security forces to use force in dispersing peaceful protests, practically bans protests unless pre-authorized by the Ministry of Interior and criminalizes activities that essentially constitute peaceful expression and assembly. Yara’s fellow inmates include Sanaa Seif, the sister of Alaa Abdel Fattah. It is no coincidence that such prominent human rights defenders were targeted and remain in detention.

 

This past Saturday, friends of Yara from across the world connected with eachother via internet. They waited with bated breath on news from her long-awaited trial, only to have the court hearing her case adjourn the trial to 11 October 2014. And once again, without any apparent justification, the court renewed and extended her detention.

 

We can only hope that international concern regarding the evident denial of justice in this case – and the potential “embarrasment” that it will cause – will prompt the Egyptian authorities and judiciary to rethink their approach in advance of next month’s trial. It would be better still if individual legislators, law enforcement officials and judges would commit to serving justice and respecting human rights – regardless of pressure to do otherwise. Perhaps we need to work toward the first scenario while praying for the second.

For further updates on Yara’s case, see http://freeyara-freesanaa.net.

Update on CCHR Dissident Yara Sallam

Sean O’Brien, CCHR’s Assistant Director, updates us on Yara Sallam.  For the original story, see
​I write with a brief update on Yara’s trial over the weekend. After her defense team challenged the validity of the prosecutor’s video allegedly showing her participating in the “illegal” anti-protest law protest, the judge moved to adjourn the trial until October 11. This means that Yara and her 22 co-defendants will remain detained for nearly another month, beyond the 87 days they have already served. Some of Yara’s co-defendants are now on hunger strike, along with more than 156 other political detainees throughout the Egyptian prison system.
Oddly, the trial was not held in the usual courtroom in Heliopolis, but at a police academy instead. Yara and her co-defendant’s were, therefore, not confined to the typical defendant’s cages and appeared to have a little more freedom of movement. However, Yara’s parents were prevented from entering the courtroom and a female member of her defense team was verbally and physically assaulted by police guards as she entered. The photo below shows Yara’s response after she was informed of the thoughts and prayers for her by so many in the Notre Dame community and beyond. She remains, as is typical for Yara, in good spirits.
Coverage of the trial in English language Egyptian media can be found here: http://www.madamasr.com/content/ettehadiya-detainees-spend-another-month-prison-pending-trial
Yara’s LL.M. classmates and others throughout our LL.M. alumni network will continue to advocate for her release, though the context for political advocacy is increasingly difficult after Sec. Kerry’s visit to Cairo over the weekend to court Egypt’s participation in the the anti-ISIS coalition.
So many of you wrote with fond memories of Yara’s time at Notre Dame Law School, especially the library staff with whom she worked closely. Thank you for your continued thoughts and prayers for Yara and her co-defendants.
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In Solidarity With a Great Dissident

Here at the Center for Civil and Human Rights, we are proud to have graduated over 300 human rights lawyers from over 80 countries from our LL.M. program in human rights.  Perhaps it is not surprising that some go on to be dissidents.

One of our alumna, Yara Sallam, was arrested in Egypt and will go on trial in Egypt tomorrow.   Her story was documented in the New York Times and she is an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience.

Sean O’Brien, who direct’s the center’s academic programs, wrote in an e-mail today to friends of the Center:

I write asking for your prayers. As you may know, our esteemed Egyptian alumna and Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, Yara Sallam (LL.M. ’10), goes on trial tomorrow in Cairo. She was arrested in June for being near a public protest (of the anti-public protest law, no less). Once the Egyptian military government realized that they had in their grasp one of Egypt’s most well known and beloved young human rights defenders, they gleefully transferred her to one of the country’s most notorious prisons. She has been held in deplorable conditions all summer, advocating for the rights of other women prisoners also being detained.
She faces many years in prison at trial tomorrow before a corrupt and unjust legal system where evidence matters little. Her trial comes as Egypt’s military government is actively seeking to make examples of human rights lawyers and organizations. They have recently issued a decree forcing all human rights NGOs to register with the government, who will then control their budgets, programs of work, premises and contact with foreign visitors. Our other Egyptian alumni are facing the decision of whether to go into exile or remain in Egypt and face arrest after the November registration deadline passes. For them, registration is not an option.
Seven political parties as well as journalist’s syndicates have called for a nation wide hunger strike tomorrow in protest of Yara’s unjust detention and trial. Among those supporting Yara at her trial are ND LL.M. alum Ziad Abdel Tawab (LL.M. ’10) and many of the human rights defenders whose rights Yara has so passionately defended in the past.
Both during her time at Notre Dame and throughout the revolution in Egypt, Yara has been known for her warmth and her joie de vivre. She is quoted as saying “My life, if it can have any meaning at all or if it will ever be remembered, I want it to be about hope, laughter, joy, passion and love for life. My revolution is the same.”

Yara Sallam

Yara Sallam

© 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.