By Heba Fahmy
CAIRO: Egypt’s Cabinet and different political powers hailed an Al-Azhar document calling for a “modern, democratic” and secular state in Egypt.
Deputy Prime Minister Yehia El-Gamal commended the document in the Cabinet’s 16th meeting on Wednesday, describing it as one of the most important charters issued to date.
Members of the Cabinet and several political players echoed El-Gamal’s sentiment, describing the document as a step towards turning Egypt into a true secular state.
“It’s a perfect document that demonstrates accurately the meaning of a secular state in Islam,” Rashad Bayoumi, deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, told Daily News Egypt.
“It emphasizes the importance of freedom of belief, practicing religious rituals and freedom of expression guaranteed by Islam,” he added.
The Brotherhood has stated on many occasions that they do not seek a theocratic state and that Islam only recognizes a secular state — a statement reiterated in Al-Azhar’s document.
“The legislations, civilization and history of Islam know nothing of a [theocratic state],” read the document.
Al-Azhar and a number of Egyptian intellectuals issued a document earlier this week defining “the relationship between Islam and the state in this difficult phase.”
Rifaat Al-Saeid, head of the leftist Tagammu Party, told DNE that this is the first time “enlightened religious ideologies” meet with ideas of the “enlightened intellectuals” of Egypt.
“Al-Azhar and the liberal movements should advocate this document and call for its implementation in laws and the education curricula,” he added.
Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed El-Tayeb said in a press conference Monday that the document supports “the establishment of a modern, democratic, constitutional state…based upon the separation of powers and guaranteeing equal rights to all citizens.”
The principles of Islamic law, he said, should remain “the main source of legislation,” adding that Christians and Jews should have their own tribunals to which they can have recourse.
The document urges “the protection of places of worship for the followers of the three monotheistic religions” and considers “incitement of confessional discord and racist speech as crimes against the nation.”
“This [document] confirms that Al-Azhar is on the right track towards regaining its role as a moderate, intermediate and religious reference against all kinds of extremism and religious fanaticism,” read a statement issued by The Free Egyptians Party (FEP) on Wednesday
FEP, headed by business tycoon Naguib Sawiris, added that Al-Azhar’s support for a secular state demonstrated the tolerance of the truly moderate Islamic religion.
Sunni Islam’s top center of religious learning, Al-Azhar was under fire during the reign of ousted president Hosni Mubarak for issuing fatwas that served the government and its policies instead of Islam.
The document called for “the independence of Al-Azhar” where the head of the institution would no longer be appointed by the president and, instead, elected by a college of clerics.
Karima El-Hifnawy, senior member of the Kefaya Movement and the National Association for Change, said, “It’s about time Al-Azhar is separated from the government so it can regain its former glory as a renowned religious institution.”
“Al-Azhar used to represent both a mosque and a university where knowledge and moderate Islamic da’wa (preaching) united,” she added.
The document also calls for the development of education and scientific research and rebuilding Egypt’s Arab, African and international relations, in addition to supporting the Palestinians’ right to an independent state.
“This document was established through calm dialogue and a true will to establish a document that would unite the people away from slogans and propaganda,” said Nabil Abdel Fattah, political analyst for Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and member of the group that drafted the document.
He added that the document was an initial one and several will follow — in preparation for a national conference held by Al-Azhar — touching on essential issues such as developing education, freedom of expression and cultural issues.
The conference will be titled “The Egyptian Nation” — not the Islamic or Coptic conference, “to stress the importance of the unity of the Egyptian people, which was compromised under the former corrupt regime,” he explained.
In April, the military council that assumed power after Mubarak’s ouster said it would not allow Egypt to be governed by “another Khomenei,” in reference to the ayatollah who led Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979.