New constitution paves the way for Islamic ‘church’ versus state

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When the Muslim Brotherhood was counted among the opposition, before the 25 January revolution, the group took part in several discussions with civil political forces and human rights organizations, both domestic and international, to present political Islam’s view of democracy, the rotation of power and human rights. Yet the wheels of the debate continued to spin, as a precaution against that hypothetical moment in which the Islamic current would reach the seat of power and the apprehensions of civil political forces would be borne out: the quashing, by democratic means, of the dream of a democratic transition and respect for human rights.

It now looks like the old fears of many political forces and human rights groups are on the verge of being realized, as evidenced by the most recent version of the Constituent Assembly’s chapter on public rights, liberties, and duties, published on the assembly’s official website. This is clear in the language used in the articles on freedom of press, expression, and belief — a set of liberties that constitute the foundation for any democratic society, which are only infringed or restricted by autocratic or authoritarian regimes. It is even clearer in the declared desire to grant the Islamic religious establishment a privileged status in the constitution.

The Constituent Assembly has planted several mines in the draft constitution that will explode in all our faces, threatening to exacerbate and renew sectarian tensions. They have planted the seeds of a religious state in democratic guise and use citizenship in the constitution as a cover for religious discrimination. This concept of citizenship is not based on full equality, but it places some citizens above others depending on what is written in the slot for religion on official identity documents.

The draft chapter on rights and liberties contains no reference to international human rights norms, a source of authority that would guarantee an interpretation of articles on rights and liberties without weakening them and while upholding them for all citizens. In addition, the Constituent Assembly restricts the freedom of belief, stating, “Freedom of belief and the exercise of religious rites are protected and the state upholds the freedom to establish houses of worship for the exercise of rites of the monotheistic religions, as elaborated in the law and in a way that does not violate the public order.” This text infringes on the very heart of freedom of belief and conscience, discriminating between citizens on the basis of religion and undermining the right of equal citizenship by limiting the right to worship to adherents of the Abrahamic religions. The text also contradicts another article in the same draft constitution that stipulates that citizens are equal before the law and cannot be discriminated against on the basis of religion or belief.

In fact, the language restricting freedom of belief does not come as a surprise. Anyone who has read the platforms of the Islamist parties, which constitute a majority of the Constituent Assembly, will find that they all agree that the exercise of religious rights should be guaranteed only to adherents of the three monotheistic religions. It is clear that they all embrace the same religious vision and seek to impose it on all of society, even if this profoundly subverts the foundation of equality and the right to citizenship and violates freedom of belief.

Even if we assume that the Constituent Assembly revised its chapter on rights and liberties in accordance with international human rights standards and the observations of Egyptian human rights groups, the newly formulated status of Islamic law in the constitution empties it of any genuine guarantees for rights and liberties and is incompatible with the structure of the modern democratic state. Press coverage of the chapter on the basic components of the state reports that Al-Azhar has become the final interpreter of Islamic Sharia in accordance with Sunni Islam. The intention to adopt this stipulation in the constitution has been confirmed by statements of several members of the Constituent Assembly as well as leaders of the venerable Islamic religious institution.

The irony is that Al-Azhar, which liberal parties hoped would confront attempts by Islamists and their parties when drafting constitutional articles that undermine rights and liberties, has become the Trojan Horse in the draft constitution, created by Islamist groups themselves.

These constitutional provisions will place the religious establishment, which is still not free of executive intervention, above the elected parliament and create a type of clergy that is alien to Islam. While busy searching for a way to Islamize the constitution, Islamists may ultimately issue an un-Islamic constitution, one that violates the essence of Islam, in which, as we know, adherents are free from submitting to such religious clergy. Interestingly, political Islamists, in response to criticism from secularists, have repeated over decades that Islam does not recognize theocracy, claiming that the conflict that erupted centuries ago between the church and state in Europe could not happen in an Islamic state. But it seems they are now sowing the seeds of just such a conflict in the draft constitution, which is expected to be put to a public referendum in a few weeks.

Ragab Saad is a researcher at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.

Published in Egypt Independent

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