This announcement comes at a crucial point in the run-up to elections, with secularist liberals competing with various factions of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as salafist groups, for seats in a new parliament whose deliberations will likely have huge influence on shaping Egypt's governing system.
The report also notes:
The institution, whose views resonate across the Sunni Islamic world, has thrown its weight and prestige behind a modern vision of the state “ruled by law and law alone”. . . .
Although intended as a statement on “the future of Egypt”, its propositions are likely to have an impact on other Muslim countries where the relationship between state and religion is in question.
“This is the first comprehensive declaration about specific matters that are the subject of dispute,” said Gamal al-Ghitani, a novelist who took part in forging the document. “Al-Azhar is siding with modernity and rejecting the concept of the theocratic state. This is something like a bill of basic rights which speaks to Muslims everywhere.”
To “regain its original intellectual role, and global influence”, al-Azhar also makes a bid for independence from the Egyptian state in the same document. Fettered by government control for more than half a century, the institution is seeking a return to an old system under which the Grand Imam was elected by senior religious scholars, and not appointed by the president.
Significantly the Azhar document does not call for the application of sharia law, but says that laws would be based on “the principles of Islamic law” – widely interpreted as the universal values of freedom, justice and equality. . . .
The document also addresses the fears of the Coptic Christian minority – an estimated 10 per cent of the population – that in the future they could become second class citizens.
It says: “The exploitation of religion and its use to create division, conflict and enmity between citizens should be criminalised. Inciting religious discrimination or sectarian and chauvinistic tendencies should be considered a crime against the nation.”
It's also noteworthy that al-Azhar's statement, as well as the intentions expressed by the new Egyptian Current party - a break-away Muslim Brotherhood group comprising many young MB members who want a separation between state and religious authority - in many ways parallels the model that now dominates in Turkey, where a party with an explicitly Muslim focus (the AKP) has pledged to respect the secular foundations of the republic established by the republic's founder, Mustapha Kemal Ataturk.
This announcement also comes at a time when the inflammatory Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who advocates an extremely Islamophobic, anti-immigrant point of view, was acquitted of charges of resorting to political hate speech. Wilders seems an Islamophobic version of the rabidly Communist-hating (and fear-mongering) Senator Joe McCarthy of the early 1950s U.S. Wilders' rise to notoriety and influence ought to remind us all that Western political discourse is still full of unjust, counter-productive anti-Muslim venom.
The United States is no exception. I strongly encourage any and all who might read my posts, to check out the excellent web-site of the group My Fellow American, where you'll find (among other informative links) a link to a short film clip via You Tube that ought to be a real consciousness-raiser. It depicts American Muslim citizens at work in various professions and walks of life. That American Muslims do indeed play such multiple and crucial roles in itself didn't surprise me, but after viewing the film, I found myself thinking about various television programs I've seen over the last few years - from Law and Order (in its sundry permutations) to the afternoon soap operas that sometimes play on the overhead monitors where I work out. I cannot remember even one instance when a character who was identified as a Muslim was depicted as other than a "foreigner" or a John Walker Lindh wannabe. No Muslim cops, no Muslim doctors or nurses, no Muslim housewives or husbands. (Meanwhile, though, the popular NCIS series features, as one of the crime-solver team, an imported Israeli spy (played by a Hispanic actress) who nonetheless comes across as the all-American girl next door.
Think about it. Or better, watch the film, and talk about it.