Egyptians debate religion′s place in constitution | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 04.04.2012
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Egyptians debate religion's place in constitution

Egypt is drawing up a new constitution and many in the country are concerned it could institute a radical view of Islam in the country as Islamists make up the majority of parliament and the Constituent Assembly.

Ever since former president Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February 2011, Egypt has been intent on finding its feet. The country has elected a new parliament - tainted, as far as liberal Egyptian and foreign observers are concerned, by the fact that the majority of deputies are Islamists.

The same is true for the 100-member Constituent Assembly. With presidential elections approaching, many Egyptians are outraged that the Muslim Brotherhood, which holds a majority of seats in parliament, has nominated a candidate to run for the country's top job.

It's not only Europeans who are concerned that Egypt might lapse into radical form of Islam, according to Björn Bentlage, an Islam expert at the University of Halle. "Many Egyptians, even very religious Egyptians, fear a radical Islam," he told DW.

Prof. Björn Bentlage

Bentlage: Egyptians are worried about radical Islam

On the other hand, Egypt is a more or less Islamic state already - and Islam has become "much more visible" in public over the past decades, said Thomas Bauer, a scholar of Islam at Germany's largest research organization on religion, the University of Münster's Cluster of Excellence "Religion and Politics."

Fully veiled women are still the exception, but an increasing number of women wear headscarves, he said, adding that public segregation of the sexes is widespread.

A new charter

Within six months, Egypt's Constituent Assembly must present a new constitution that defines the relationship between the state and religion as well as the influence of sharia and the future role of the military.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has ruled Egypt since Mubarak's resignation. The military council suspended the former 1971 constitution and hopes the new constitution will be finished by July. The council and the new leadership might have to strike a compromise, Bentlage said, "that allows the Supreme Council to step down but ensures privileges and protection from penal action."

But Egyptians appear to be much more focused on the future balance of state and religion. In protest against the large proportion of Islamist-leaning members in the Constituent Assembly, representatives of the Coptic Church, the Liberals and the Left withdrew from the assembly. Caving in to immense public pressure, the Muslim Brotherhood agreed to resign 10 seats to non-Islamic candidates "to win more leeway for compromises," Bentlage said.

More liberties or more sharia?

Thomas Bauer: Islam is visible in Egypt

Islam is increasingly visible in Egypt, Bauer says

Sharia, or Islamic law, has been anchored in Article 2 of the constitution since 1971; it is the source of legislation. The constitution also stipulates that Islam is Egypt's official religion.

Bentlage and his colleague Bauer are convinced the new constitution won't be much different from the old one. The Muslim Brotherhood has published a draft constitution it plans to propose to the Constituent Assembly.

"Basically, the framework of the current constitution and the order of the state would remain unchanged," Bentlage said, while there might be changes in the judicial system, financial supervision and the freedom of the press with the aim of reducing the influence of the executive branch.

The Islamist movement wants to establish a secular constitutional state that "will certainly have a religious concept," he said

In the end, it is not the new constitution that is significant, according to Bauer, but "the laws that are passed over time, and whether they are demonstratively Islamic."

Not a monolith

It's not likely that the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the Salafist Nour Party will cooperate more closely, according to Annette Ranko of the German Institute of Global and Area Studies, although together, they hold the majority in both houses of parliament and the Constituent Assembly.

There are more differences than common ground, they even differ in their understanding of Islam, Ranko told DW. The Muslim Brotherhood views religious sources as setting "eternal ethical standards" that can be adapted, depending on the occasion, because they present principles.

The Salafist Nour Party regards the Koran and other religious writings as legal texts that should be adapted word-for-word - a "naïve" understanding of Islam, according to Bauer. The differences show the West must abandon the image of a unified, monolithic Islam, he said: the Koran doesn't offer strict parameters for the relationship between the state and religion.

While the Nour Party must prove to what extent it will and can participate in regular day-to-day parliamentary activities, the Muslim Brotherhood is experienced and pragmatic in such matters, Bentlage said.

"We should trust the Egyptians to lead their own discussions," Bauer said

Author: Sabine Hartert-Mojdehi /db
Editor: Sean Sinico

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