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Is regulating fatwas solution to extremism in Egypt?

A parliamentary committee is currently reviewing a draft law that limits the issuance of fatwas to Al-Azhar and Dar Al-Ifta scholars and sheikhs, as a way to fight the spread of extremist thought.

CAIRO — On Dec. 20, the secretary of the Religious Committee at the Egyptian parliament, Omar Hamrouche, presented a draft law on regulating fatwas. The law will limit the issuing of religious edicts to senior scholars at Al-Azhar and Dar Al-Ifta and put an end to the numerous fatwas that incite violence and intolerance.

The draft law stipulates that those issuing fatwas without licenses from Al-Azhar and Dar Al-Ifta shall either be imprisoned for a period of no more than six months or pay a fine of no more than 2,000 Egyptian pounds ($110), or both. Should the violation be repeated, the perpetrator shall be imprisoned and pay a fine of no more than 5,000 Egyptian pounds ($274).

The draft law sparked controversy. Some supported it and saw it as a new step toward renewing religious discourse and confronting extremism. Those opposing it saw it as an attempt by the government to control religion in order to serve its own decisions.

In this context, Hamrouche told Al-Monitor that the draft law does not target a specific movement, but is intended to regulate fatwas in general in order to achieve a moderate religious discourse and highlight the tolerance of Islam after numerous fatwas were issued calling for intolerance and discrimination, such as abandoning giving holiday greetings to Coptic Christians.

He added, “This draft law limits issuing fatwas to senior scholars at Al-Azhar and Dar Al-Ifta or those authorized by these authorities. But it excludes imams, preachers and teachers of Al-Azhar in respect to special fatwas such as prayer and fasting. However, fatwas in general — such as those related to atonement and abandoning congratulatory greetings to Coptic Christians that create sectarian or ethnic strife between citizens — can only be issued by Al-Azhar, Dar Al-Ifta and those authorized by them.”

Hamrouche pointed out that the proposed sanctions in the draft law stems from the fact that all terrorist attacks claim to be following fatwas, often issued by individuals with personal or political interests.

He explained that the draft law was a step to renew the religious discourse, two years after President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had called for renouncing extremism and terrorism and reaching a correct understanding of religion, stressing that something must be wrong with understanding and applying Islam when a Muslim kills another. But both al-Azhar and the Ministry of Awqaf failed to rise up to the challenge.

Hamrouche confirmed that there is coordination between the parliament and the Egyptian Church to reach a common vision that can be implemented in reality to eliminate intolerance and combat extremism, both in Islam and Christianity.

He stressed that he will not allow anyone to circumvent the law once it is passed, as has happened before when the Ministry of Awqaf granted Salafist leaders preaching permits after it had vowed in April 2014 not to issue any permits to those who are not competent and not authorized by Al-Azhar.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Sheikh Sherif al-Hawari, a member of the Salafist Call’s board of directors, said that the draft law intends to fight extremism that does not stem from knowledge and only aims at terrorism. This is the case of the ideology adopted by the Islamic State and similar ignorant groups that have no knowledge in Sharia, he added.

He further noted that there is nothing wrong with limiting the issuance of fatwas to Al-Azhar, but it could also include preachers who have knowledge in Sharia, provided that these fatwas would take into account the constants provided in the laws and religion, so long as they are accepted by Sharia.

Hawari said, “This draft law will not be the last obstacle in front of the Salafist Call [party]. We have plenty of evidence in the Quran and the sunna [verbally transmitted accounts of the prophet’s deeds and sayings], whereby we, as Muslims, are prohibited from passing on good wishes to Copts during their holidays. However, at the same time, we protect Coptic women, prevent their bloodshed, visit their sick and are good to them. The January 25 Revolution is the best proof of this. No Coptic church, shop or house was attacked. We will not force Christians to abandon their beliefs, and we will not allow anyone to do it with us.”

Talaat Marzouk, the assistant chairman of the Nour Party and head of the party’s legal committee commissioned to study the draft law, told Al-Monitor that the party’s parliamentary committee and the party’s legislative committee have yet to finish studying the draft law. He added that there are some preliminary notes to this effect.

Of note, the parliament religious committee is in charge of studying the law. However, the Nour Party is the political arm of the Salafist Call in Egypt and has established legal committees to also examine the law.

For instance, the draft law is not based on general and unbiased legal grounds, as the law did not include all means of fatwas. The draft law stressed the fatwas issued via social networking sites, but left out the fatwas on TV and radio shows, where some anchormen issue fatwas, including Islam al-Buhairi, who was indicted for deriding religions on May 15, 2015, and later released by presidential pardon in November 2016.

“The wording of this draft law is loose, as there is no clear definition about the general fatwas and the ones relating to national issues. These two terms should be clearly defined since it is punishable for people who breach it,” Marzouk said.

According to Hamrouche, the general fatwas are related to issues such as designating infidels and apostates, whereas the fatwas on national affairs deal with more social issues such as prohibiting Muslims from passing on greetings and good wishes for Copts during their holidays, which would stir ill feelings between compatriots.

He said that the law did not identify the necessary mechanisms to obtain a permit for issuing fatwas and the measures to prevent the Dar Al-Ifta administration and Al-Azhar from abusing granting permits. He added that the party’s Parliamentary Committee as well as the Legislative Committee will meet within a week — without setting a date — to make a final decision as to the party’s position, rejection or call for amendment regarding the law.

For his part, Buhairi, who is also the head of the Islamic Studies Center at Al-Youm Al-Sabaa institution, told Al-Monitor, “This [draft law] is a trivial step akin to the decision to unify the religions’ rhetoric. Ideology cannot be fought, and if the draft law’s aim was to prevent people from discussing religion, [I do not believe this is feasible] as we live in a clerical state and we should distinguish between ideology and fatwa. Never in the history was ideology limited to one institution.”

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