Al-Azhar Unveils Human Rights Bill

Article Summary
Al-Azhar, the highest body of learning in the Sunni Islamic world, has put forth a ‘bill for rights and freedoms’ at a conference which included the Coptic Christian Pope, the Egyptian Prime Minister, and other officials. The bill represents an affirmation of Islam’s towards tolerance and modernity, and an implicit response to Salafist calls, writes Naser Zaidan.

On January 10, 2012, [the Imam of] Al-Azhar [Mosque] Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb announced a bill of rights and freedoms in the presence of Egyptian Prime Minister [Kamal al-Ganzouri] and [Coptic Christian] Pope Shenouda III. Also present were the heads of old parties, representatives of leaders of the January 25 revolution and a large number of Muslim and Christian clerics. The Al-Nour Party - the Salafist movement - boycotted the announcement ceremony.
The Bill of Rights contained four sections. The first discussed freedom of religion; the second, freedom of opinion and expression; the third, freedom of scientific research; and the fourth, the issue of creativity and freedom to practice arts.

Several factors give the document great importance and make it worthy of the ranks of historic international bills due to its intricacy and the sophistication of its form and content.

Firstly, [for a discussion of the bill’s] form. The presence of Pope Shenouda III and government representatives and civil society organizations at the announcement is significant both historically and for the nation. This is especially so because it comes after unfortunate sectarian events that claimed a large number of victims [in reference to the football massacres at Port-Said]. The timing of the announcement is also significant. The announcement came on the one-year anniversary of the revolution that overthrew the regime of Hosni Mubarak, a man who marginalized freedoms, denied the [people’s] rights, ruled under the Emergency Law, imposing his will through a crushing dictatorship. The venue has a special significance as well. [The announcement] was made at Al-Azhar Al-Sharif [Mosque]. Thanks to this announcement, the institution has regained the prestige that it had been denied for decades. And perhaps the Egyptian Government’s declaration of its approval of a draft law to elect the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar University as a religious scholar came at an appropriate time as well. It added an additional positive element to the event.

The event also came as an indirect formal response to those who practice takfir [accusing other Muslims of apostasy or infidelity], and to those who are for implementing “the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice” [a reference to Islamic religious police]. [That it became a response to these groups] was unintentional. It also came as a message to the West, which [through its rhetoric has been amplifying the fears] of religious minorities in [the face of an Islamic threat]. [With this bill], the most prominent headquarters of Islamic reference [became] a meeting place and an oasis for civilization, advancement and diversity. Real Islam does not conflict with democracy in the modern sense of the word.

Second, [let us address the bill’s] content. The document presented Islam as a [model for] openness, advancement, progress and dialogue, contrary to the efforts [being made by certain sides] to label Islam [a religion of] intolerance, isolation, and extremism.

What was mentioned in the first section of the document regarding “the criminalization of [all] forms of takfir and exclusion, and rejection of condemning the beliefs of others” is a bold statement by Al-Azhar. [To include such language into this bill] is in step with the times, and is consistent with the humane values ​​of tolerance. [The announcement] can also be viewed as a quiet response to the great defamation to which Islam is being subjected. [The bill] has the aim to prevent division between groups and sects. The sections that consider “calls that promote discrimination and racism through religion a crime against the nation” and which state that “there is no compulsion in religion” are no less significant.

The document’s assertion that “a national democratic state based on the Constitution is the desired goal” is an express declaration of the adoption of modern concepts in governance and state regulation, on the basis of elections and the devolution of power. [This section] is a clear response to [recent] Salafist calls for returning to forms [of governance] that are no longer compatible with the contemporary times. [The section] also contains [an implicit response to Salafist calls] for only recognizing the principles of religion, and holding them above the political and social organization of the state. There is nothing in Islam known as the religious state or priestly state.

[Now for the topic of the document’s enumeration of rights and freedoms - which largely converge with the [United Nations] Universal Declaration of Human Rights. What is notable in the document is the emphasis that is place on the fact that “the legitimacy of power is based on the approval of the people.” Also, the announcement of “the people's right to resist the tyranny of the authority” is a new Islamic and Arab approach, which - in its boldness - converges with what has been mentioned in the most important similar international bills, namely the French Declaration of 1789 (and the amendments [made to it] by the Girondists in the year 1793), the European Convention on Human Rights of 1950, and the American Virginia Declaration [of Rights] in 1776 [which proclaimed the rights of man to rebel against inadequate government].

The new Al-Azhar document is a revolution in political thought, and perhaps the most important manifestation of the Arab revolts. It is fit to become the Bill of “Islamic Human Rights,” which would reflect a bright image of tolerance and the open-mindedness of Islam. In [the document’s] reference to the freedom of press, thought and artistic creativity, is a boldness consistent with the requirements put forth by the young generations. It also reserves a spot for Egypt and other Arab countries in the fields of music, theater and film production. These areas are fundamental to the building of [civilizations].

The [document’s] reference to freedom of scientific research unrestricted by rigid rituals and beliefs is a leap towards anticipating the requirements of the future, and contrasts with the Wests accusatory categorizations of [Islam]. It opens [new] horizons for scientific progress, and might perhaps help compensate for the regression of Arabs in this area.

The most important thing in the progressive Al-Azhar document is that it exposed the Arab official order, which adopted the so-called Arab Charter on Human Rights approved by the Tunis summit in 2004. [The charter] linked freedoms with the necessity to preserve the internal security of its member states - which meant [preserving] the security of the regimes - and pledged the non-violation of freedoms and rights of local traditions - without identifying the concepts of tradition and customs. [The Tunis] charter was used to protect [Arab] regimes rather than the [Arab] people's rights and freedoms.

The objective praise of the “Al-Azhar Human Rights Bill” does not at all mean that the picture regarding freedoms in the Arab region has become completely clear. Practically speaking, there are many more important tasks to be accomplished, perhaps the most important of which is the establishment of a “special and permanent Arab human rights court.”

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