Following the revolution the status of Article Two in the Egyptian constitution has been a subject of great debate, as it serves to great degree to define the identity of the state. It reads: Islam is the religion of the state, Arabic is its official language, and the principles of Islamic law are the chief source of legislation.
Hani Labib, managing director of the Center for Intercultural Dialogue and Translation, moderated the discussions, which were held at the Association for Upper Egypt in downtown Cairo.
Labib provided an identical introduction to each of the three groups. He stated clearly that CIDT does not take an official position on Article Two. Yet given that this article has become a point of contention between groups who wish it to remain as it is, to be amended, or to be removed altogether, Labib asked each participant to provide answers to three questions:
- Do you wish the article to remain in the constitution?
- Do you believe the article is in need of amendment?
- What is the proper formulation for Egyptian society?
Not all participants answered these questions clearly, yet most provided insights to illuminate the discussion and did not shy away from controversy. Summaries of their responses are below.
The Clerics’ Roundtable
Fr. Rufaeel Tharwat, a Coptic Orthodox priest, opened the discussion by stating that Article Two provided peace and security to Egypt. Nevertheless, he recognized that the 40% of the population which is illiterate demand that clerics from both religions interpret it correctly for the people. This would help assure that the government is for the nation and not for any particular part of it. In accordance with this, he wishes assurances that judges would not be able to use Article Two so as to change the law as they see fit. One particular area of concern – worthy of amending the article – is that non-Muslims be guaranteed to be ruled by their own religious laws. This would help ensure the principles of citizenship and prevent any possible loss of rights on the basis of Article Two.
Fr. Philopater Gameel, a Coptic Orthodox priest and leader in the Maspero Youth Union, followed by stating the worthiness of some of these points, but found that the emergence of more radical Islamic groups necessitated the cancellation of Article Two, keeping the constitution from any religious reference. He stated he had proof, for example, that judges have used Article Two to protect Muslims following crimes against Copts, as sharia, he maintained, does not allow execution of a Muslim for the killing of a non-Muslim. He fears also the article could be used to impose jizia (a tax on non-Muslims), as well as support accusations of takfir (calling someone an infidel). Article Two would be improved if it contained a clause to allow non-Muslims recourse to their own religious law, but this would only solve some of the issues, so it is best to remove the article altogether.
Abd al-Fattah Asakar, an Islamic writer and apologist, offered a completely different understanding of the Egyptian religious scene. He said there is only one religious community – Muslims and Christians together – for they are all monotheists and Egyptians. Anyone who harms a Copt harms God himself, for in his eyes the value of a Copt is more than the value of, say, a Pakistani Muslim. The Islamic liberal system is the best the world has ever known for protecting human freedom – even that of an atheist – but some have corrupted it by following men, such as the un-Islamic Salafis. There is no problem with Article Two, for a Muslim is a Christian and a Christian is a Muslim, but there are problems with the people and cultured Egyptians must educate better about true religion. All the same, he favors the amendment of the article to include a clause mentioning also the Gospel and the Torah.
Muhammad Muhammad Abdo is a professor of sharia and law from the Azhar University, and finds that Article Two is a guarantee for Copts as it is for Muslims, and should stay as it is. He agrees that Copts and Muslims have always lived closely together in one country, and that problems lie with the people, not the article itself. As for those who fear the article, he says it refers only to the broad principles of the law, protects diversity, and cannot be applied on laws in particular. Keeping a religious reference, on the other hand, prevents Egypt from going the way of Europe in adopting secularism with the resulting change in society; people must always be religious to something.
Fr. Antonious Aziz is a Coptic Catholic priest who is against any reference to religion in the constitution, even in personal status laws. He stated that Spain is assumed to be a Catholic nation, but it allows homosexuality, and the church takes no role in legislation, but rather supports human freedom. Consider the Bahai or atheist, he said. Shall a religion legislate against even these? No, religion should not have a dominating role in any state; it is not needed, for everyone has a conscience.
Muhammad Hajaj, a lawyer, like others looked to history and proclaimed that Muslims and Copts have cooperated in order to secure a state of justice. Problems that have existed recently, he claimed, were sown by the former regime. The constitution is meant to speak to broad principles, not details; as a sequential document he wondered why there was a problem. Article One establishes Egypt first and foremost as a democratic republic built on citizenship, and only then does Article Two build on this foundation. Further articles also establish equality between citizens and protect the right of religious practice. If anything, the article should be amended to remove the word ‘principles’, since such a word is dependent upon interpretation.
Osama al-Qusi is a doctor and Salafi preacher of Islam, and also believed the former regime’s corruption, oppression, and lack of transparency hurt the national fabric. Ibn Taymiyya for one praised the just government, even if it was not Muslim. Furthermore, if we say there is no compulsion in religion, how can we judge someone by a religion not their own? As such, this is present in Article Two, which would not differ if we amended it to say ‘all heavenly religions’, for example. Each religious community should be able to govern itself by its own laws, under the system of a general law for the nation.
Rev. Rifaat Fikry is an evangelical pastor in Shubra, who finds no civilized country in the world which puts religion in the forefront of its constitution. Secularism is needed, which is not that people leave God but that all are treated equally regardless of religion. In 1923 the constitution did establish Islam as the state religion, but it made no mention of sharia until the ‘believer president’ Sadat inserted it, and people have been playing with sectarian conflict since then. He agrees that Egyptian society is not ready to cancel Article Two, but it should be amended to say: “Islam is the religion of the majority of the population. Arabic is the official language of the country. Principles of all religions’ shari’ahs and international treaties for human rights are the principal sources for legislation.”
The Media Roundtable
Said Shuaib, a journalist, stated he was against Article Two, since the constitution does not represent the majority but the entire country. Sanctity of belief must be protected, and as such the constitution should be free of religious bias. For those who believe the article protects the Islamic identity of the state, he recommended the identity of Egypt is more properly grounded in that it protects the rights of all people equally.
Alaa Azmy, a journalist, is also for cancelling Article Two from the constitution, since he recognized a large part of the problem lies in that the general population does not understand the terms of debate. Therefore, the article should be dropped, an education campaign launched, and then a general societal debate should take place without calling one group religious and the other infidels. Currently, Article Two not only harms Copts, but Copts and Muslims together.
Wafaa Wasfy, a journalist, is against Article Two since in effect it cancels the state in favor of religion. Noting that Egypt is a religious society, she finds its people can sometimes run behind ideas rashly without sufficient thought. As such, society should move gradually in accord with what people can accept. This way, decisions made now might also be acceptable fifty years from now.
Bashir Abd al-Raziq, an editor, believes that Article Two is acceptable, but not in the way it currently is used by different groups for different interpretations. It must either evolve into something that all – Muslims, Christians, and Jews – can agree on together, or else it should be dropped entirely.
Robair al-Faris, a journalist, is against the merger of religion and state, but finds that as the majority of the population is illiterate, this means democracy will be the rule of them over the rest, which is dangerous. As such, he is not against cancelling Article Two, but it must be done the right way. First steps include removing the religious reference from the ID card, and then from education, so students do not receive religious orientations. Only then will society be prepared to accept cancellation of this article.
Said Tawfiq, a journalist, is in favor of keeping Article Two, since the problem is not in the text but in its application. Nevertheless, it should be amended to better guarantee the rights of Copts. A major problem lies in the fact that the governments of the region have always played with religion, but politics is a part of Islam, and who can reject Islam? Many people have reservations against the article, he believes, but will be afraid to speak up out of deference to the will of the majority.
Remon Edwards, a journalist, supports cancelling the second article, but believes reform in education and the media is necessary first. There should be no religious reference in the constitution, but the liberal parties who espouse such a position generally do not conduct activities in the street, so the message does not reach the majority poor.
Hassan Yahya, a journalist, finds that there is no value in Article Two, since every group interprets it according to their own understanding. Religious questions, he finds, have only mattered in the last several decades, forced upon the region by Israel as a Jewish state. Currently, it is Salafi groups causing problems, especially as they circulate a treatise called ‘The Curse of the Groups of the Coptic Nation’, which accuses Pope Shenouda of seeking to create an independent Coptic state.
Finally, Ibtisam al-Gindy and Shaimaa al-Shawarbi, both journalists, are in favor of amending Article Two. Al-Gindy believes it is biased against the Copts but if it is amended to include a guarantee for Coptic rights then it can remain. Al-Shawarbi meanwhile thinks it should be amended to make sharia ‘a’ source of legislation only, and not the primary one. She adds that if this article were to assist the ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood to power, she would be in favor of its cancelation.
The Civil Society Roundtable
Nabil Ahmed Helmi, professor of international law, believes that Egypt has always had a civil government, but that following the revolution Islamist and extremist voices emerged to frame the discussion that liberals are trying to turn Egypt into a civil government. A state does not have a religion, though a majority may. For this latter reason, even though he wants to keep religion from the state, it will be impossible to remove the article; the best that can be done is to amend it.
Imad Felix, a lawyer, weighed in saying that it is not improper to have the principles of Islamic sharia as a source of legislation. The difficulty comes in making sure these principles do not harm the members of other religious communities. It is essential in the coming period to make sure the religion of the majority does not control or influence the minority populations.
Samia Arisha, a writer, stated she was afraid of the future in what might be done through Article Two, agreeing that it would be difficult to remove, and harder still to speak about this with the groups that play with religion. The question is how to amend it. Can it respect the confession of Islam as the religion of the minority while protecting individual freedom? Can each religious community be given to rule by its own sharia? Regardless, anyone who threatens a person outside of his own group’s sharia must be tried in a civil court.
Irini Thabit, professor of languages at Ain Shams Univeristy, for example, questioned if the discussion concerning principles of sharia was in terms of popular understanding, or legal. She asked furthermore if Islamic sharia addressed both Muslim and Christian concerns. Helmi, acting as a moderator, answered yes to the latter question, saying there is no compulsion in religion and Christians are free to govern themselves in religious matters. He added as well he was upset the Jews left Egypt, for then the nation would have even more diversity.
Mahmoud Khayyal, a doctor, also was not sure of the parameters of the discussion, asking if interest was in the opinions about Article Two, or what was best to do with it in the future. He stated though born a Muslim he is an agnostic, and is against Article Two, even if amended to let other groups work according to their religious laws. What would be the outcome, he wondered – 4,000 religions needing to be written into the constitution? Furthermore, resting on the ‘principles’ of sharia does not help either, for principles can change also – look at Afghanistan. No, the article should be cancelled altogether.
Munir Mogahed, an engineer, agreed that Article Two should be cancelled, since the constitution is a proscriptive document, not a descriptive one. Therefore, if remaining, it allows a judge to rule not just based on the law and constitution, but also on his particular interpretation of sharia. Besides the law, the article will also lead to making education religious as well. These factors will push Egypt in the direction of becoming a sectarian country, which is a shame, since Article Two was scripted in bad form, for worldly reasons based on politics.
Tharwat Kharbali, a lawyer, spoke from an Islamist perspective, having been a Muslim Brother and active in the Wasat Party. He agreed there was a danger from extremist religious perspectives, saying there was no place for Wahabism in Egypt. Salafism does not help either, since during the era of the Prophet and Companions, whom they imitate, there were liberals and extremists also. The constitutional court must prevent such developments. He found Erdogan of Turkey to be an example, for during a conference he attended he addressed the concerns of his city (Istanbul), while others pontificated about Islam. Article Two is important, and should remain in the constitution, but it should be amended to define Egypt as a secular state with an Eastern understanding.
Medhat Bishay, a writer, agreed about the power of the Islamist trends, who speak loudly against liberals making the country secular to the level of rhetoric that they will die as martyrs to prevent this. Given the backwardness that exists in Egypt, great care must be taken. This is in light of the desire to bequeath a good nation to our children, requiring wisdom for the moment.
Felix spoke again, wondering if the solution would be to amend the article so as to include respect for international agreements. But he also believed the media would not be helpful, as so many people would require knowledge and definition of what these agreements are. Helmy closed believing the fear expressed was not completely necessary, for the military will never allow extremist trends to rule Egypt. The army, he stated, wishes to rule in accord with Egypt’s nature as a country, but unfortunately, 99% of the population is not able or engaged to have a discussion on the topic as we are doing today.