Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 January 2004
Issue No. 672
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Veiled dependency?

Al-Azhar is under fire after its Grand Imam issued a controversial edict on France's anti-hijab bill, reports Gihan Shahine

Last week's statement by Al-Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi regarding French proposals to ban the hijab in state schools and government offices ignited a high profile controversy involving Islamic scholars, Islamist groups and the Muslim public.

While conceding that the hijab is a religious obligation for Muslim women Tantawi stressed that it is also the right of a non-Muslim country like France to ban it. Tantawi made the statement during a press conference following a meeting with French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. Arguing that no country has the right to interfere in French lawmaking, Tantawi said that if the French government forced women to take off their veils, they would not be committing a sin.

Many interpreted Tantawi's statement as giving France the go-ahead to ban the hijab and the Grand Imam was seen to be expressing a political, rather than religious, opinion. Critics argue he should have defended France's veiled Muslims by opposing the ban on the grounds that the hijab is not a symbol, but rather a religious obligation and a human right.

Three days later, on 2 January, crowds of worshippers gathered in front of Al- Azhar mosque to protest Tantawi's edict, and call for his resignation. The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood also held a public rally following Friday prayers on the same day, lambasting Tantawi as "a government official" who "compromises the principles of Islam [for the sake of] state policies".

In doing so, they argued, Tantawi has forfeited much of Al-Azhar's credibility in the Islamic world.

Brotherhood MP Mohamed Mursi joined 16 other MPs to issue a statement calling on Al-Azhar scholars to challenge those of Tantawi's edicts that "contradict the teachings of Islam as established in the Qur'an and Sunna".

The controversy grew when Brotherhood MP Hamdi Hassan sent a written statement to Prime Minister Atef Ebeid requesting the appointment of "a new imam who will maintain Al-Azhar's esteem, and regain its credibility". The statement characterised Tantawi's stand as "suspicious".

"Tantawi's statement was like a bombshell for Muslims both inside and outside Egypt," said Hassan. "The way [Tantawi] insisted on repeating that 'it is [France's] right' to ban hijab in a confident voice to please Sarkozy was extremely shocking.

Sarkozy sought a green light from Sunni Islam's foremost authority and ended up obtaining it."

Islamist Mohamed Abdel-Quddous, who heads the Press Syndicate's Freedoms Committee, maintains Tantawi's hijab statement "has actually given an Islamic identity to a secular opinion". He described Tantawi's "edicts over the past year" as being "the worst ever".

Doctors' Syndicate Deputy Head Essam El-Erian believes "Tantawi should have remained silent since he did not possess the courage" to speak against the proposed hijab ban. El-Erian -- a leading Brotherhood member -- said it would have been better for the imam to refer the issue to the European Council for Islamic Affairs, where scholars are better acquainted with the European Islamic community's problems.

Tantawi's comments exposed a growing schism within Al-Azhar where senior clerics immediately announced that his statement represented "personal views" rather than the opinions of Al-Azhar scholars. Sheikh Abdel-Sabour Marzouq, secretary- general of Al-Azhar's Higher Council for Islamic Affairs and a member of the Islamic Research Academy (IRA), told the press that Tantawi had not consulted IRA scholars on the matter, and had reneged on a promise to organise a meeting between the group and Sarkozy.

"He does not represent Al-Azhar or Islam," a disgruntled Marzouq told Al- Jazeera satellite channel, warning that, given anti-Islamic sentiments currently rife in Europe, the anti-hijab law might mark the beginning of a series of bans on Muslim rituals. Marzouq maintained that Tantawi should have at least argued that the French government should not ban the hijab, in the same way that most Muslim countries do not force non-Muslim women to put on the veil.

Egypt's Mufti Ali Gomaa condemned the proposed ban as "a blatant interference in Muslim rituals and doctrine". In an earlier edict Gomaa had explained that, unlike the cross and skullcap, the hijab is a religious obligation firmly established in the Qur'an and Sunna. True secularism, Gomaa argued, does not impose restrictions on religious practice and thus should not force Muslim women to disobey God. "I fear that French Muslim students will later be asked why they refuse to eat pork, or why they pray and fast," Gomaa said. "[This] law indicates that [France] does not accept the other."

But Gomaa also refuted claims that Al- Azhar had given France "the official green light" to pass the anti-hijab bill, arguing Tantawi had already made it clear that hijab was an obligation on Muslim women.

Former Mufti Nasr Farid Wasel also tried to soften criticism of Tantawi, saying his statement only meant that removing the veil would not be a sin if the French government decided to impose a ban on the hijab.

Tantawi's edict, which follows an earlier decision by the Grand Imam to retract a fatwa issued by a senior Al-Azhar cleric urging Muslim and Arab states to boycott the Iraqi Governing Council, has increased questions over his independence. Tantawi abjured the earlier edict, which bore Al-Azhar's official seal, 10 days after it was issued and, perhaps more damaging, immediately after meeting with US Ambassador David Welch. "No Egyptian cleric has the right to pass verdicts on the affairs of another country," Tantawi said by way of explanation.

According to El-Erian "Tantawi has turned himself into a government mouthpiece. Even when [he] remains silent on a certain matter he does so to please the government."

By not consulting other Al-Azhar scholars before issuing his hijab statement El- Erian says he left his colleagues no choice but to publicly oppose him, thus further tarnishing the reputation of Al-Azhar.

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