Earlier this week, Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the world’s preeminent Sunni center of learning, announced a new “Bill of Rights” for Egypt. Al-Azhar hopes that the non-binding document will guide the newly-elected parliament in preparing the new Egyptian constitution. Al-Azhar consulted Muslim and Christian intellectuals during the document’s drafting, and influential religious and political leaders have endorsed it, including Coptic Pope Shenouda and representatives of Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi Al-Nour. Observers say the announcement is one in a series of attempts by Al-Azhar to assert a “moderate” version of Islam and beat back challenges from stricter versions of the faith endorsed by the Islamists.
The Times reports that the document protects “freedom of expression and belief.” I haven’t been able to find an official translation online, but phrases like these can obscure serious underlying tensions. For example, a secular Western liberal might understand “freedom of belief” to cover, among other things, the choice to change one’s religion. In a Muslim context, though, the phrase could mean only that non-Muslims have the right to convert to Islam — Muslims still would be prohibited from converting to other faiths. Similarly, “freedom of expression” would not protect expression perceived as an insult to Islam, for example, attempts to convince Muslims that other faiths are superior. The fact that Islamist parties have signed on to the new document suggests that these narrow interpretations are at least plausible.