The question, which we all should consider now is why Al-Azhar scholars are not obeyed by the public any more? The simple and direct answer to this very complicated question is because Al-Azhar lost its credibility in the eyes of Egyptians.
Recently, Hoda Ramzy, a student, was expelled from Al-Azhar Institute in Shoubra for merely wearing a niqab. She and her colleagues who face the same problems with the administration decided to file a complaint to President Mubarak in protest. On Facebook, a new group was launched to defend women’s right to wear the niqab at school. Their argument revolves around the fact that if you gave the right to “motabarijat” [i.e. the uncovered women] to go around freely, then you should give equal rights to covered women.
On local state-owned media and independent media channels, the controversy over niqab is endless. There is a huge verbal battle between Salafi sheikhs and Al-Azhar scholars. The latter is viewing the niqab as harmful to society, while the former believes this is the ideal dress of the Muslim woman. Both have very persuasive arguments.
I visited Alexandria couple of weeks ago. One of the most shocking scenes I saw there was the huge number of women in niqab. Some of my relatives wore it too. They are very convinced that this is how Muslim woman should look. Some of them told me that to “show more gratitude to Allah, the creator of our precious bodies, we should be covered from head to toe with three layers.” When I asked her who told her this, she said a Sheikh on Al-Nas TV (one of the most popular Salafi TV channels in Egypt).
On my latest shopping tour, about one month ago, a newly married friend of mine joined me. We had not seen each other for more than a year. She is an ordinary young woman who has always been open-minded and loving life. When she got engaged to her current husband, she wore the hijab (scarf) which most Egyptian women wear. I was surprised when I saw her shopping for abayas (long baggy dresses). She then told me that upon the command of her husband, she will change her dress to wear the niqab. She is not convinced that the niqab is a divine order; but she “loves her husband and wants to obey him.”
It is true the number of women wearing niqab in Egypt is increasing daily. Every woman has her own reasoning for wearing it. This is not a matter of question now. We are not arguing whether it is a basic right for women to dress the way they want. This is absolute and no one can deny it. We are not even searching for the reasons or key players behind this unexpected change of Al-Azhar policy from the extreme right to the extreme left. Everybody knows that Al-Azhar played a great role in fueling religious “piety” in Egypt over the past five years. They were pushed by the state to do so as an attempt to re-attract the already religious Egyptian public who were highly influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood group.
The Muslim Brotherhood represented itself as an independent voice defending moderate Islam versus the state owned voice promoting another version of Islam tailored according to the wishes of the regime. The political Islamist group succeeded in attracting a large number of supporters by emphasizing Islamic principles as the solution for Egypt’s economic and political problems.
The question, which we all should consider now, is why Al-Azhar scholars are not obeyed by the public any more? The simple and direct answer to this very complicated question is because Al-Azhar lost its credibility in the eyes of Egyptians. Al-Azhar has been used as a tool in the hands of the regime to satisfy personal and elite interests at the expense of Egyptian’s religious sympathies. Under the claim of defending Islam, Al-Azhar committed some unforgivable violations against open-minded intellectuals and fighters for freedom of expression and freedom of belief. They cracked down on Bahai’s for merely calling for the right to have a national ID card and other official papers that prove them being ordinary Egyptian citizens. They also cracked down on Shiites and Sufis and distorted their image in an unacceptable way.
Yet, the most unfair and shocking violation was committed against 22-year-old blogger and student, Kareem Amer. Kareem is now serving four years in jail for allegedly insulting Islam and President Mubarak. He wrote an article criticizing Al-Azhar scholars’ pledge to Mubarak to be the “prince of believers” and how this will make us – the people/ believers – deprived from our right to hold him accountable for corruption, wrong decisions, etc. Kareem simply wrote this on his own personal blog. As a result, he was expelled from university, interrogated and sentenced to four years.
Al-Azhar now is looked upon as a state owned tool. It is no longer the independent religious institution respected worldwide. That is why the Salafis have the upper hand in the niqab battle. And that is why our society will grow more and more extreme.
Dalia Ziada is a liberal human rights activist, translator, researcher, and poet.