Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—As Egyptians across the country prepare for the referendum on the draft constitution this Tuesday and Wednesday, Al-Azhar Under-Secretary Dr. Abbas Shouman called on all Egyptians to turn out to the polls regardless of whether they support or oppose the document.
Al-Azhar, which is Egypt’s top Sunni authority and which runs a prestigious university in Cairo, is not concerned by what some people perceive as a curtailing of its powers in the draft constitution, Shouman told Asharq Al-Awsat in an exclusive interview.
Shouman, who is also the secretary-general of Al-Azhar’s prestigious Council of Senior Scholars, affirmed that he considers terrorist acts such as those happening currently in the Sinai to be against Islam, and called on all Egyptians to work on building their society instead of participating in violence. He also confirmed that Al-Azhar will send a delegation to the Sinai region in the coming months as part of its ongoing work with the Egyptian public.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What is your opinion of the draft constitution, which millions of Egyptians across the country are set to vote on as part of a nationwide referendum? Some people are of the view that the new constitution takes away some of Al-Azhar’s traditional powers. Do you agree?
Dr. Abbas Shouman: Al-Azhar views Egypt’s constitutions in a different manner than others. Al-Azhar does not aspire for constitutional privileges, because our role is well defined and does not change with the changing constitutions. Al-Azhar did not demand to be singled out as the national [Islamic] reference in the 2012 constitution, but accepted this duty as it was already part of our nature and obligations. When the people responsible for drafting the new constitution took a different view, Al-Azhar did not object because, ultimately, nothing will change, as I have said before. Al-Azhar will not be prevented from carrying out its role by an article in the constitution. Al-Azhar will not relinquish its responsibility simply because it was not included in the constitution. Al-Azhar did not gain or lose anything in the previous constitution, nor will it gain or lose anything in the new one. Therefore, Al-Azhar was never a stumbling block to the constitutional deliberations; rather, its representatives helped balance the committees.
Q: What is your view of the calls to boycott the referendum on the constitution?
I say to all those who peddle fatwas and call for the rejection of the referendum: Do not exploit religion and use it as a vehicle to achieve your own objectives. Instead of issuing fatwas you are not qualified to issue, you should go the voting booths and vote “no” on the draft constitution, as is your right. I think they are going to do that even if they also call for a boycott, so why are they peddling false fatwas? And I say to the Egyptian people: You have brought this civilized lesson to the world with your historic revolutions, and you are able to embody the people’s free will by going out and voting on the draft constitution in a civilized and free manner.
Q: Do you expect acts of violence during the referendum? If so, how will the state deal with it?
Violence will continue until the roadmap achieves its objectives. I think the recent decisions by the government, declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group—not to mention the approaching constitutional referendum—will mean worsening violence. However, I believe that stability will prevail after the government has taken vital decisions, as well as because of the Egyptian peoples’ support for the army and the police. It is the duty of the Egyptian state and the people to provide a suitable climate for the referendum to be held, and I hope that the Muslim Brotherhood—along with everyone else—will join in the voting process and express their views. I would also like to remind everybody that it is religiously forbidden to harm the Egyptian people or their property; it is also forbidden to intimidate the Egyptian people or threaten the nations’ security.
Q: Are there any fears of the constitution being rejected?
I think the term “fear” is misplaced, because the Egyptian people are aware of events and have a good knowledge of politics, which qualifies them to judge issues objectively. The message I would like send to everybody is this: Egypt needs all of us to do our duty and participate in moving forward and achieving security. By participating [in the referendum], we will be sending a message to the world at large that the Egyptian people have not only created the greatest civilizations, they have created the greatest revolution as well.
Q: Al-Azhar has played a vital role in providing well-needed balance to Egyptian society, particularly thanks to the public trust enjoyed by its leadership. However, some people still fear for Al-Azhar’s future. Do you share such fears?
I have no fears whatsoever over Al-Azhar’s future, particularly given the presence of numerous senior scholars who possess significant knowledge, wisdom and capabilities. We recently began taking major steps to reform the education system at Al-Azhar University to help Al-Azhar regain its real role of leading the nation’s [Islamic] ideology. I am not the only one concerned with this: so are all Al-Azhar scholars, and their leader, Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb. He has directed us to focus on the issue of education and is leading the reform and development process himself.
Q: In your capacity as Secretary-General of the Council of Senior Scholars, has the council’s role as a legislative authority ended following the changes in the new constitution?
The Council of Senior Scholars has many roles and was not established to be a legislative authority only; this was just one of its roles. I do not think it has lost this role following the amendment of the article. Al-Azhar’s rights are not derived from the constitution, but from the confidence of its followers across the world—not just in Egypt. I do not think that the people would accept specific legislation that says that the Al-Azhar Council of Senior Scholars was not religiously legitimate, and would refuse to implement such laws, regardless of what the constitution said.
Q: Let us now turn to the situation in the restive Sinai Peninsula, where a number of attacks against the security apparatus have taken place since the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Mursi. How does Al-Azhar view the situation in Sinai?
Terrorism has reared its ugly head again, and terrorists know nothing but how to rely on their lies and misguided ideologies. What is strange is that those involved in these attacks use Islamic names and chose Islamic titles or icons for their groups, such as Ansar Bait Al-Maqdis [Supporters of Jerusalem] or Jaysh Al-Islam [Army of Islam] and consider their actions to be part of jihad. I do not know which satanic source these groups use to legitimize their terrorist acts ,which target Muslims and Christians alike, not to mention police and army officers. I say to these terrorists, who have strayed from the path of true Islam, that we do not fear them and that while the bite of a mad dog may be dangerous, a mad dog’s life is short-lived. We are all standing behind our noble military and police force.
Q: In your opinion, who is responsible for the violence and bombings taking place in the country? How should the Egyptian people and authorities deal with it?
It is the duty of every Egyptian to stand against terrorism and it is the duty of every [Muslim] believer to condemn such acts and condemn those responsible for them, or at the very least not express support for them. All Egyptians must show national unity, which is a slap in the face of terrorism and which strengthens national stability. Al-Azhar, for its part, finds such events totally unacceptable. People should not accept any Islamic ruling or fatwa that does not emanate from Al-Azhar and its Dar Al-Iftaa. It is forbidden to shed Egyptian blood, and Islam rejects all forms of violence. All Egyptians must confront terrorism, which is a phenomenon that harms the Muslim nation and which is completely rejected by Islam.
Q: What role will Al-Azhar play in the future in the transitional roadmap drawn up by Egypt’s military?
Al-Azhar has a nationalist role that cannot end, and it continues to carry out its divine duties, which is to show people the righteous path away from bigotry and bias towards any party. As for the new constitution, Al-Azhar has explicitly stated its opinion and called on the Egyptian people to decide their fate and move their country out of this period of anxiety, tension and confusion to a period of security and stability. Participating in the referendum on the constitution is a national duty, and serving the interest of the nation is considered to be an objective of the law.
Q: Some parties have accused Al-Azhar of distancing itself from the political scene after the June 30 revolution. What do you think?
Whoever said that does not know anything. Before and after the revolution—whether the January 25 revolution or June 30 revolution—Al-Azhar was a haven for everyone and a shelter for all. During the times of crisis Al-Azhar participated in all activities related to the constitution, and is a strong part of the hopes and aspirations of the people, not to mention a partner in their suffering. How can anyone say that Al-Azhar has distanced itself from events?
I will also remind you of the Al-Azhar statement released after the January revolution, which condemned all forms of violence and called for united efforts to achieve stability. This is not to mention Al-Azhar’s efforts to proscribe any attacks on mosques. Al-Azhar is the institution closest to the hearts of the people and it cannot abandon them, whatever the circumstances.