Egypt’s grand mufti has issued a condemnation of violence against gays, reiterating at the same time that homosexuality was a sin according to Islam.
In an interview with German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung last week, Shawki Allam denounced last month’s terror attack at a gay nightclub in Orlando in which 49 people were killed.
“Religiously, [homosexuality] is not an acceptable practice … But we live in a system governed by the rule of law and we have to respect that. Even though homosexuality is a sin, this doesn’t give anyone else the right to injure or harm someone else,” Allam said, according to the Egypt Streets website, which translated parts of the interview.
Openness, he said, was key to countering the “misguided lunatics” of the radical Islamic State group, which “must be fought by all means, militarily and ideologically.”
The mufti’s championship of moderation comes at a time of increasing persecution of gays in Egypt.
Two years after Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi took office, replacing an Islamist government, hopes for liberalization have been dashed by an anti-gay crackdown, as well as measures against writers and intellectuals who have fallen foul of conservatives and Egypt’s influential Islamic authorities.
As Sissi has consolidated his rule, the suppression of political dissent has paved the way for a rise of conservatism, said rights lawyer Negad El Borai.
“One-voice regimes are usually conservative by default,” El Borai said. “They’re linked not only to restrictions in the political sphere, but in freedoms in general.”
Sissi had initially promised modernity and vowed religion would not be used in politics again. But the authorities’ actions say otherwise.
In April, 11 men accused of homosexuality were sentenced to prison terms of up to 12 years after they were convicted of “debauchery.” In 2014 several people were arrested for taking part in a wedding between two men.
Egyptian law does not prohibit homosexuality, but gays are prosecuted under debauchery laws.
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) has documented at least 200 cases against gays and transgender people since Morsi’s overthrow.
“The sentences are terrifying,” says Dalia Abd El-Hameed, head of the gender program at the EIPR.
Al-Azhar, Egypt’s top Islamic university, has been central to the conservative backlash.
Allam is a graduate of Al-Azhar, and was selected as grand mufti by senior members of the institution.
“Al-Azhar today has more political influence than under Mubarak,” said El Borai.
The constitution adopted in early 2014 after Morsi’s overthrow strengthened Al-Azhar’s role, making it “the main reference on religious studies and Islamic affairs.”
Some critics say a lack of legal clarity is allowing for morality laws to be applied too broadly.
But others, including El Borai, do not believe changing laws is the solution.
“You can incorporate the best law in the world, but if society and the judiciary are not open and just, this law is worthless,” he said.