Egypt’s top Islamic institution is introducing constitutional amendments to preserve the country’s Sunni identity, just two months after holding a conference to discuss ways of curbing Shiite inroads in Egypt.
Abd Al-Daim Nasir, an adviser to Egypt’s top cleric Sheikh Al-Azhar Ahmad Tayyeb and his representative at the constitutional assembly, told London-based daily A-Sharq Al-Awsat Wednesday that Al-Azhar University has requested a clause be introduced into the new constitution “outlawing the offense of God, the prophets and their wives, and the followers [of the prophet Muhammad].”
The clause is meant to target Shiites, who ritually curse Muhammad’s wife Aisha and a number of his followers who opposed the leadership of Ali — the fourth Caliph and son-in-law of Muhammad — a figure revered in Shiite belief.
“Christians and Muslims are unanimous that the sanctity of God should be safeguarded and honored by all,” Nasir told A-Sharq Al-Awsat, citing caricatures of the prophet Muhammad that appeared in a Danish newspaper as proof that religious figureheads are under attack today.
“The Egyptian Brotherhood is resolutely Sunni but has generally held back from Shi`i-baiting,” Nathan Brown, an expert in Arab constitutionalism at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The Times of Israel. Brown doubted the wording of the constitution could be changed in a way that would harm minority rights.
“I’m not sure this would change anything on a practical or legal level,” he said.
Jane Kinninmont, an expert on Egypt at London’s Chatham House, said the issue of blasphemy is so divisive and controversial in Egyptian society that tackling it would likely alienate the country’s Christians and non-religious.
“If the Muslim Brotherhood has learnt anything from the presidential run-off, it should have learnt that it needs to reassure these important minorities about their position in the future state of Egypt,” she told The Times of Israel. “I am doubtful that this would really be a priority for the Muslim Brotherhood.”
The fate of Egypt’s constitutional assembly, dissolved once before by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), is still unclear. Article 2 of Egypt’s provisional constitution already defines Islam as “the religion of the state” and Egyptian law punishes blasphemy with six months to five years in prison.
Shiites constitute a minuscule portion of Egypt’s 90% Muslim population, but mounting tensions between Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Arab Gulf states have fanned the flames of sectarianism in Egypt.
The proposed new constitutional amendment can also be viewed in the context of Egypt’s rivalry with staunchly Shiite Iran, whose attempts at rapprochement were recently rebuffed by Egypt’s new president Mohammed Morsi.
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