Egypt religious police: latest move towards Islamic state

March 23, 2013 by  
Filed under newsletter-world

The Arab Spring has not brought about the freedom promisedEgypt, March 14, 2013: The announcement of a religious police force to uphold Muslim morals in Egypt is the latest chilling sign of the country’s move towards becoming an Islamic state.The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, an informal group, shares its name with the much-feared religious police (“mutawaah”) in Saudi Arabia, though it insists it will operate differently.

At a press conference last week, the committee’s founder, Hisham el-Ashri, said:We have absolutely no relationship with the ‘morality’ committees in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Somalia or Nigeria. We will only offer advice to those who want to listen. We shall have no business with people who refuse to listen to us.

One may question why the group chose the same name as the Saudi mutawaah if it genuinely is of a different character. And though el-Ashri has tried to make the committee sound benign and respectable, insisting that it will not use violence, it has sparked alarm in Egyptian civil society. Opponents fear that the Islamists will abuse their position and force people, especially women, to, as one Egyptian activist put it, “act in stupid conservative ways”.There are concerns also for the country’s minority Christian community, who could be subjected to the indiscriminate enforcement of sharia law. El-Ashri stated bluntly in a television interview, “There is no such thing as a Christian religion”.


People’s fears appear to be well-founded. Although the committee officially announced itself only last week, vigilante Salafist gangs have been operating as self-appointed morality police in Egypt for some months. These men have claimed to be part of a Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice; they reportedly wear white cloaks and carry canes to beat violators.There have been a number of reports of their raiding shops and harassing staff and customers. Shop owners were told not to sell “indecent” clothing, barbers no longer to shave men’s beards; customers were ordered to cover up and were threatened with severe punishment if they did not comply.At Christmas, the Salafists destroyed Christmas trees and decorations in shopping centres, declaring that celebrating the Christian festival was “haram” (forbidden).

Opponents fear the imposition of the veil on womenThe behaviour of these Islamic morality enforcers is highly reminiscent of their counterparts in Saudi Arabia, who ruthlessly apply the regime’s hardline interpretation of what is forbidden and permitted under sharia. Their duties include preventing a man and woman who are not married or related from being alone together, calling people to prayer and ensuring women wear the veil.The enforcement of sharia law in such an aggressive manner seems a far cry from the calls for freedom that characterised the “Arab Spring”. Yet to some extent it is even happening in Tunisia, where that tumultuous movement began at the end of 2010.There, a self-appointed “Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice” was given legal status by the government around a year ago. And as in Egypt, there have been reports of Salafists verbally and physically attacking women not dressed in a manner deemed sufficiently modest.


Since the revolution, Egypt has been moving steadily forward along the road towards the establishment of an Islamic state. The success of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in the general election and subsequent victory of their presidential candidate, Mohammad Morsi, paved the way.The Islamists were able to use their political dominance to push through a new constitution at the end of last year that gives Muslim clerics a role in ensuring that legislation complies with sharia law.

The tentacles of sharia are gradually tightening their grip on Egyptian society with stifling consequences, especially for Christians.Last month, two Christian boys were convicted of “showing contempt for Islam” for allegedly desecrating pages of the Quran. Nabil Farag and Mina Risq were aged just 9 and 10 at the time of the alleged incident on 30 September 2012. They were accused of tearing up and urinating on pages of the Quran in the village of Ezbat Marco. The youngsters were found guilty despite evidence being produced in court that they are illiterate and therefore not able to identify Quranic text.Thankfully Nabil and Mina were not penalised by the court; they were remanded to the custody of their parents. But this conviction is likely to cast a dark cloud over their young lives as Egypt becomes increasingly Islamised. They may face discrimination or even violence for having this crime against their names. And the case sends a clear and disturbing message to Christians that not even the most vulnerable and innocent in their community will be protected against criminal proceedings, even after only the most insubstantial accusation of a perceived offence against Islam.

Their place in the country is becoming more and more precarious. During a recent interview, Dr Mahmoud Shu’ban, a professor at Al Azhar University, the country’s most authoritative Islamic centre, said that Egyptian Christians will have to pay the jizya. This is a humiliating tax imposed on Christians and Jews in Islamic states that “buys” them a level of protection to practise their faith within certain restrictions.Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, International Director of Barnabas Fund, said:

It is a truly distressing and dangerous time for Christians in Egypt as their homeland turns inexorably into an Islamic state. Islamists who gained power in the wake of the Arab Spring have tried to deny that this is their ultimate agenda, but it is becoming increasingly apparent where the country is heading. Secular liberal opponents of these developments in Egypt, of whom there are many, must take a strong stance before the freedoms that they cried out for in the revolution are swallowed up by sharia.

– barnabas team

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