Outlawry in Egypt: the disturbing case of Sayyid Al-Qemany, friend of freedom

Outlawry in Egypt: the disturbing case of Sayyid Al-Qemany, friend of freedom

Things are not going well for lovers of freedom in Egypt.

Egypt is under a moral and spiritual siege.   Freedom of speech is deteriorating rapidly, because of rather than in spite of the ‘Arab Spring’.  A recent incident illustrates the critical state of affairs for free-thinking Egyptians.

Sayyid Al-Qemany is a well-known 64 year old prize-winning intellectual and writer on religious and political topics who  has emphasised the importance of critical thinking, and opposed Islamic radicalism.  He has argued for the separation of religion and state and demanded the repeal of article 2 of the Egyptian Constitution, which stipulates that the Islamic sharia is the main source of the nation’s legislation.

Al-Qemany identifies as a Muslim, but believes the Islamic faith should apply to the domain of personal belief and sacred ritual, not politics.  He has also pointed out that not all the verses of the Qur’an are
applicable today – such as laws permitting slavery and concubinage –  and some are not
even followed in any Islamic jurisdiction in the modern world.

In many ways Al-Qemany is representative of the kind of Islam which Western political leaders hope will characterize the faith of their growing Muslim minorities in their states.

For Western people, Al-Qemany’s views would be regarded as ‘normal’ and rational.  However in Egypt he is bitterly opposed by conservative Islamic leaders, thousands of whom have declared him to be a blasphemer.

Even the Dar Al-Ifta, the office of the Egyptian Grand Mufti, Ali Gomaa, issued a fatwa implying that Al-Qemany was a heretic and apostate from Islam.  This was after he had been awarded a prize by the Egyptian state for achievement in the social sciences (the selection was made by a free ballot of Egyptian intellectuals).  The Dar Al-Ifta fatwa states:

The statements [from Al-Qimni’s writings] quoted by the [individual] who
requested the fatwa are heretical, regardless of who wrote them; they
remove their author from the fold of Islam… and
[also] constitute a
crime according to Article 98 of
[Egypt’s] penal code. If these
depraved, loathsome, and invalid statements were indeed made by a
specific individual, then this individual should be convicted rather
than awarded a prize, and punished to the full extent of the law.

This fatwa was subtly written to allow Al-Qemany a way out by disavowing his writings, hence the wording: ‘if … these statements were indeed made by a specific individual’.  The purpose of this fatwa is to intimidate Al-Qemany into retracting his views, for the charges made against him attract the death penalty under Islamic law.  One of the principles of dealing with apostates in Islam is that they should be given a chance to repent.

It is not hard to understand why Islamic leaders oppose Al-Qemany, for he has been fearless in challenging them on many counts.

For example he exposed examples of Muslim leaders who have lied to Western media about Islam.   Among other examples, Al-Qemany reported that:

  • When questioned by broadcaster Barbara Waters, the Saudi Foreign Minister expressed surprise and even denied the existence of a well-known tradition of Muhammad about trees which will cry out in the last days saying, “There is a Jew hiding behind me, kill him.”
  • The Revd Jerry Falwell referred to Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha when she was 9 and he was 52.  Although this is a well-known fact of Islamic history, Hussein Ibish, spokesperson for the Armerican-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee ‘vehemently denied’ Falwell’s statements and claimed he had slandered Islam.  Al-Qemany pointed out that Falwell’s report was accurate, that marrying girls as young as 9 is accepted in Sunni Islam as a result, and even Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi is reported to have taken a new wife more than 60 years younger than himself, younger even than his youngest granddaughter.
  • The high-profile American Muslim Nihad Awad, executive director of CAIR (The Council on American-Islamic Relations) and signatory of the Common Word letter, boasted that he had successfully lobbied a publisher to remove from a school textbook a(n accurate) reference to Muhammad’s “marriage” to the Jew Safiyya after killing her male relatives including her husband, on the grounds that the reference was Islamophobic.  Al-Qemany commented that this historical erasure made a ‘mockery’ of America’s democracy:  “The Americans, out of respect for Muslims and their religion … ordered
    that the story be expunged from the [school] book, and even accused its
    authors of ethnic extremism.”

Al-Qemany pointed out that such mendacious strategies, far from defending the honour of Muhammad and Islam, in fact manifest contempt for Islam and embarrassment about Muhammad because they attempt to deny and conceal matters which are well-known and not disputed in the religion.  Such ‘protection’ through lies implies a fundamental lack of confidence in Islam.

The question today is how much longer thinkers like Al-Qemany will be able to exist in Egypt, given the rise of expectations that strict sharia must regulate public discourse.  Al-Qemany is a key voice for the anti-sharia opposition: he has spoken out against a culture in which ‘one group is in possession of the absolute truth, and is obligated to
correct the others, or, if it can’t correct them, to destroy them…’.

On January 2, 2012 a debate was filmed between Al-Qemany and popular Al-Azhar sheikh and celebrity television presenter Kaled al-Gindy (see here).  Al-Qemany had agreed to the debate on the grounds that it was to be a dialogue with Al-Gindy to discuss their differences in a respectful manner.  However the interview, in which the ‘moderator’ was Fadel Soliman, turned into a kind of trial, in which videos of Al-Qemany’s past statements were repeatedly aired, and it was demanded that he respond to them.  This was in essence a trial designed to prove that Al-Qemany is a murtad or apostate from Islam.  Al-Gindy kept using very derogatory, contemptuous language towards Al-Qemany, which would be very inappropriate to use towards a respected fellow Muslim.

Al-Qemany felt ambushed by this approach.  It was not what he had agreed to.  Initially, for the sake of the viewers, he did respond, but eventually, in protest, he broke off the interview.

Al-Qemany later reported that as he was leaving the studio, the moderator, Fadel Soliman, struck him from behind on the back and the back of his head with a mug full of water,  and threatened his life.  Al-Qemany is reported to be undergoing treatment for head and back injuries in a Cairo hospital.  (An interview with Al-Qemany – in Arabic – is posted here, in which he speaks of his shock at what is happening in Egypt.)

What should make this incident especially attention-grabbing for Western readers is that Fadel Soliman, the alleged assailant, has been a well known interfaith speaker in the West who claims to promotes harmony through peaceful dialogue.  A member of Al-Qaradawi’s International Union of Muslim Scholars, Soliman heads up Bridges Foundation, which claims to bridge the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims: “Bridges Foundation aims to bridge peoples from different religious and ethnic backgrounds through educational interfaith activities, like power point presentations, gatherings, discussions etc…”  Its website reports that Soliman offers workshops on how to present Islam to non-Muslims and ‘refute misconceptions‘ about Islam. Soliman has given presentations on Islam to more than 65,000 people in the USA, including in churches, universities, and to government departments (see here; and also here for testimonials, including from a US lieutenant colonel, a member of congress and a Christian pastor).

One of the ‘misconceptions’ Soliman addresses in his workshops is that Islam is a violent religion (see here). He ‘strongly believes that educating each other about our differences is the best way to bridge peoples and facilitate the peacemaking process, because people do not fight when they communicate with each other‘ (see here).

The idea that violence can always be prevented by communication may appeal to some.  Of course talking can sometimes help prevent violence, but it is no silver bullet against it. And many people do not regard using violence and communicating to be mutually exclusive activities!

To appreciate the implications of the verbal attacks on Al-Qemany, it is essential to grasp the religious context.  There are precedents in Islamic law when Muhammad exonerated people who took the law into their own hands to kill his critics, including one incident in which a man killed his own wife for disparaging Muhammad.  (A discussion of whether such vigilantism is lawful in Islam, which cites the text of this and some other relevant traditions, can be found here).

Although some authorities insist that only the caliph has the authority to execute apostates, the point is that for an ordinary Muslim to do so is not considered murder.  Thus, according to the Shafi’i sharia manual, The Reliance of the Traveller, killing an apostate without lawful authority at worst attracts a minor disciplinary action, for ‘arrogating the caliph’s perogative and encroaching upon his rights’ (p.596 of the Keller translation).  More than this, some scholars judge killing an apostate to be a righteous act, especially when the state is unwilling to apply the sharia’s rulings.  Consider for example the remarkable outpourings of support for convicted assassin of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, including a scene in which hundreds of Pakistani lawyers showered the killer with rose petals.

Al-Qemany understands all this.  He himself has remarked that the allegation of his defection from Islam ‘means, in our country, that I could be slain; any citizen is allowed to kill me and be awarded by God in Paradise’.

Of course the concept of outlawry — of declaring an open season on a human person — is rejected by modern legal thinking, for reasons which do not need to be explained here.  It may have been good enough in the era of the Vikings and Robin Hood, but it won’t wash in Europe today (although the Third Reich did made heavy use of the concept).  The thing is that conservative Islam has not made this adjustment.  (To which statement an optimist might add the word ‘yet’.)

The Islamic version of outlawry means that an accusation of heresy made by a respected Muslim authority leaders can be tantamount to a threat against a person’s life by proxy.  For example, the fatwa issued by the Egyptian Dar Al-Ifta against Al-Qemany gives a justification for anyone who takes Al-Qemany’s life to claim immunity from prosecution before an Islamic court.   These are lethal words.

In a Western country, if someone says about another in a debate ‘you should be taken out and shot,’ it would be considered rhetorical or at best a joke.  But if an Islamic leader declares in a debate that his opponents’ views are heretical or he is a blasphemer, this is in effect signing a warrant for the person’s execution, as well as issuing a get-out-of-jail-free card for whoever performs the deed.

It is very difficult for those who are outside a sharia-oriented Islamic context to understand the intensity of the fear generated by such tactics. Let no-one be so unrealistic as to imagine that the Egyptian state would prosecute those who incite the killing of others through allegations of apostasy.   Dr Ali Gomaa, the official Chief Mufti of Egypt could never be charged for the deadly fatwa issued from his office against Al-Qemany.  And how could the state prosecute anyone else for saying the same thing as the Chief Mufti?  There is no likelihood that Al-Qemany’s assailant will be prosecuted, for Al-Qemany already bears the mark of the outlaw, inscribed upon his life by his zealous Muslim fellow citizens.

Of course the fact that the sharia encourages and licenses incitement to murder under certain circumstances, extolling it as righteousness, makes an absolute mockery of the international campaign to prohibit ‘Islamophobia’, and fools of Western leaders who would partner with Muslims in this misguided project.

When will the West heed the wise counsel of Al-Qemany, and many others, to develop a healthy skepticism towards those who claim to speak for Islam, but conceal and deny its clearly established principles?  When will they comprehend how ridiculous – and tragic – their gullibility is?

When will Western political leaders – some of whom pride themselves in being ‘progressive’ thinkers –  stand up for the freedom and right to life of clear-thinking Muslim progressives in our increasingly sharia-compliant world?

Today some Western leaders profess high hopes that Islam can reform itself.  The White House has even promoted the idea that the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical and thoroughly Islamic institution, will become more moderate as it enters the political mainstream.  But how can reform take place if the West does nothing to support progressive Muslim thinkers?

See here for Al-Qemany’s 2009 ‘Appeal to the Conscience of the Word’, in which he calls out to “the conscience of all humanity in the free world to come to my and my children’s rescue by providing moral support and the condemnation and denunciation” of incitement against him and his family.  He writes “This is a distress call to all bodies and individuals; a call to the consciences of every free individual in the world.”

Are our consciences so seared by false ideas and failed, politically correct notions that we cannot heed this call?  Shall we be silent while brave voices like Al-Qemany’s are snuffed out one by one?

If this is so, what right do we have to claim our own freedom, or the freedom of our children’s children?


Mark Durie is the founding director of the Institute for Spiritual Awareness, a Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Senior Research Fellow of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

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