CAIRO — The head of Al-Azhar, the pre-eminent institute of Islamic learning in the Sunni Muslim world, put forward a Bill of Rights on Tuesday upholding freedom of expression and belief ahead of the drafting of Egypt's new constitution.
The bill, which was in the works for three months, is a bid by Al-Azhar to assert its role as the voice of moderate Islam in the face of growing political power of more conservative Islamic groups in Egypt following the February ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.
The conservative Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most organized political force, and the more radical ultraconservative Salafis, have won a majority in the country's first elected post-Mubarak parliament. Both call for an Islamic basis for the state, raising worries among Egypt's liberal and Christian groups that conservative religious teachings will dictate the shape of the new constitution. In theory, parliament is to be in charge of nominating who will draft the document.
The Al-Azhar document appeared aimed at establishing a religious backing for preserving broader rights that liberals and Christians fear conservatives will try to limit.
Al-Azhar's Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb told reporters the bill of rights, which preserves freedoms of worship, opinion, scientific research and art and creative expression, is drafted to be a basis for the country's new constitution, according to comments published by Egypt's state news agency.
He said that Islamic rulings protect freedom of religion and guarantee equal citizenship rights, in a message to Egypt's increasingly nervous Christian minorities.
Hassan el-Shafei, a senior Al-Azhar official, said the document has been passed on to authorities to be considered in writing the constitution. The document has been drafted in the last three months in consultation with Islamic and Christian thinkers, el-Shafei said.
Al-Azhar once wielded tremendous influence among millions of Sunni Muslim worldwide, offering guidance on issues of faith in Egypt and other Islamic nations through its extensive network of Islamic schools, a university and religious institutes that open their doors to Muslims from around the world. It lost much of that influence in part because of its close cooperation with Mubarak's regime, raising criticism that it has become a tool in the hands of autocratic leaders. The head of Al-Azhar was appointed by the state.
Al-Azhar's influence was also challenged by the growing more independent religious groups who became the most influential opposition to Egyptian leaders, some of them even espousing violence.
Mubarak stepped down after unprecedented popular protests organized by mostly middle-class urban youth groups calling for freedom, justice and improved human rights. Since then, however, the Brotherhood and the Salafis have emerged as the most powerful political players, alongside the ruling military council, which took over from Mubarak.
Since Mubarak's fall, many in Egypt have looked to Al-Azhar as a way to balance out the more radical groups, and restore its place as the center of Islamic teachings.
New proposals discussed currently call for the election of Al-Azhar leader and the core group of scholars to allow them more independence from the state. The learning institute is also studying prospects of setting up its own TV station, to counter the multiple private ultraconservative stations that propagate the thought of independent clerics, many of the Salafis.