Al-Azhar University has achieved the sort of powers its counterparts around the world can only dream of: it can censor written and electronic materials, then confiscate what it disapproves of. The move was presented as a way of combating fringe Islamist literature, as explained by the Associated Press.
Justice Minister Farouk Seif el-Nasr's decision last month to empower Al-Azhar with search-and-seizure powers - something normally reserved for law enforcement - came in response to Al-Azhar's long-standing desire for more authority to confront and confiscate material that violates Islam as well as extremist writings readily available on the streets but printed without official permission.
The first operation conducted by ‘ulama from Al-Azhar's Islamic Research Academy took place two days ago and involved searches through bookstores and publishing houses for materials produced without al-Azhar's consent, as the law requires in Egypt. The ‘ulama did in fact confiscate Korans and Islamic tapes. More searches today, Agence France-Presse reports, led to Azhar censors
confiscating hundreds of publications as well as audio and video tapes they claim do not conform to Islamic teachings. … Novels by secular writers and even unorthodox versions of the Islamic holy book, the Koran, were seized in the raids, raising concerns the religious establishment might use its new powers to suppress free thought. Human rights groups and the liberal intelligentsia condemned the move, spearheaded by Al-Azhar's Islamic Research Center (IRC), as an attempt to stifle freedom of expression and warned that it could encourage violence against secular writers.
They mentioned two individuals in particular whose publications were targeted in the raids: Egyptian feminist writer Nawal Saadawi and researcher Ahmed Ismail. According to the Egyptian Human Rights Center for Legal Aid, Ismail was assaulted by members of the extremist Salafist group, who denounced him as being an infidel. The IRC demanded the confiscation of Saadawi's "The Fall of the Imam", published nearly 20 years ago, for allegedly violating Islamic precepts.
Some Egyptians worry that this could serve as a prototype for a religious police similar to that of the notorious Mutawwa'in (a.k.a., Committee for the Protection of Virtue and Prohibition of Vice) in Saudi Arabia, though the Cairene version does not – yet – have powers of arrest. Adel Hammouda, a prominent journalist and writer worries that "This is the beginnings of a religious police in Egypt. This is very, very dangerous." The religious establishment now has the power to be "judge, jury and executioner." The head of the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights, Hisham Kassem, described the decision to empower Al-Azhar as "A disaster. We were shocked by this. We condemn this." Nasr Amin, director of the Arac Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and Legal Profession called it "a step backwards [that] presents a great danger for free speech."
Now that the precedent exists, will other institutions of higher learning attempt to emulate Al-Azhar? (June 5, 2004)