Court Case Casts Doubts on Secularism in Egypt Accused of Apostasy, an Egyptian Scholar Faces the Long Arm of His Country's Islamic Movement

By Deborah Pugh, | The Christian Science Monitor, June 24, 1993 | Go to article overview

Court Case Casts Doubts on Secularism in Egypt Accused of Apostasy, an Egyptian Scholar Faces the Long Arm of His Country's Islamic Movement


Deborah Pugh,, The Christian Science Monitor


THE world of Ebtehal Younes has fallen apart in the last month. A professor of French civilization and literature at Cairo University, she is happily married to a respected Egyptian academic named Nasr Hamid Abu Zeid, a specialist in early Islamic political thought.

But her marriage is being threatened by a bizarre court case that calls into question the vitality of secular law in Egypt at a time when Islamic militants are attacking the government.

In their detailed petition to an Egyptian civil court, a group of Islamist lawyers has argued that Dr. Abu Zeid has betrayed his faith because his writings challenge fundamentalist interpretations of Islam. The lawyers are believed to be close to the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned but tolerated Islamist political group that has been linked to more radical Muslims who want to create an Islamic state in Egypt.

"Apostasy dissolves a marriage," the lawyers wrote, arguing that according to Muslim traditions no Muslim woman should live with an apostate. They are seeking a court order demanding that Dr. Younes either separate from her husband or be considered an adultress.

The case, Abu Zeid says, is but the latest chapter in a campaign by Egypt's mainstream Islamist movement to intimidate liberal Muslims who have criticized the intellectual foundations of fundamentalism. An associate professor of Arabic at Cairo University, Abu Zeid has a long string of publications to his credit.

"It began when I would not quietly accept my failure to gain promotion {as a full professor at Cairo University}, after it was blocked on nonacademic grounds," Abu Zeid explains. "That stirred up a lot of controversy as to whether Cairo University was a secular or religious institution.

"This court case is an attempt to support those who criticized my work by trying to convict me of apostasy and then destroy my marriage," he adds.

The case first opened earlier in June at a civil court in Greater Cairo and was promptly adjourned until Nov. 4 at the request of the prosecuting lawyers, who requested time to consult Egypt's leading Islamic institution, Al-Azhar University.

The institution will establish an ad hoc committee to judge whether Zeid's work is anti-Islamic. Religious scholars associated with Al-Azhar have been widely criticized for encouraging religious intolerance.

"When we first saw this accusation in the paper, I thought it was just another silly attack on my husband," Younes explains bitterly. "But when our lawyer told us that it was a serious case, all I felt was disgust. Who can imagine that Egyptian law would permit such an interference?"

Despite the shock the case has generated among Egyptians, the lawyers have a legal right to bring it before Egypt's civil courts. An archaic statute allows any concerned individual to raise a case that concerns the "rights of God. …

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