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Unusual laws
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 19 - 10 - 2017

Reforming religious discourse, modernising the Islamic University of Al-Azhar and raising the minimum age of marriage for girls topped the list of draft laws proposed by members of parliament at its new session which began earlier this month, reports Gamal Essam El-Din.
“The rising numbers of religious intolerance and hate crimes such as bombing churches and issuing bizarre fatwas have forced MPs to focus on amending or submitting laws that address religious discourse as a way to contain these crimes and modernise society,” Osama Al-Abd, head of the Religious Affairs Committee and former president of Al-Azhar University, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Al-Abd said a four-article law on regulating religious fatwas (rulings) will soon be discussed in a plenary session. The law, drafted by the religious affairs committee's secretary-general and Kafr Al-Sheikh governorate MP Omar Hamroush, won the approval of all the committee's 30 members. It also landed praise and official consent from Minister of Waqf (religious endowments) Mokhtar Gomaa, Al-Abd said, adding that he hopes Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal will put it up for debate in a plenary session soon.
The draft law's first article allows Islamic clerics to issue fatwas only if they are members of four institutions: the Council of the Grand Scholars of Al-Azhar, Dar Al-Iftaa (the house of fatwas), the Complex of Islamic Research, and the Ministry of Waqf's Department of Fatwas.
Article 3 states that members of these institutions can deliver fatwas only via licensed media outlets, and that violators can face six years in jail and pay as much as LE5,000 in fines.
MP Hamroush told Al-Ahram Weekly that his proposed draft law is in line with Egypt's war against religious extremism that endangers the stability and security of Egypt and the region. “It helps the state in its war to control extremist mosques, clerics, speeches, schools and their financial resources,” Hamroush said.
He added that his draft law mainly aims at controlling Salafi (ultra-conservative) clerics who have issued controversial fatwas, including one which makes it illegal for Muslims to congratulate Copts on Christian holidays. “Every now and then we are shocked by such bizarre fatwas and now it is high time to control them,” said Hamroush.
An equally controversial law was drafted by independent MP Mohamed Abu Hamed aiming to change an Al-Azhar institution law by modifying the way the members of its Council of Grand Clerics are chosen. The current law gives the sheikh of Al-Azhar the absolute right to choose the members.
Under the current law, Al-Azhar's Council of Grand Clerics must comprise 40 members led by the grand imam. Each member should be an Al-Azhar University graduate, holding a doctoral degree and swearing loyalty to Al-Azhar's religious legacy, teachings and conduct. In return, the council will choose the grand imam if the position is vacated.
Abu Hamed's draft law aims to expand the council's membership to include public figures such as “enlightened secularists and prestigious specialists who can share in modernising fatwas and religious discourse”.
“If liberal Islamic voices joined the council, they could help issue very progressive fatwas and play a significant role in modernising society in general and Al-Azhar in particular, reforming religious discourse and stemming the tide of conservative speech,” Abu Hamed said.
He said his draft law comes after Al-Azhar's Council of Grand Clerics rejected a proposal that aims at regulating verbally declared divorce — when a woman is divorced by her husband immediately after he tells her “you are divorced”. “The clerics said the proposal cannot be accepted because it contradicts Islam although this kind of divorce has caused a lot of social injustice for a lot of women,” Abu Hamed said.
Head of the Religious Committee Al-Abd said the committee itself intends to regulate verbal divorce but in a way that receives the approval of Al-Azhar. His statement came after President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi described verbal divorce as doing much injustice to women and asked that the matter be regulated. Al-Sisi said that verbal divorce is responsible for the rise of divorce rates in Egypt. “Statistics show that 40 per cent of marriages in Egypt break up within the first five years, with verbal divorce mainly to blame,” Al-Sisi said.
Closely related is a legislative proposal aimed at increasing the minimum legal age of marriage for girls to 21. The law, drafted by Coptic MP and deputy head of parliament's Human Rights Committee Margret Azer, seeks to stem the tide of population growth and divorce problems in Egypt. “The current personal affairs litigation does not forbid early marriage for girls and this is sad,” Azer said, adding that her proposed draft law also comes as a response to another legislative proposal that aims to cut the minimum legal age of marriage for girls to16.
Ahmed Samih, an independent MP who drafted the law allowing marriage at 16, said lowering the age of marriage is a means of legalising the status of girls who get married at that age.
Statistics show that 80 per cent of girls aged 16 in rural and densely populated urban districts marry with parental consent even though they are aware that this marriage is illegal, Samih said.
Samih's legislative proposal has, however, faced strong attacks from fellow MPs. The 45-member parliamentary alliance called Egypt's Bloc of Female MPs described Samih's draft law as “a disaster”. It would mean population growth will be faster than it already is, it said. Egypt's population today stands at around 104 million, according to recently released statistics.
Azer acknowledged that many girls aged 16 in rural and poor districts in Egypt marry with parental consent but she said “our job is to stand against this trend because most of these girls marry under pressure from their parents and community for financial reasons.”
Tarek Tawfik, head of the National Population Council, announced two weeks ago that the council would submit to parliament a law that makes marriage under 18 for girls illegal. “This goes in line with Article 80 of Egypt's 2014 constitution which states that those below 18 are considered children,” Tawfik said.

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