The front-runner in today’s historic presidential election in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsy, has ‘clarified’ the Islamic position on conversion, in what could be seen as an appeal to liberal election watchers.
He said on the popular al-Nahar satellite TV station, on 17 May, in Arabic, translated by Lapido: ‘There is a wrong concept widely misunderstood, that the apostate [convert] is subject to Islamic punishment. This needs clarification,’ he said on the eve of the first free elections in Egypt’s history.
The man described by the Times today as an ‘uncharismatic party bureaucrat’ was not the Brotherhood’s original candidate, but emerged after the interim authorities banned Khairat al-Shater, who had spent time in jail under the Mubarak regime.
His pronouncement is startling since apostasy – renouncing Islam – carries the death penalty in much of the Muslim world. It is not proscribed by the constitutional law in Egypt, although citizens can bring cases against those suspected of contravening any aspect of the sharia which is still the primary source of law.
Morsy’s own conversion has come at an opportune time, on the eve of the second day of polling. He believes he has found a new perspective on what is widely seen as the root cause of oppression in the Islamic world: ‘The Egyptian citizen, between himself and God, if he wants to change his faith or his doctrine, he has complete freedom.’
Morsy, like all candidates, in appealing to as many voters as possible, speaks the language of Islam, with competition fierce between him, other Islamist candidates such as Abdul Moneim Abou El Fotouh and secular figures like former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa.
Current polls show Morsy trailing in as low as third or fourth position, but few people doubt the organizational capabilities of the Brotherhood to get out the vote.
For his part, Morsy predicted he would capture 60 per cent of the vote in first round elections which began yesterday (23 May) but there would be a run-off if any candidate failed to win 50 per cent-plus-one of the electorate, between the top two, on 16/17June.
He has clearly chosen this issue due to its high symbolic value among human rights advocates, with two cases of Muslims converting to Christianity currently going through the courts, according to the 2011 US Department of State International Religious Freedom Report.
A third case concerns around 100 Coptic applicants seeking re-conversion to Christianity, having previously adopted Islam.
Countries where conversion is treasonable are Iran, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, Qatar, UAE, according to the Amman Center for Human Rights Studies’ 5th annual report in 2010, and this has a chilling effect on Egyptian religious freedom.
A case can be made against any Egyptian citizen for any crime against Islam and a judge has the ability to accept or deny that case.
In the past decade, a number of judges have taken it upon themselves to rule according to Islamic law regardless of what the constitutional law says, and have imposed draconian punishment ranging from imprisonment and torture to enforced divorce and loss of position.
The apparent arbitrariness of this as a system – since Sharia is so widely interpreted in the Muslim world - accounts for the insecurity felt by many.
Revd Fayez Isack is a pastor at the evangelical church of Kasr el-Dobara in Cairo, the largest Protestant church in the Arab world. He maintains these legal cases are only the tip of the iceberg, but there is no sound research on precise numbers.
He finds little comfort in Morsy’s statement.
‘This is typical of the way they talk. The apostate has all the rights until he becomes a threat to the system of God, and then the law of God is applied,’ he said.
According to other Protestant sources, none of whom will be named for fear of reprisals, there are hundreds of thousands of ‘secret believers’ who have converted to Christianity. For these, the ‘clarification’ Morsy mentioned is important.
Morsy contends that religion is a private matter – up to a point. He said: ‘Anyone who keeps his trouble in his home, to himself – no one has the legal or Islamic right to knock on his door and ask what he’s doing. But when the home begins to affect society, this is where the law and the sharia have the right to interfere.’
Official Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan backs up Isack’s critique. ‘Egyptian society is not like the West; calling to a different religion causes social strife, even if just one person to another.’
Morsy’s appeal to liberal voters contrasts with other MB efforts to reach conservatives with a pan-Islamic vision that has horrified some commentators in the wake of the Revolution.
Sheikh Safwat Hegazi, a popular television preacher who appears frequently with Morsy at rallies, was banned from entering France in April.
Endorsing Morsy, he declared recently before thousands at Cairo stadium: ‘We can see how the dream of the Islamic caliphate is being realized, God willing, by Dr. Mohamed Morsi.
‘Our capital shall not be in Cairo, Mecca or Medina; millions of martyrs march toward Jerusalem.’
Ghozlan dismissed these comments in conversation with Lapido, but stopped short of condemning them.
‘Egypt is a sinking ship, and we need to get back on our own feet before we can worry about regional issues.
‘This is less a strategy than a dream, and his comments are not based in any reality.
‘We are part of the Arab world and we believe in Arab unity and greater integration both politically and economically, but we would need to wait decades, even centuries, before we can see a caliphate realized.
‘Wisdom says let the statement go and seek to clarify, rather than embarrassing the person who came to support you.’
Yet another MB commentator, Hassan Abdel Sattar Mohamed, member of the media committee of the Brotherhood for south Cairo, is much more forthright. He told Lapido: ‘Hegazi sees in Morsy one who will apply the goals of sharia, and who has a vision for the unity of Arab and Islamic states.
‘We refuse the Zionist entity which occupies al-Aqsa [in Jerusalem], and we support the Palestinian cause.
‘It is the ultimate goal to have Jerusalem as the capital and to march for its liberation, but reality does not permit this now.’
Politicians around the world seek ‘big tent’ politics, but often by default fall back on the strength of their base. Seeking the centre, the Muslim Brotherhood has made countless statements on their intention to create a civil state with full citizenship rights for all.
The question that remains to be resolved is whether such statements as these on apostasy and the caliphate represent an appeal for votes - or core policy objectives.