Islamic Law and Human Rights: The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt

Moataz El Fegiery’s book Islamic law and Human Rights: The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt presents a comprehensive account of Muslim Brotherhood’s evolving thought on Islamic law and International Human Rights. Broadly, the book opposes the setting up of a shari’a state in a democratic regime with religious diversity.  It proposes the reform of traditional Islamic law as proposed by hardline Muslim jurists in favor of an “evolutionary interpretation of Islamic law” in a constitutional setup. The political transitions following the Arab Spring witnessed the influence of Islamists in politics. Focusing the impact of Muslim Brotherhood on the debates on Islamic law in the Muslim world, El Fegiery suggests that the protection of human rights requires the “transformation” of Islamists rather than their exclusion. He shuns the Islamists claim of equating sharia rule with democracy, based on the Muslim identity of people in the Muslim world, and vouches on the incompatibility of a shari’a state with democracy.

The first chapter “Introduction” outlines the broader sketch of El Fegiery’s project as I mentioned above. The second chapter on “Islamic law and Human Rights: Conceptual and Theoretical Issues” examines the different theoretical perspectives concerning the tensions between Islamic law and international human rights. The presupposition of Immanuel Kant’s position on the universal foundation of morality and John Rawls’ conceptualization of an “overlapping consensus” are challenged by presenting the communitarian views because it is doubtful if all cultures and religions in the world share the same moral foundation of human rights. The rich aspect of this chapter is that it offers a panoramic view by stressing on the limitations of the Islamists’ positions on human rights. The section provides a holistic view of the philosophical nature and evolution of Islamic law, relevance of Islamic legal theories and International human rights discourse, and the influence of shari’a in Egyptian constitution.

Chapter 3 “Human Rights under the Rule of Shari’a” surveys the genesis of Muslim Brotherhood’s legal thought. The Muslim Brotherhood always favored the supremacy of shari’a while defining the state-religion relationship. The constitution making in post-Mubarak era in Egypt largely drew on the principles of Islam as selected by the Islamist group. El Fegiery points out the pusillanimity of this approach such that it limited the scope of constitutional and human rights by shunning appeal to reason. The manner in which the ideological underpinnings of the group led to the use of Islam as a tool for political mobilization is boldly presented. While the first three chapters of the book outline the broader structure of the argument, chapters four to eight discuss the specific areas of tension between Islamic law and International Human Rights Law as articulated by the Muslim Brotherhood in its intellectual literature.

9781443894791The fourth chapter entitled “Political Pluralism and Dissent” demonstrates how the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology has intimidated liberal and left intellectual Muslims by characterizing them as apostates if they deviate from the so-called supremacy of Islamic law.  The depiction of political pluralism as un-Islamic has curbed the freedom of association and expression, thereby restricting scope for political pluralism which lie at the heart of International Human Rights Law. The next chapter “Religion and Freedom of Expression” provides insights on the role of Muslim Brotherhood in limiting freedom of expression and its role in the formulation of anti-blasphemy laws “to repress critical ideas of religion” in the 2012 Constitution of Egypt. This is contrasted with the space given to freedom of expression and religion in International Human Rights Law.

The failure of the Muslim Brotherhood in accommodating the rights of religious minorities in cases of inter-faith marriage, building places of worship, recognizing Baha’is and Shi’a communities is the central theme of chapter six “The Rights of Religious Minorities”. In chapter 7 “Apostasy and its Legal Implication”, El Fegiery explores the controversial subject of a Muslim’s right to convert from Islam, which is in practice abhorred even by the courts in Egypt, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s conservative approach on it. However, a positive trend in Egypt has been the vocal demand for religious freedom. The penultimate chapter echoes the prominent dispute over Islam all over the world, that of “Women’s Rights in Islam”. The disheartening plight of Egyptian women in winning civil and political rights for themselves and there fight against discrimination in terms of marriage, divorce and inheritance laws is mentioned. The Muslim Brotherhood’s vociferous opposition to international human rights and gender equality is clearly articulated reflecting their patriarchal roots. Summing up his major arguments in the last chapter “Conclusion”, the author proposes his theoretical preference as “the removal of shari’a from the constitution” and the state’s impartiality towards religion to provide a conducive environment for religious diversity. Simultaneously, the author cautions against the exclusion of Islamists because repression fuels radicalization amongst their supports and recommends a transformation of their ideas.

Moataz El Fegiery’s book is a well-researched study that provides useful insights to comprehend the role of Islamists around the world. It is a remarkable treatise that addresses some of the crucial matters with respect to the influence of religious laws on the structure and content of a country’s constitution and analyzes it within a broader international framework of human rights.

Sania Ismailee

Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, India

Review published on Middle East Media and Book Reviews Online, December 2017

For more information about Islamic Law and Human Rights: The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and to buy a copy, click here.

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