AP News

Egyptians in hajj divided over Islam in politics


MECCA, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Now that she has finished the hajj and is returning home to Egypt, Magda Bagnied says her family will no doubt try to convince her to put on the headscarf to demonstrate her religiosity after a pilgrimage meant to cleanse her of sin and bring her closer to God.

She fully expects that from her parents. But she doesn't want that kind of pressure from her government or leaders.

"Leave religion to the people," said Bagnied, a media professor at Ahram Canadian University, in Cairo's suburbs.

The annual pilgrimage to Islam's holiest sites offers Muslims a chance to reaffirm their faith and root themselves more firmly in their beliefs. It comes at a time when several Arab nations are facing a similar issue on a political level after uprisings that toppled longtime leaders and brought Islamists to greater power: The question of how much a government should be rooted in Islam.

Egypt in particular is struggling with that question. Elections since the fall last year of Hosni Mubarak elevated Mohammed Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, to president. The Brotherhood was vaulted to become the country's strongest political force, along with even more conservative Islamists known as Salafis, who follow a strict Saudi-style interpretation of Islam.

As pilgrims were making their way around the Kaaba, the cube-shaped structure in Mecca that observant Muslims pray toward five times a day, and performing an elaborate set of rituals in Saudi Arabia over the past week, Egypt was in a bitter struggle over the writing of the new constitution.

Salafis are pressing for the document to explicitly root Egypt's laws in Shariah. That has raised liberals' fears that it will bring stricter implementation of Islamic law and empower Muslim clerics in a political role, limiting women's rights and freedoms of worship and expression. The assembly writing the constitution is dominated by the Brotherhood and Salafis.

The Egyptians who performed the pilgrimage this year may be united in the importance they give to their faith in their lives. But it doesn't mean they all agree on the mix of religion and politics. More than 90,000 Egyptians were on the pilgrimage, which largely wrapped up on Monday. They hailed from all segments of Egyptian society, the rich and the poor, and from all corners of the Arab world's most populous nation.

Wearing the seamless terrycloth garments worn by male pilgrims to symbolize equality and unity during hajj, Sayid Zeid said Egypt's constitution should represent all Egyptians — and, he added, it must be based on the Quran.

How can it be both, given the large Christian minority and the sector of liberal Muslims?

"Shariah will be applied by God ... It should be applied as it came down from God," said Zeid, who is a reporter with Egypt's state TV, though he was performing the hajj, not covering it.

For some, it seemed only natural that Islamic law would benefit a Muslim-majority nation, putting aside questions of who would interpret it or implement it.

Making his way to midday prayers at Mecca's Grand Mosque, which houses the Kaaba, Abdel-Muntalib el-Fikky said there is no reason to fear Shariah or the Islamists.

"Why are we all here? We are all here for God," he said of the pilgrims. "Our constitution, God willing, will be good. It will move us forward."

Anwar Saad, a 32 year-old teacher from Egypt's Beheira province, stood on Jabal al-Rahma in Mount Arafat, in the desert outside Mecca during a rite of prayer on Thursday that many feel is the pinnacle moment of hajj.

"The Brotherhood have moderate views. They are not conservative like the Salafis. We hope they will apply a moderate form of Shariah for Egypt," he said. "We want God to help Morsi succeed ... There were 30 years of corruption and this will not be fixed in 100 days. Be patient with the president."

Notably, hajj itself shows the variety in interpretations of Islamic rules. For example, in most of the Muslim world, men and women are segregated during prayers. But in the Grand Mosque, the two sexes pray side by side. For most of the hajj rites, women are not allowed to wear the veil that covers the entire face, even though ultraconservative Muslims insist a woman's face should be hidden from males not related to her.

Bagnied, the media professor, said she does not fear Shariah but those who would try to interpret and apply it.

"What kind of Islam do they want to apply? Afghanistan, Iran or Saudi Arabia?" she said. Bagnied, who does not wear the headscarf that many Egyptian Muslim women don to cover their hair, said she can resist her family's urging her to start wearing it. But she worries that an Islamist government will start to apply political pressure as well on such personal choices.

She said many people voted for Morsi hoping that because he is a pious Muslim and will apply "God's law" that their lives will improve.

"I think many Egyptians don't know the content of the constitution," she said. "Egypt is full of people talking about politics, but there is a large amount of ignorance in the country and you can convince people (by using Islam) that they have to obey their leaders, who are sheiks and politicians."

Ihab Abdel-Aal, 47, is among those who voted for the former Mubarak regime-era official who ran against Morsi in the past summer's presidential race. Morsi won by just over half the vote. Abdel-Aal has performed the hajj more than 25 times, since he's a tour operator bringing other Egyptians on the pilgrimage.

He fears Egypt is turning to a theocracy.

"Democracy and freedom are new to Egypt," he said. "There should be no religion in politics and no politics in religion."

Abdel-Aal, like many who work in Egypt's vital tourism industry that was hard-hit due to political turmoil over the past year, said he believes Shariah cannot be applied in all aspects of life.

"This will tank the economy and other sectors and just won't work."

Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, who runs a Cairo tourism company, says he has performed hajj more than 30 times. He said the number of Egyptians wanting to perform hajj and umrah, the smaller pilgrimage to Mecca, increased this year.

"In any crisis, the first thing a person does is pray to God," he said. "We are in a crisis."


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