President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has been pushing smartly and consistently for religious reform in Egypt. First, he started by visiting Christians at Christmas at Saint Mark's Cathedral in Cairo to emphasize the concept of citizenship and equal rights for religious minorities. He affirmed to the congregation that they were Egyptians and that he related to them as Egyptians. The Christians rejoiced in response since they had demanded a similar statement for decades. Second, he went to Al-Azhar, Egypt's main religious institution, and called for reform. He asked the sheikhs and imams of Al-Azhar to stand up against radical ideology.
He has repeated this call many times, demanding that religious leaders emphasize how Islam preaches tolerance and coexistence rather than hatred and violence. As another component of his efforts to challenge radical groups and their views, he appointed a prominent secular writer, Helmy Al- Namnam, to be minister of culture in the new cabinet.
The appointment of Al-Namnam reflects the seriousness with which Egypt is playing its role in defeating terrorism, not only on the military level, but most importantly on the ideological level as well. His appointment also sparked a heated debate about the identity of Egypt. He is known for his secularism and anti-Islamism, not anti- Islam, positions. He has written several books defending secularism and criticizing Islamism.
During the first week after he was sworn into office, Al-Namnam appeared on several TV talk shows and said "Egypt is secular by nature". He argued that Egyptians are religious and embrace diversity at the same time, and that Egyptian identity is not compatible with Islamism. In these interviews he also stressed that wherever political Islam exists, destruction usually follows. He mentioned many examples, such as in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Algeria.
Another prominent Egyptian writer, Farag Fouda, said something similar when he asked, "Where is an example of a successful Islamic state? Show us an example." Sadly, Fouda was killed because he challenged the views of Islamists, who shot him dead in 1992.
Following Al-Namnam's television appearances, the president of the Islamist Al-Nour Party, Younes Makhoun, replied furiously to the minister, saying that what Namnam had said contradicted Egypt's constitution. The constitution says in its second article that the principles of Islamic Sharia law are the main source of legislation. Therefore, stating that Egypt is secular by nature is against the constitution, the party said.
In reply, Al-Namnam said that his duty as a minister is to respect the republican order, which by definition is in conflict with any calls for Islamism or a caliphate as advocated by the Islamists. The Al-Nour Party also routinely promotes sectarianism. On Christian religious holidays, the party's leaders have issued fatwas, or religious rulings, criticizing Christians for their religious ceremonies and calling them haram and against Sharia law. In addition, they refused to stand up for a moment of silence to honor the Coptic Pope Shenouda III when he died in 2012.
The word Salafi comes from the Arabic "al-salaf" or the ancestors. It refers to the Salafi belief that the solution to the nation's problems lies in following the ways of the ancestors, the companions of the Prophet Mohamed, and not modern ways or ideas. In 2012, Makhoun called for abolishing the minimum age of 18 at which girls can get married, arguing that girls should have the right to marry at any age, even seven, as long as they can "tolerate sex," according to his interpretation of the Qur'an.
It is policies like these that the Al-Nour Party advocates. Al-Namnam is a secularist who believes strongly in the national patriotic state of Egypt and strongly opposes the cause of Islamism. He believes in equal rights for women and religious minorities. It is not a surprise that the Al-Nour Party is furiously attacking him. In a recent statement, the Al-Nour Party demanded that Al-Namnam either apologize or resign for his comments. It demanded that the president fire Al-Namnam if he refused these options. The party claims that he has offended the majority of Egyptians. Prominent Salafi sheikh Yasser Borhamy, the vice-president of the Salafi Front, said that Al-Namnam had violated Sharia law and "needed to repent." Borhamy's statement is very similar to the fatwa issued that legitimized the killing of Farag Fouda.
Egypt's liberals, secularists and intellectuals need to show more support for Al-Namnam in this nation-defining struggle. Egypt has two primary options: either to move forward towards modernity or backwards with the Salafis.
The writer is an independent commentator on Middle East politics based in Washington, DC. You may follow him on twitter @MaherGabra The opinions expressed are his own and may not reflect the views of Movements.org