Hints of Pluralism in Egyptian Religious Debates


Gamal al Banna, 88, an Egyptian writer on Islam, trade unions and the Muslim Brotherhood, in his library in Cairo.

CAIRO — Writing in his weekly newspaper column, Gamal al-Banna said recently that God had created humans as fallible and therefore destined to sin. So even a scantily clad belly dancer, or for that matter a nude dancer, should not automatically be condemned as immoral, but should be judged by weighing that person’s sins against her good deeds.

This view is provocative in Egypt’s conservative society, where many argue that such thinking goes against the hard and fast rules of divine law. Within two hours of the article’s posting last week on the Web site of Al Masry al Youm, readers had left more than 30 comments — none supporting his position.

“So a woman can dance at night and pray in the morning; this is duplicity and ignorance,” wrote a reader who identified himself as Hany. “Fear God and do not preach impiety.”

Still, Mr. Banna was pleased because at least his ideas were being circulated. Mr. Banna, who is 88 years old and is the brother of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been preaching liberal Islamic views for decades.

But only now, he said, does he have the chance to be heard widely. It is not that a majority agrees with him; it is not that the tide is shifting to a more moderate interpretative view of religion; it is just that the rise of relatively independent media — like privately owned newspapers, satellite television channels and the Internet — has given him access to a broader audience.

And there is another reason: The most radical and least flexible thinkers no longer intimidate everyone with differing views into silence.

“Everything has its time,” Mr. Banna said, seated in his dusty office crammed with bookshelves that stretch from floor to ceiling.

{josquote}An independent group, The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, won a court order on behalf of the Bahais that forced the government to issue records leaving the religious identification blank.{/josquote}

It is a testament to how little public debate there has been over the value of pluralism, or more specifically of the role of religion in society, that so many see the mere chance to provoke as progress. But now, more than any time in many years, there are people willing to risk challenging conventional thinking, said writers, academics and religious thinkers like Mr. Banna.

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