Comments by Egyptian tycoon Naguib Sawiris on the Islamic headscarf have sparked a heated debate on freedom of speech and prompted a conservative sheikh to issue a fatwa urging Muslims to boycott Sawiris' companies. The businessman, who ranks among the world's 100 richest men, had criticised the growing influence of religion, such as the Islamic hijab, or veil, worn by women in the street.
"I have the impression of being in Iran. I feel like a foreigner," he said last month.
That sparked a torrent of reactions culminating in a fatwa on Monday by Sheikh Yussef Al-Badri, famous for his fervent and furious religious edicts, urging all Muslims to boycott Sawiris' companies, which include Mobinil, the leading Egyptian mobile company.
In the two-page edict obtained by newswire AFP, Badri accused Sawiris, 53, a Coptic Christian, of belonging to a group of non-Muslims who provoke Muslims by "giving statements that show how they really feel about Islam and its people."
Egypt is dominated by Sunni Muslims, and the majority of Muslim women wear the headscarf. An increasing number wear the niqab, a full face veil. Last year, Culture Minister Faruq Hosni caused a furore by saying that wearing the veil was a backward trend. Journalist Mustafa Bakri, writing in the weekly Al-Osboa recently, asked "What does Sawiris want? Does he want legislation banning both hijab and niqab so that His Excellency would not feel estranged?"
Gamal Qotb, the former head of the Fatwa Department at Al-Azhar University, told IslamOnline.net recently: "Sawiris is sparking off a sectarian sedition."
Others came to the tycoon's defense.
Hamdi Rizq, a columnist in the independent daily Al-Masri Al-Youm, urged everyone to "calm down" for fear of raising tensions between Muslims and Christians.
"Sectarian strife is worse than murder. And the morgue is already full of corpses," he wrote recently. Egyptians against Religious Discrimination, a local NGO, denounced the fierce campaign against Sawiris, saying he had the right to express himself as he pleased.
Badri's fatwa is the sheikh's latest response to what he considers "an attack against Islam". He was also behind the drive to strip Muslim scholar Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid from his position at Cairo University for proposing a reformist approach to reading and interpreting the Koran.
Abu Zeid was declared an apostate and ordered to divorce his wife, since a Muslim women cannot be married to a non-Muslim man. The couple fled to the Netherlands.
In April, Badri took poet Helmi Salem to court for offending Islam for writing a poem comparing God to a "traffic policeman", a move supported by some in Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's main seat of learning.
"What right does he have to launch fatwas? He is not an authority," Islamist thinker Gamal Al-Banna said recently. Sawiris himself wrote a letter to the Al-Masri Al-Youm defending his comments.
"I expressed my opinion on the phenomenon of the spread of the Iranian veil (chador) in Egyptian streets, and I challenge whomever would pretend otherwise. I never said I was against the veil because I believe everyone can think and wear whatever they like as long as they do not harm others."
According to Badri, Sawiris also criticised the Muslim Brotherhood slogan "Islam is the solution." In November, the group which holds 20 percent of seats in parliament, said a Christian could not become president and rule a country which is 90 percent Muslim.
Sawiris lashed back saying it was not up to the Brotherhood to grant him his rights as a citizen. Sawiris is a source of pride for many Egyptians, who see him as a local success story. He came 62nd in this year's Forbes list of the world's richest men. He has companies in Tunisia, Algeria, Pakistan, Iraq and Bangladesh, as well as Italy and Greece.
Egypt's Copts - the largest Christian community in the Middle East - account for an estimated six to 10 percent of the country's 76 million inhabitants and complain of systematic discrimination and political marginalization.
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