Did al-Azhar issue a fatwa against Facebook?

A few days ago, a Qatari newspaper reported that the Fatwa Committee of Egypt's al-Azhar University had issued a fatwa against joining Facebook  because of its contribution to infidelity and other moral failings. The story got picked up widely, and a furious debate rapidly broke out across the Arabic internet, blogs, forums, and newspapers about the alleged Facebook Fatwa. It's now made the Jerusalem Post, and I expect we'll see more of it as it migrates over into the English internet. I mean, what a great story! It's got an Muslim authority taking a stand against the modern globalized world, nobody on the internet can ever resist a story about the internet, there's a sex angle, and it can be framed against Hillary Clinton's "internet freedom" speech. Solid gold! 

But faster than you can say "stop sending me cause invitations," the alleged issuer of the fatwa, Shaykh Abd al-Hamid al-'Atrash,  denied the report. He never issued a fatwa against Facebook, he says -- indeed, he doesn't even know how to work the website, and how could he issue a fatwa on something he knows nothing about?  (I'll refrain from any of the dozen obvious punchlines here.) Of course he advises against using Facebook or anything else for illicit ends like cheating on one's spouse, but that doesn't mean that he issued a fatwa against Facebook itself. Ismail Abu Haytham, media advisor to al-Azhar's Fatwa Committee, also said that the committee had issued no such fatwa. Maybe they are just backtracking in the face of the controversy, but it doesn't really look like it.  

Oh well.  It will interesting to see how the story flows through the information stream, and whether the denials get equal time with the original story. Anyway, there will always be plenty of nutty fatwas to go around -- like banning Quranic ring tones, for instance! Who cares about such fatwas, and what authority they carry, is actually a darned interesting question. It would almost be more interesting if there had been an al-Azhar fatwa against Facebook, given that half of Egypt seems to already be on it (remember when Facebook was going to lead the revolution?).  That includes plenty of Islamists -- you can check out the Facebook page of the influential Islamist Yusuf al-Qaradawi, with over 80,000 followers, right here. I doubt many people would quit because of an al-Azhar fatwa -- which raises some genuinely interesting questions about authority in Islam today that I'll leave for another day.


Marc Lynch

Iraqi disaster averted, yet again

The disqualification of some 500 candidates for the March 7 Iraqi Parliamentary election by the Accountability and Justice (deBaathification) commission headed by Ali al-Lami and Ahmed Chalabi has reportedly been overturned only days before the launch of the election campaign.  The Independent Higher Election Commission has said that it received instructions from the Appeals Court to throw out the disqualifications, and would proceed accordingly.  Details remain sketchy, since this happened too late for today's edition of most Arab and Iraqi newspapers, but from what I've pieced together it looks like the crisis has been averted (see Reidar Visser's ongoing coverage of the crisis here).  Once again Iraq has not unraveled, and Iraqis have figured out how to prevent their own system from collapsing around them.   Quiet U.S. diplomacy, combining clear pressure for an  inclusive and fair election with clear commitment to non-interference in Iraqi internal affairs and the withdrawal timeline, appears to have worked.  Go figure.

Here are some details which have emerged.  The decision appears to include all of the affected candidates and political entities, though those candidates who had already been swapped out apparently won't be let back.  Al-Arabiya reports that their cases will be reviewed after the election, as Vice President Joseph Biden had suggested, though I haven't seen this reported elsewhere yet.   Saleh al-Mutlak, whose ban received the most attention, and his list have declared their satisfaction with the decision and claimed that it demonstrated that they had been right to reject the constitutionality of the decision.  Supporters of the Accountability and Justice Commission's bans are complaining bitterly, and warning that it will open new problems down the road.  

While the resolution appears to have been managed within Iraqi institutions, the U.S. criticism of the deBaathification bans had been mounting in recent days.  Ambassador Christopher Hill had sharply criticized the moves, as had  General Petraeus, while Vice President Biden and President Obama (among others) had pushed the point with the succession of Iraqi leaders who have come to Washington DC in recent days (don't tell Henry Kissinger, who very oddly complains today in the Washington Post that Iraqi leaders aren't being invited to DC despite the very recent visits of Barzani, Abed al-Mahdi, and Hashemi).  But it has done this without compromising its commitment to the drawdown and the SOFA, while consistently being sensitive to Iraqi concerns about overt U.S. interference, and by appealing to the self-interest of Iraqi politicians that the election be viewed as legitimate by the international community.  This appears to be a job well done by Obama's Iraq team, in a difficult and very sensitive context. 

This doesn't mean that all is now rosy.  The elections, as I wrote yesterday, may still very well fail to produce "meaningful change" (however this is defined) and could still lead to disappointment and frustration among the losers.  The process of forming a new government after the elections could prove explosive and drawn-out.   Everyone -- Iraqis, Americans and other international actors -- should be proactive about avoiding problems such as those which hamstrung the recent Afghan elections (or even the Iranian election or the 2005 Iraqi election).  The first step is to do everything possible to help ensure a free, transparent, and clean election --- which should include a robust system of international monitors (whether American, UN, EU or independent NGO), as many Iraqi political leaders (including Vice President Hashemi yesterday) have requested.

But that's for tomorrow.  For now, a sigh of relief that the political crisis over the election ban appears to have been averted -- a good sign for the ability of Iraqis to save themselves from such logjams, and a credit to the Obama administration's approach.