The country that once made headlines for mobilizing a revolution over social media has just issued a major blow to online communication. On Friday, Egypt’s top religious authority effectively ordered Muslims to sign off Internet chat platforms, banning instant online communication in one of the world’s most social media-friendly countries.
As attention on the Middle East focuses on the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Egypt has forbidden online chatting between men and women to little media fanfare. The country’s highest Islamic authority, the Dar Al Ifta, issued an edict with the explanation that chats are no longer allowed because “as many experiences in our present time prove that this opens the door for evil and frivolity, an entrance for Satan, and is a source of corruption and sedition,” according to a translation. Such communications are allowed only in cases of necessity, the fatwa says.
The move is ironic in a country where an estimated 37 million people use the Internet and where half of the population of 80 million is under 25.
Egypt’s clerics singled out the practice of sending photos to the opposite gender, barring women from sending such pictures to strangers in order to “protect [them] and [their] dignity,” and warning of “corrupted acts by deviants” who could misuse those photos. (Just in time for the hacking scandal that hit female celebrities in America this past weekend.)
“Chats between a boy and a girl who are strange to each other is prohibited because this opens the door to the devil and leads to illicit relations that are harmful to society,” a senior cleric at the country’s Sunni Islam institute told Gulf News in response to the edict. “It is necessary to comply with this fatwa.”
Previous fatwas on the issue of Internet chats have not gone so far as to declare an all-out ban on inter-gender chatting.
On the religious authority’s website, users can write in about their personal use of Islam and request a conclusive answer, which serves as a fatwa. The questions, of which there seem to be hundreds, are divided into categories and range from sexual relationships to fasting details and gender mixing. An earlier fatwa request from a teenage girl asked if she could chat with boys on social media.
“Communication between both sexes is allowed if the manners prescribed by shari'ah (Islamic law) are observed and it was for a purpose deemed valid by shari'ah, such as work, study and so forth,” the answer was. “If a relationship exceeds these restrictions it becomes prohibited. In shari'ah, a woman is commanded to avoid anything that might make her an object of desire for men or an object for forbidden feelings.”
A social sharing bar on the left of this and every page on the website allows readers to spread the posts on Twitter, Facebook, and nearly 300 other social websites, many of which offer chat features.
One of Egypt’s top religious leader, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, has a vibrant Twitter and Facebook persona himself. He went on Egyptian television Monday night to discuss the fatwa, disagreeing that its inherently evil, and painting it in broader, poetic strokes of how any tool can be used for good or bad, or Halal or Haram.
"Chatting is a tool or activity like the pen or writing,” he said, according to a translation. "It can be use it for good or evil. Chatting is a tool like a knife. I can use a knife to cut butter or to cut innocent civilians heads like ISIL does.”
How much impact this will have on Egyptians pecking away at their Facebook messenger or Gchat lists is yet unknown, and the edict isn’t being entered into law. But watchdogs allege there has been a rise of enforcement of the religious line for political gain.
“Recently, the Egyptian government has been using different authoritarian tools in the face of any one party that challenges the teachings of the official religious institutions, thus detracting from the rights of Muslims who do not wish to follow the government’s religious interpretations,” the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said in a statement on Sunday.
In Egypt, religion and politics have coexisted uneasily, as the new government continues to push out all remnants of the formerly powerful Muslim Brotherhood. In early August, the courts dissolved the party’s political arm, nearly a year after banning the main organization and declaring it a terrorist group.
The ban on chatting follows a similar edict issued earlier this year in a much more hardliner nation. In January, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Al Khamenei banned online chatting between unrelated men and women by fatwa. The issue has opened a divide between Iranian political and religious leaders in a country where they are intrinsically tied.
But unlike Egypt’s recent slide backwards toward stifled rights and censorship, Iran might actually be attempting a slow move forward. Just last week, the government suddenly allowed mobile operators to offer high-speed connections that enable Iranians to send photo messages and video chat. It was quickly condemned by Ayatollah Khamenei, who called 3G “un-Islamic” and warning it would lead to “negative features,” and “immoral photos,” putting him at odds with the country’s policians.
“We cannot shut the gates of the world to our young generation,” President Hassan Rouhani said, according to state news. “Once, there was a time that someone would hide his radio at home, if he had one, to use it just for listening to the news. We have passed that era.”