Permanently smiling, Hassan el-Shamy exudes a natural warmth. A people-loving human rights activist with a background in engineering, he chairs The Egyptian Association for Scientific and Technological Development where he moderates discussion panels, giving a platform and voice to all.
He is also a writer for the Journalists Syndicate since 2000, manager of Voice of the Arabs Union of Egyptian Radio and Television since 2005, and an accomplished novelist. But that’s only a list of titles. It’s what he actually does with them that counts.
I met him during my visit in March 2016 at the Egyptian Scientific Forum, Cairo, a conference center founded by the Minister of Education which offers forums to foster dialogue. He was there to moderate Dr Omer Salem’s presentation of his new book, “The Missing Peace.”
El-Shamy had already moderated Dr. Salem’s presentations and had had to quell a fair amount of rancor that Salem has weathered concerning his views on Arab-Jewish conciliation.
“Last night I was with the communists, tonight I am with the liberals, and tomorrow will be with the fundamentalists!” he quipped. The Muslim Brotherhood, that is. El-Shamy holds that freedom of expression is both a Democratic and Islamic value, and vital in human rights and in the curbing of extremism.
“But what about the quandary of granting freedom of expression to those who aim to later quash the same freedom for others? It is a dilemma.
“Democracy is a process. Just like we attend primary school, and then high school, democracy is something we learn over a long, long time. Everyone must be allowed to participate and express their views, that is the best antidote to radicalism.”
El-Shamy put his message to work when a member of the conference started an uproar about some misstated historical date. Furious over the inaccuracy, he gestured dramatically, voice raised, and el-Shamy went over and gave him a kiss! Dr. Salem likewise tried to calm him. Invited by Salem and soothed by el-Shamy, the fellow finally stormed out, impossible to placate. El-Shamy had put his value on free expression to work, even under attack.
His almost daily activism has some way to go. Egypt has been under military rule since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, and has been in an almost continuous official state of emergency since 1967. This means that citizens may be taken into custody without charge or trial; police brutality accusations have been documented by human rights groups.
Former adviser to Anwar Sadat, Dr. Aly el-Samman commented that the assumption among those pushing for social change in the 1950’s in Egypt was that democracy would be restored as soon as the old regime was replaced. No one suspected that totalitarianism would last over half a century.
Only in the year 2005 were the first multi-party presidential elections held, though accusations were leveled that the election was fraudulent. The West has had a role in totalitarianism in the Middle East, as former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice admitted, “For sixty years the U.S. has pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East and has ended up with neither.” Activists like El-Shamy insist that such governmental heavy-handedness is un-Islamic and provokes extremism.
“The Qur’an calls for tolerance, acceptance, free speech, and democracy”, he insists. Then he invoked the Constitution of Medina as an example.
“In the Sahifat al-Madinah, Muhammad aleiha hasalaam consulted with all the different tribes. He asked their opinions. This is democracy right there!” Indeed, the Constitution of Medina established a pluralistic federation of Muslims and monotheistic non-Muslims in which all People of the Book had full religious freedom.
He continued, “It is only natural that Muhammad aleiha hasalaam made such a federation, for ‘there is no coercion in religion'” quoting the Qur’an, Al-Baqara 256.
El-Shamy personally identifies as a religious man: “I pray five times every day. The main purpose of all true religions is to make peace between people. If I am ‘religious’ and I do not get along with people, then I am not really religious. Some Muslims shun family members who are not part of their ideology, or who are not religious enough, and that is wrong.”
He also insists that women must participate in public life. “Only fifteen percent of the Egyptian Parliament consists of women. The percentage should be fifty plus one!” And why? “Women offer thoughtful contributions to any debate, and the men are encouraged to be more sympathetic, well mannered, and thoughtful themselves. In our family, the women are the rulers, and we are all better off because of it.”
He shared some family stories which explain his views: “In our family, the woman has more rights than the man. When my father died, my sister received the largest portion of the inheritance. My mother is the ruler of the family. I had a friend who wanted to marry my sister. I did not think it was a match because I did not feel that he would accept a wife as a leader. So he went behind my back! My mother joked, ‘if he went to all that effort, then he loves her very much, and it is good for your sister to be the loved one. You will see that everything will work out. So my sister not only became the leader of my friend, but of his whole family as well!”
“There can be no such thing as a thought crime,” he insists. “That is a communist concept with no place in Islam. There is no reason to fear the will of the people.” He holds that if the fundamentalists are granted human rights and freedom of expression, they will be less frustrated, which will result in less extremism and radicalism.
El-Shamy opposes capital punishment in practice. “A basic human right is one’s right to life, capital punishment should be done away with, it has no place in the modern world.
I countered, “but capital punishment is allowed in Islam.”
“No, there is confusion about the meaning of al-Qisas in the Qur’an. Al-Qisas means ‘equivalence’, that the punishment should fit the crime, it does not mandate capital punishment, even for murder,” he said.
“Instead, in place of capital punishment, the Qur’an states that monetary compensation or forgiveness are options for the bereaved relatives of the slain:
We ordained for them: “Life for life, eye for eye, nose for nose, ear for ear, tooth for tooth, and wounds equal for equal.” But if any one foregoes retaliation charitably, it is an atonement. Surat al-Maidah, 5:45
Hassan el-Shamy’s enthusiasm for his work is contagious; his ceaseless efforts towards co-existence and peace, between neighbors and nations, reflects the breadth of a vision that sees beyond simple boundaries on an international map.