By Brian Whitaker
Egyptian TV presenter Islam Beheiry left court in handcuffs on Monday to begin a one-year prison sentence for thought crime. He had been convicted of "defaming" religion by calling for reform in Islam – a call previously made by no lesser figure than President Sisi himself.
In comparison with Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes, 10 years in jail and a fine of one million riyals ($266,000) on similar charges, Beheiry's sentence is relatively mild and for that reason his case is unlikely to attract much international attention. Nevertheless, it is an important case.
At one level it is yet another example of Egypt's notorious hesba system which allows religious busybodies to initiate prosecutions against people they disagree with or disapprove of. At a different level, though, it can be viewed as part of a wider battle to keep discourse about religion in the hands of those who claim to know best – the religious and political authorities.
The key point here, as Egyptian author/journalist Hany Ghoraba noted in an article last June, is that Beheiry "represents a new generation of religious reformers outside the clergy and religious caste".
Beheiry (also spelled as Behery) hosted a show on Al-Qahira wal-Nas, a privately-owned TV channel, where he challenged conservative religious teaching on early marriage, punishment for apostasy, and the validity of some of the hadith – sayings and traditions attributed to the Prophet.
These ideas were not particularly new or original but they brought him in to conflict with al-Azhar – Egypt's highest religious authority. One reason was that some of the alleged sayings of the Prophet which he disputed are regarded as authentic by al-Azhar, and al-Azhar accused him of deliberately making people question "what is certain in religion".
More significantly, though, Beheiry was not a member of the religious establishment but an interloper who threatened to undermine al-Azhar's position as the supreme arbiter for religious matters in Egypt. His TV show, which had proved very popular, was cancelled in April.
Commenting at the time, Nervana Mahmoud wrote:
"Islam Beheiry may be feckless, even inaccurate in some of his attacks on Islamic theology, but the essence of his argument is sound and it actually portrays Islam in a far more modern way than all the medievalist nonsense that the likes of Mohamed al-Masry propagate. The irony is that al-Azhar tolerates scholars like Al-Masry (who studied theology extensively in Saudi Arabia, as his website claims) more than a daring researcher like Islam Beheiry, whom al-Azhar sees as 'insulting' to Islam."
Meanwhile, the Sisi regime is relying on al-Azhar to promote a "moderate" version of Islam and thus counter the Muslim Brotherhood. In speech last January, Sisi called for a "religious revolution" but the evidence suggests he is not seeking a genuine reformation. Rather, he is doing what most Arab rulers do and trying to harness Egyptian Islam in the service of his political project. This can't be managed effectively if outsiders are allowed to chip in with their own disruptive thoughts about Islamic reform.
Ultimately, the efforts of Sisi and al-Azhar will make things worse rather than better. The way that robust and open debate of religious issues has been stifled over many years in the past is one of the main reasons why we now have so many problems with Islamists and jihadists.
Related blog posts:Five-year blasphemy sentence in Egypt: TV presenter questioned "religious certainties"'Faith security': a dangerous concept. New moves to suppress debate about religion in EgyptSecuritising religion in Egypt and Russia: Is Sisi borrowing ideas from Putin?
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Thursday, 31 December 2015