Egypt’s reformists shocked by thinker’s detention
Cairo - The recent jailing of researcher Islam Behery, who called for ridding Islamic heritage books of extremist ideas, indicates that extremism is on the rise, religious reform a hopeless case and reformists are far weaker than radicals, observers say.
Behery, a researcher in his late 30s, questioned cherished books on Islam and writers who have been idolised by millions for hundreds of years.
He took on important figures such as Muhammad bin Ismail al- Bukhari, a ninth-century imam who collected the sayings of Prophet Mohammad and produced a book that remains a reference today.
Behery said some of Bukhari’s writings and those of other esteemed Islamic figures provided the intellectual basis for groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS), al- Qaeda and Boko Haram.
The slaughter of opponents, he said, burning of hostages, rape of women and children and enslavement of “unbelievers” are ideas which can be traced back to some of Bukhari’s works.
A Cairo appeals court accused Behery of defaming Islam and had handed him a commuted prison sentence of one year even as he said he was trying to prove that Islam and its prophet had nothing to do with the actions of terrorist groups.
“Behery only tried to use his mind and think,” said Hafez Abu Saeda, a rights advocate. “He was only expressing his views on books that have become — for some Muslims — as important as the religious texts themselves.”
In June 2015, Behery was sentenced to five years in prison after a lawsuit was filed accusing him of offending Islam. He appealed the sentence, which in December was commuted to one year.
Mamdouh Abdel Gawad, who filed the initial lawsuit, described Behery as a “disbeliever” and wrote on his Facebook page that the verdict would give him a lesson and the chance to rethink his ideas and deter other “infidels”.
Egypt’s former culture minister Gaber Asfour accused al-Azhar Mosque of standing behind Behery’s jailing by advising Abdel Gawad to file the lawsuit.
“Behery is only the last episode in a long series of thinkers bullied to stop thinking and stay away from discussing religious ideas,” Asfour said. “Discretion is a basic right in Islam and making mistakes is synonymous to this process.”
Behery, however, does not seem to have committed any errors. Before his imprisonment, he appeared weekly on private TV al-Kahera Wal Nas, saying in simple language that the heritage books gave rise to militant groups.
According to Behery, one of the books authorised eating the flesh of enemies and burning them alive. He vehemently opposed the marriage of underage girls and views that one of Prophet Mohammad’s wives was 9 years old at the time of marriage.
These are views long-held by many Muslims. Behery was breaking taboos, demolishing all demigods — as he once put it on his show — and sending shock waves through society.
This was apparently why al- Azhar suspended Behery’s show in April 2015.
The clerics of al-Azhar “were taught by rote, teach by rote and feel afraid to think because they know that they will fail if they use their minds,” scholar Rifaat al-Said said. “But this is not a problem of the present. The history of Islam is full of examples of people who were condemned only because they tried to think.”
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has called on al-Azhar leaders to start a religious revolution, one that opens the door for renewing religious discourse. His calls come at a time when the region faces a surge in radical and takfiri ideologies that brand non-Muslims and Muslim political opponents as “infidels”.
Observers say reforming al- Azhar, the highest seat of learning in Sunni Islam, where tens of thousands of students from all Islamic and non-Islamic countries study every year, would ripple across the world and cut off support for radical Islamists.
Mohammed Abu Asi, the dean of the Islamic Studies at al-Azhar University, said al-Azhar has nothing to do with Behery’s jailing.
“Nevertheless, Behery used to criticise Islamic figures in a way that demeaned them,” Abu Asi said. “He did not follow the correct rules of objective criticism and a large number of people reject this.”