Among the few serious Muslim reformers in modern times, comes Islam Al Behery as one of the most talented, young analytical minds to surface in the Middle East region in many decades. Unlike many other Islamic reformers, Al Behery simplistic and direct approach has distinguished him from his contemporary and more classical reformers such as the late Nasr Abu Zayd or Farrag Fouda. His eloquent and convincing method of TV lectures through the program “With Islam” has rallied millions of followers young and old all across the Arabic speaking world.
For many he seemed to be the key to unlocking the solution to a dilemma between preserving the faith and adopting modernity. But woe betide for those who dare to challenge the religious powers that be, represented in Al Azhar institutions, Ministry of Awqaf (Endowments) and Salafist groups in Egypt. Though the above entities may fight amongst each other for the bragging rights of being the most righteous representative of Islam, they all united against one man who dared to defy the norms and present the Islamic faith without the complications and adopted traditions that has negatively affected the core of the faith throughout centuries of practice.
The Smear Campaign preceding the court sentence:
Islam Al Behery despite his massive popularity was left to fend himself alone against a deluge of Al Azhar institute supporters and minions both in the form of clerics, media anchors and journalists. False rumors were spread in his name which included that he questioned the validity of Prophet Mohamed saying, insults his disciples and he is an apostate. All of these fallacies been spread like fire in a haystack by the same minions who are usually the guardians of backwardness in Egypt. For the first time since June2013 revolution, the entire Anti-Islamists media have joined forces with the very Islamist terrorist group Muslim Brotherhood supporters along with their allies the Salafists against Al Behery . They launched a vicious propaganda campaign against the reformer which resembled medieval witch-hunting and inquisition tactics. Throughout, the campaign was fueled by pro-government and anti-government media alike, they have questioned the reformer integrity , sanity, nationalism and of course his faith despite ironically him being called “Islam”!
The end result of the vicious smearing campaign, was a lawsuit against Al Behery followed by a bizarre sentence of 5 years in prison that was reduced to 1 year upon plea.The writer was convicted by Cairo Misdemeanor Court on December 2015 of defaming the Islamic faith. The sentence was given according to the controversial and unconstitutional law of Blasphemous Libel. The shocking verdict has tossed all the high hopes of change and reform in Egypt into an abyss of despair and oblivion. After the hope that filled Egyptians after June2013 revolution of ousting Islamists once and for all , again the Egyptian writers, journalists , reformers and general public are in fear of the consequences of writing or saying anything that could be interpreted by others are heresy, blasphemy and find themselves in courts of law.
Al Behery was not supported by any government, official or media entity short of few independent media anchors who believed in his cause. Even his own TV network has nearly sold him out at one point in favor of not opening a front against the Al Azhar powerful propaganda machine. The media network Al Kahera Wal Nas who introduced the young reformer to the public through the program “With Islam”, distanced itself from the writer/reformer and started to issue apologies to appease the Azhar institution . Al Azhar institution administration witnessed a man being prosecuted by their clerics and their media minions and yet stood idle despite the façade of moderation that they always attempted to maintain. It is apparently a message sent by Al Azhar for others not to follow Al Behery path or face similar consequences.
Al Behery chief fault was believing in the system, the law and the constitution which on paper protect the freedoms of religion, speech and belief. The reality is a completely different story. The sentence could be part of the black comedy that Egypt lives on nowadays where a President calls upon Egyptians to adopt reforming the Islamic faith but the opposite happens. When Egyptians such as Al Behery answered the call by starting to provide a modern understanding towards religion, they get jailed for it under laughable pretexts.
Islam Al Behery is a victim of many things in the Egyptian society and on top of them the Blasphemous Libel law that resembles European medieval laws. According to this law , any person who is found criticizing one of the 3 Monotheistic Abarhamic faiths Islam, Christianity and Judaism would be fined and serve a jail sentence. The ironic part here is that Islam is as his name suggests is a Muslim who happens to be not just devout but also a profound researcher in all sections of the Islamic Theology. Not only Al Behery was defending the Islamic faith against the misinterpretations of many Islamic scholars, but also asking his audience to adopt a new method of adhering to the faith that doesn’t simply follow the footsteps of these scholars but newer understanding of the Holy Quran and the religion by means of utilizing the critical and creative thinking methods.
Ultimately, Al Behery efforts and growing popularity have angered powerful and influential Al Azhar Islamic Institution. As the official Islamic institution of Egypt since the 10th century A.D, Al Azhar clerics and Sheikhdom granted themselves the right to be the sole speaker on Islamic matters by self proclaiming that they are the most knowledgeable in terms of Islamic theology. Al Azhar administration waged a ferocious media war using all its influence to tarnish and discredit Al Behery accompanies by an army of mercenary journalists and writers who portrayed Al Behery as the public enemy number one.
Al Azhar hardly spent a similar effort in combating actual extremism and violence except the traditional clichéd’ press releases after every terrorist attack taking place in Egypt or any other country. They refrained for labeling Al Qaeda or ISIS as Kafirs or heretics as they claimed that it is unrighteous to question the belief of any other Muslim. However, they have no problems in questioning and publicly condemning the beliefs of peaceful and non violent writers such as Al Behery and many others. This type of behavior from the current administration of Al Azhar places the great institution in a questionable position especially after decades of being infiltrated by Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists.
Admittedly, the institution condemns every violent or terrorist act worldwide without hesitation but when it comes to practically fix the Wahhabi Islamist theology that the terrorism is founded upon, they refrain from that. On the contrary they witch=hunt researchers, reformers, writers and journalists who do so. This duality has been the prevailing fact in Egypt for decades.
Al Azhar Grand Imam Dr. Ahmed Al Tayeb is perceived by media and internationally as being one of the most moderate voices in the Islamic faith. That statement might be relatively true but on the other hand, he opposes profound reformation since he believes that Al Azhar is already a beacon of enlightenment and moderation. That refusal was shown publicly when Grand Imam Al Tayeb diplomatically shunned the President’s call for reformation in the presence of the of the President himself publicly claiming that Al Azhar is already teaching reformist Curricula and protects the faith from any form of extremism.
Later on the Grand Imam and after what is believed be some pressure from the Presidential office, have conceded to the idea of reformation and claimed that Al Azhar will blaze the trail for the path of reformation. Almost a year and half later, nothing substantial has taken place and the victims such as Reformer Islam Al Behery and writer/poet Fatima Naout are increasing in number as Al Azhar affiliated and influenced media tarnishes their reputation and the judiciary system finishes them off with prison sentences.
The President’s neglected call:
Calling for a reformation within Islam and Muslims understanding of the holy scripture and faith, President Al Sisi shocked the world by his bold and direct call to all Muslim Clerics and intellectuals to work on reforming the Islamic faith and what has been taken for granted as part of the faith within its own boundaries. The call was welcomed by all media, scholars and politicians of all faiths and nationalities. Almost a year and half later, the call seems to have fallen on deaf ears as nothing substantial has been attained till this moment in August 2016. Short of a few trivial changes of curricula in some school textbooks, the media, society and government are still as wary to any change or reform as they have ever been.
The once pillar of moderation and modernity within the Islamic world Al Azhar has been deeply infiltrated by Wahhabism and extremism that has tainted its long traditions of tolerance towards other religions These teachings were once deeply imbued in its scholars teachings generation after generation. Al Azhar scholars used to be filled to the brim with the spirit of the reformation and tolerance that has characterized them for centuries. It also characterized Egypt more than any other predominantly Muslim country, as a place of interfaith tolerance and a country where faiths may exit in harmony. Alas, eight decades after the founding of the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt, traces of that tolerance is becoming rare to find as years pass.
Al Azhar infiltration by the Muslim Brotherhood and Wahhabi teachings are rampant within the texts and academic material provided by institution to its own students.Al Behery during his long TV series have exposed the radical views that are being taught by Al Azhar scholars to younger students thus helping in creating more radicals instead of moderate and tolerant scholars. Accordingly, entrusting Al Azhar at its current Sheikhdom of Wahabbi and Muslim Brotherhood infiltrated body to reform the Islamic beliefs is entrusting arsonists to protect a forest from fires. French Statesman George Clemaenceau (1841-1929) once said War is too important a matter to be left to the military and accordingly in today’s Egypt Religion is too important a matter to be left to the Clergymen.
Thanks to these Islamist clergymen of all types, Egypt has been witnessing decades of on and off violence by radicals who get inspired by so called Righteous Salafists (Al Salaf Al Saleh) teachings which is an accumulation of mostly unverified texts and sayings unrelated to Prophet Mohamed message and mostly even contradicts the very holy texture of the Quran. Nevertheless, Al Azhar still believe that this legacy of conflicting theology should be preserved and even taught as part of the curriculum to new students and scholars.
Al Azhar administration seems to be so frightened to open the door for new interpretations of the Holy Quran (Ijtihad) by anyone other than their own conservative and traditionalist scholars lest they would lose the power they held for over a millennium. Little do they know that through these actions , they are gravely harming the faith they vowed to protect and pave the way for radicals such as Wahhabis and terrorist such as ISIS who actually defy all Al Azhar moderation and teachings, to gain more ground at their expense.
President Al Sisi fight on terrorism has only been on the security level where the war is being successful on most fronts whether in Sinai or others across Egypt. On the other hand, the fight against terrorism is impeded on the cultural and theological level. The president’s strategy has been severely lacking and he is not showing the same boldness he initially displayed in countering extremism, sectarianism and terrorist ideologies and still concedes to the will of Al Azhar who show little interest in reformation.
Thus far, the President has failed the Egyptian intellectuals who believed and acted upon his call for a reformation within the Islamic faith and depended on his protection on doing so.It is not too late for President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi to take the initiative again and enforce the rule of law. He is urged to initiate a true era of enlightenment, logic and reform within the Egyptian society that has been scarred by decades of backwardness, extremism and religious bigotry. Also he is deeply urged to issue a presidential pardon for Al Behery and all similar freedom of expression prisoners in Egypt. Also , he is urged to call upon the Egyptian parliament to end this sham called the Blasphemous Libel law once and for all.
Free Islam Al Behery!
Just like any other religion, there are enemies of the Islamic faith spread across the four corners of the globe. They are usually fueled by the current waves of extremism depicted in the likes of Al Qaeda, ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood terrorists. These bigots or enemies of Islam will always find excuses to hate Muslims and Islam regardless of what moderate Muslims such as reformer Islam Al Behery do to present as the real face of Islam. That said, it is becoming more apparent even to the most delusional, that the real enemies of Islam lie within the faith itself. These enemies are the ones adopting the faith while committing atrocious crimes in its name and claim raising its banner.
These above mentioned enemies are the ones that Muslims must focus on targeting and eliminating first to save their own religion and their lives. These kind of harsh sentences by the Egyptian judiciary wastes the efforts the entire nation is doing to combat terrorism and extremism ideologies that are adopted by all the terrorists across the globe. The thousands of Egyptian soldiers, policemen, judges, policemen, journalists, writers and regular citizens who paid their lives as a result of the endless terrorism waves since the inception of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 till today will be in vain because terrorism must be fought by security and cultural means simultaneously.
Combating terrorism and ending a generation of terrorists will only serve as a prelude for another wave of terrorism if the same ideologies are adopted by terrorists still prevail in the Egyptian society and unfortunately protected by the powers that be. Unfortunately, the reformer has paid the price of being a citizen in a nation that seems not ready for such reforms. Al Behery still spends his jail sentence now and pays for saying what he believes is true. His incarceration will never stop him or similar people from spreading their message of freedom of thought and reformation, as freedom and truth always find a way in prevailing in the end regardless of the odds against them.
For that and all the above Islam Al Behery must be set free and be given the right to express himself freely according to the new Egyptian constitution and the very call of the President for reformation. That call which should have rejuvenated the movement for Islamic reformation now seems completely derailed and lost its path. The winner in this case will always be terrorism and extremism.
Free Islam Al Behery !