Al Ahram Weekly 8/12/2016
Religious reform is a highly coveted idea in post-January 2011 Egypt. The belief propagated by many Egyptians, especially Al-Azhar clerics, is that any religious reform proposed by anyone other than Al-Azhar clerics will be a path to the ruin of the Islamic faith. Accordingly, the same group of Egyptians staunchly believes Al-Azhar cannot allow anyone to contribute to reform except Al-Azhar, who are perceived as the sole vanguards of the Islamic faith.
The Egyptian constitution already identified the ancient Islamic institution as an Islamic scientific institution in Article 7 and annotated Al-Azhar with the role of being a main source for consultation on Islamic affairs.
Al-Azhar in its current state is neither fostering the reform cause nor even allowing others to do it in a peaceful manner. Undoubtedly, within the ranks of Al-Azhar are some great scholars who can alleviate Muslims from the current predicament of a shift towards radical doctrines, or being frightened to face it lest they be labelled heretics by the loud voices of the Wahhabis and their Egyptian counterpart, the Salafists. However, Al-Azhar’s strength will never be maintained through protecting a heritage of misplaced violence based on legacy religious books that are unfortunately being treated as part of the religion.
On the contrary, the true strength of Al-Azhar will be manifest when the great institution adopts a policy of cleaning up the mess that exists in such legacy books that mostly have nothing to do with the core of the Islamic faith. That will be the crowning achievement of Al-Azhar in over a millennium of its existence.
The Sword of Damocles over reformers’ heads: A new generation of thinkers such as famous reformer Islam Al-Beheiri, poet Fatima Naoot and young novelist Ahmed Nagi are among the latest victims of the blasphemy law that keeps Egyptian writers and reformers on a tight leash. These thinkers are at the mercy of any fame-chasing lawyer who can sue them for blasphemy and heresy.
The flamboyant Islamic reformer Islam Al-Beheiri defied all taboos and attempted to cleanse Islamic faith literature being taught in Al-Azhar University that carries similar ideologies to those of Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State group, and the Muslim Brotherhood. His former TV Show “With Islam” was a major hit in Egypt and the Arabic speaking world and was considered a major step in understanding the religion within a modern context. However, instead of being lauded for his efforts to identify the faults in Al-Azhar’s educational system, exposing the twisted ideologies of Salafists and Wahhabis, Al-Azhar through its minions in the Egyptian media and some ambitious lawyers waged a propaganda and legal war against him. Al-Beheiri was sent to trial for blasphemy and libel in one of the quickest and most bizarre trials in Egypt’s modern history which ended with Al-Beheiri sentenced to one year in prison after a plea that annulled a five-year sentence. Al-Beheiri was jailed for the crime of actually enlightening Muslims about their true faith. Shockingly, short of a handful of TV anchors and a few journalists, he was not supported by the media, which shamefully placed oil on the fire and incited authorities against him.
Meanwhile, poet Fatima Naoot and novelist Ahmed Nagi are being tried, and imprisoned in the case of Nagi, according to the same law for simply expressing individual opinions about religious issues. What is taking place is not only irrational but also unconstitutional. This law represents a major obstacle before the new constitution for Egypt approved by Egyptians in a referendum in 2014.
Only a late presidential pardon saved Al-Beheiri from continuing his prison sentence. Nevertheless, Naoot was sentenced for six months in prison in November 2016 and Nagi is serving his prison sentence until today.
The derailed reform process: Egyptians caught a lucky break 30 June 2013 that spared Egypt turning into the new Iran of the region. Mohamed Morsi, the Islamist tyrant who planned to turn Egypt into a new caliphate, was ousted by the will of Egyptians. To avoid this fate in the future, religious reform should be a top priority of the president and any government of Egypt.
Thus far, Al-Azhar’s efforts towards religious reform are simply cosmetic and do not delve deep inside the problem at all. It is bewildering how Al-Azhar administration is so vehement fighting against those who are supposedly on its side in the war against extremism, which they claim to fight. At the same time, Al-Azhar is not as stern against the real enemies of Islam who are represented in the Muslim Brotherhood and other international jihadist groups that adopt Wahhabi doctrine. This duality within the ranks of Al-Azhar helps to exacerbate an already bad situation in Egyptian society whereby reformers, philosophers and creative minds have become valid targets for questionable lawyers, media anchors, and even judges. These same are adopting a holier-than-thou attitude by bashing all Islamic reformers and thinkers who attempt to question the infiltration of Wahhabis and the ideologies of fundamentalist scholar Ibn Taymiya within the ranks of Egyptian clerics in general and especially Al-Azhar clerics.
Al-Azhar’s Grand Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb is reintroducing the Islamic faith to the world through a tour by which he visits different countries to deliver speeches in forums about Islam. This may be a plausible effort, however no amount of visits will fix the damage done to the Islamic faith because of Wahhabism and other radical ideologies that have tainted Islam and are still unfortunately emitted from Al-Azhar itself. What the world is not willing to hear are more soothing words from the greatest Islamic authority. The world expects and demands serious action, shunning extremism at its root, and clear denouncements of the acts of Salafists and Wahhabis. Moreover, the world expects Al-Azhar to denounce and refute any books that relate to such extremist cults which stray from the true core message of Islam. These efforts may take years, but they are still far from being properly initiated in the first place.
Protecting the president’s call for reform: President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s brave call for religious reform in Egypt, to be undertaken by clerics, writers and reformers alike, earned him great respect worldwide. The president is deeply urged not allow the forces of darkness and backwardness to have the upper hand, especially in a critical issue such as religious reform. The world is holding its breath in expectation that Egypt can restore its position as a beacon of light in a dark Middle East region, blazing the trail for others to follow.
If the president is unable to protect the nation’s thinkers from modern day “Holy Inquisitors”, then his call represents a form of entrapment to all reformers, modernists, writers and even common citizens who practice their lawful and constitutional rights of freethinking, creativity and voicing their own opinions.
Accordingly, President Al-Sisi is left with two options: the first to is to propose to the Egyptian parliament to annul the medieval blasphemy law and hence push the great Egyptian nation to join the 21st century as a world cultural leader. The second option is to retract his call and end the religious reform process, which will allow the forces of darkness to claim a victory in the ideological war.
The blasphemy law in Egypt remains a hanging Sword of Damocles that hinders imperative and extremely essential religious reform, along with modernisation of the Egyptian state.
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