Via Youm 7 newspaper
“Today is Islam El-Behery’s birthday”____ Facebook has always been diligent in sending Birthdays notification, but this one was awkward. What is the point in writing a Facebook message to a man in prison? Like many unjustly imprisoned in Egypt, El-Behery has spend his birthday locked in a dark cell, not because he is a terrorist or regime opponent, but because he dared to think and challenge religious dogma.
In May 2015, Islam El-Behery, an Islamist Egyptian researcher, was sentenced to 5-year in prison, which later, in December, was reduced to one year after an appeal, over charges of “contempt of religion”. In February 2016, another motion to appeal the sentence was denied and Behery was sent to prison to serve his sentence.
El-Behery, a law graduate and Islamic researcher who turned hosted his own TV show challenging traditional Islamic thinking was considered “misinterpreting Quran” by Egypt’s highest religious authority Al-Azhar. In April 2015, El- Behery’s challenge to Al-Azhar reached its peak. In a heated religious debate, he challenged two mainstream Islamic scholars (including one from Al-Azhar), on TV. That episode triggered El-Behery’s current imprisonment. His candid views and biting criticism had pushed mainstream scholars out of their comfort zone. Instead of debating his views, the scholars focused heavily on El-Behery’s aggressive attitude and his choice of words, reducing the debate to a pedantic interpretation of the rules of Islamic jurisprudence. Ironically, Behery was trying to defend the prophet Mohamed from the accusation of pedophilia, by asserting that the Prophet’s wife wife Aicha was 18 when she married the Prophet, while Al-Azhar vehemently reject that and insisted that she was only 9.
Following the unfortunate debate, the privately owned satellite channel that used to host it stopped Behery’s show. But ending El-Behery’s career was not enough. Egypt’s Al-Azhar files complaint accusing TV show of twisting Islam; described his preaching as “a fierce and elusive campaign against the foundations of Islam and Islamic legacy,”____ a handy accusation that has successfully been used against anyone who dare to challenge Islamic thoughts.
The imprisonment of El-Behery has exposed the vulnerability of non-Islamists Muslims. Unlike others who have global supporting groups thet keep their suffering alive on global media, El-Behery, like many non-Islamists Muslims, is just an individual, not backed by a certain group or a lobby. Although his imprisonment has created widespread criticism, the attention to his case, however, has faded amidst Egypt’s never ending political upheaval. On his Birthday, only few followers have remembered him and wrote on his Facebook page wishing him freedom.
Therefore, it is crucial for us, non-Islamists Muslims, to keep El-Behery’s case alive. Egypt does not just need political freedom; the country is in desperate need for religious freedom and revolution of thoughts. Democracy will not thrive in Egypt without critical thinking and without a strong civil society that support those who dare to challenge orthodoxy and regression. Egypt ousted a Brotherhood’s president only to allow mainstream regression to flourish. Al-Azhar, although claim moderation and tolerance, is unwilling to support critical thinking. Instead, it has resorted to an introverted protectionism, to impose its own monopoly on religious thoughts.
It is not mercy or forgiveness that we should campaign for Islam El-Behery, but total freedom. He should be released and allowed to express his views freely. El-Behery and others researchers and thinkers need total abolition of the ugly blasphemy law. It is totally disgraceful to see Egypt turning a blind eye to Salafi clerics and their outrageous religious edicts, but throw religious tantrums when the like of Behery seeks more lenient interpretations.
The legal punishment against Behery was not just aimed to teach him a lesson, but also to deter others from following his path. Non-Islamists, however, should be united and continue to campaign for complete freedom of religious thoughts in Egypt. It is bad enough that our politics is in a mess; can we, at least, salvage our religion from tyranny?