In a televised address marking the religious occasion of Laylat Al Qadr (the Night of Destiny) on Wednesday, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi reiterated his call for Muslims “to set aside their differences and unite at a time when the Ummah (Islamic community) is facing unprecedented challenges that threaten its very existence.” He also repeated his earlier call for “purging religious discourse of extremism,” urging imams (Muslim clerics) to take the lead in the reform process by spreading the Islamic values of tolerance and compassion.
Al-Sisi’s address was reminiscent of earlier speeches he made in early 2015 calling for “a religious revolution” and warning that “extremist ideas of intolerance and violence were fueling extremist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.” On New Year’s Day 2015, Sisi had also told an assemblage of Al-Azhar clerics celebrating the birth anniversary of Prophet Mohamed that Islamist thinking was antagonizing the rest of the world, pitting the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims against non-Muslims.” His bold calls for reform in Islamic thinking had made international headlines, earning him praise in Western media.
In contrast, there were no plaudits for Sisi’s latest speech, which was ignored by major news networks. The subdued reaction is understandable given the recent developments and current circumstances in Egypt. Tens of thousands of Sisi’s Islamist opponents languish behind bars as part of a security crackdown that has also targeted secular activists, human rights defenders, journalists and dissenters of all stripes.
The clampdown has led skeptics to doubt Sisi‘s sincerity in pursuing his declared goal of countering extremism. They argue that the president’s heavy-handed policies are fueling the radicalization of his political opponents and shutting down avenues for peaceful political dissent. Meanwhile, conservative Islamist opponents have gone further, denouncing Sisi’s calls for reformation of Islam as “an attempt to corrupt the religion,” secular critics (who would normally welcome attempts to dilute religious norms) have downplayed the significance of his remarks, interpreting his statements as “an attempt to strengthen his administration’s statist aims” by means of exercising control over Sunni Islam’s highest religious authority. In her column published in the generally pro-government Al-Watan newspaper shortly after Sisi’s speech last year at Al-Azhar, liberal columnist Amina Khairy charged that Sisi had really meant “a state-approved revolution.”
Those expecting dramatic change in religious discourse after Sisi’s January 1, 2015 speech calling for a reformation of Islam were quickly disappointed. In April 2015, just three months after the “historic” speech, a similar call for “reforms of traditional Islamic discourse” by Islamic scholar Islam El Beheiry sparked outrage in religious circles. After tackling such thorny issues as punishment of apostates, child marriages and interpretations of Hadiths or sayings of Prophet Mohamed on his TV show “With Islam” broadcast on the privately-owned Al Qahera Wal Nas, El Beheiry was accused by Al-Azhar (the very institution that Sisi had tasked with reforming the religious discourse) of “ launching a fierce campaign against the foundational texts of Islam and Islamic heritage.”
El Beheiry’s show was suspended indefinitely. A month later, he was handed down a five-year jail sentence on the charge of “contempt of religion” for criticizing several books that he claimed contain “radical interpretations of the Quran and the Sunna (the verbally transmitted record of the teachings, deeds and sayings, silent permissions or disapprovals of the Islamic Prophet Mohamed) and for calling for scrutinizing the Hadith collections of Al Bukhari and Al Hajjaj, Islamic scholars who lived in the ninth century. The legal complaint against him was filed by a conservative lawyer who accused El Beheiry of blasphemy.
El Beheiry was acquitted in June 2015 but the story did not end there. Within the span of one year, no fewer than 48 lawsuits were filed against him. In December 2015, he was handed down a one-year jail sentence (reduced from an original sentence of five years) in a separate case but again on the same charge (contempt of religion).
El Beheiry’s conviction has raised questions about the government’s willingness to embrace Islamic reformists at home, following Sisi’s ambitious calls for a religious revolution. It has also fueled skepticism about Al-Azhar’s standing as “a bastion of moderate Islam” and “a bulwark against ultra-conservative Islamists.” While Al-Azhar has gone to great lengths to reinforce its “moderate” image – by, among other steps, launching a YouTube channel dedicated to discouraging radicalism and by altering its curriculum, removing some of the hate speech inciting against Christians and Jews – critics like TV talk show host Ibrahim Eissa argue that the changes are “merely cosmetic.” He insists that the religious institution espouses intolerance and its curriculum is, in some ways, ideologically indistinguishable from that promoted by extremist groups like ISIS. In an episode of his show broadcast on Al Qahera Wal Nas in January 2015, he cited an excerpt from a book taught to Al-Azhar students claiming that “fighting infidels, even if they have not attacked Muslims, is a religious obligation for every able and free Muslim.”
While such exhortations sanctioning violence against non-believers are specific in nature and are not general injunctions for the killing of all non-Muslims, ISIS has – in its selective approach to Islamic scriptures – based its use of violence on similar texts that have been taken out of context by the group. And while Al-Azhar has been vocal in its condemnation of terrorist attacks, it has stopped short of designating ISIS a terrorist group, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/en/originals/2015/02/azhar-egypt-radicals-islamic-state-apostates.html contending that members of the group are Muslims even though their actions do not represent Islam. Furthermore, Al-Azhar has intermittently used its power as a religious authority to denounce liberal Muslim thinkers as “infidels.”
El Beheiry is not the only public figure to face prosecution on the charge of contempt of religion. In January 2016 just one month after his conviction, liberal writer Fatima Naoot was also found guilty of the charge and handed down a three-year jail sentence. She was also fined EGP 20,000 (approximately USD 2000). Her prosecution was prompted by a Facebook post and an article she had written in Al Masry Al Youm criticizing Eid Al-Adha’s tradition of slaughtering sheep as the “greatest massacre committed by human beings.” On March 31, a Cairo Appeals Court upheld the sentence despite Naoot’s repeated assertions that she had not meant to defame Islam. The ruling provoked an outcry on social media networks from Egyptian liberals who denounced the country’s blasphemy laws as “fascist” and “outdated.” It also prompted a rare rebuke in mainstream media, including from some staunch Sisi loyalists like Lamis El Hadidi. Decrying the controversial ruling, Ibrahim Eissa noted, “There have been more blasphemy cases and convictions during the Sisi era than during the Morsi era.”
Three Coptic Christian teenagers in the southern province of Minya were also found guilty of blasphemy in February and sentenced in absentia to five years in jail while a fourth Copt — a minor – was sentenced to juvenile custody for five years after Muslim residents in the boys’ village filed a legal complaint accusing the teens of insulting Islam. The teens had shot a video mocking members of the Islamic State group carrying out a beheading after finishing their prayers.
The recent rise in blasphemy accusations has aroused significant debate in Egypt on the stifling of free speech and the need for the annulment of the controversial law, Article 98 (f), of the penal code used to prosecute offenders. The unprecedented attention to – and scathing criticism of – the recent rulings by international rights groups has piled pressure on the country’s legislative authority, resulting in a review of the law by parliament. One hundred out of the total 596 lawmakers in parliament have expressed their support for a proposed bill to repeal the restrictive law described by Christian parliamentarian Emad Gad as “harmful to the Islamic faith.” Still, there are the hardliners like ultra-conservative Deputy Mohamed Ismail who hails from the Salafi Al Noor Party and who has warned that “annulment of the law would lead to chaos.”
It is yet uncertain whether the blasphemy law will be repealed altogether, or even amended. What is certain is that, so far, Sisi has done little more than pay lip service to the reformation of religious discourse that he himself called for. Although he, unlike his predecessors has taken some plausible steps such as paying visits to the Coptic Cathedral to greet Christians celebrating Orthodox Christmas Mass, a lot more needs to be done if he is to keep his promise of “building a New Egypt.”
Addressing the 69th United Nations General Assembly in 2014, he pledged “to build a state that respects the rights and freedoms, honors the duties and ensures the coexistence of its citizens without exclusion or discrimination. A state that respects and enforces the rule of law, guarantees freedom of opinion for all and ensures freedom of belief and worship to its people.” These promises can only come to fruition if repressive laws that stifle free speech or suppress peaceful dissent become a thing of the past.
Radical reforms and modernization of Al-Azhar’s educational curriculum are also needed. This would include the purging of textbooks of any content that fosters violence or promotes extremist ideas. Last but not least, the culture of criminalizing apostasy must end. Instead of facing punishment for questioning deep-rooted views, people should be encouraged to challenge and debate ideas without fear.
Change takes time but first, the political will must be there to see these changes through.