A Cairo court sentenced Sheikh Mohamed Abdallah Nasr to five years in prison on February 26. 2017 over the charge of ‘contempt of religion’ after he had claimed that the amputation of hands is not a valid Islamic punishment.
Mohamed Abdallah Nasr was known for being the Imam of Tahrir Square Friday prayers during the Egyptian Revolution. He rose to popularity after inspiring the start of what is popularly referred to as ‘The Islamic Enlightenment Movement’. Sheikh Nasr, who is a graduate of Al-Azhar, is well known for his criticism of the curriculum currently taught by Al-Azhar and their refusal to heed President Sisi’s call for reforming the way sheikhs teach religion in Egypt. Mohamed Nasr may have been arrested and sentenced to prison for his views, but is he the first Egyptian to be punished for having a non-mainstream view?
A similar case is that of Dr. Nasr Abu Zayd, an Islamic thinker and philosopher, who was casted out because of his views. Abu Zayd urged individuals to practice logical and holistic thinking and argued that the Quranic verses can have multiple interpretations and tolerance of these interpretations is essentials. He was brought to court in 1995 over charges of atheism, despite asserting that he is a practicing Muslim. The reason for the charges as defined in the case consisted of two statements made by Nasr that claimed that forcing non-Muslims to pay an extra tax known as Jizya as un-Islamic and a misinterpretation, as well as another one of his claims that asserted that owning slave-girls is an un-Islamic and forbidden practice under all conditions. The judge who was overseeing his case disagreed and accused Nasr of denying. In, 1995, the court declared that Nasr Abu Zayd is an apostate and the state no longer recognised him as a Muslim. To add insult to injury, a second court argued that a Muslim woman could not be married to a non-Muslim. This prompted the court to nullify his marriage, and in the eyes of the state he and his wife lost all marital rights and privileges. The subsequent death threats led to his de facto exile from Egypt where he lived the final years of his life away from his home.
The parallels between Nasr Abu Zayd and Mohamed Abdallah Nasr are significant and highlight the intolerance of any and almost all non-mainstream views. Mohamed Abdallah Nasr was imprisoned for arguing against cutting hands, Nasr Abu Zayd was exiled and legally divorced from his wife for arguing against sex-slavery and discriminatory fines. Both cases mirror a similar scenario of that of the prominent show-host Islam Beheiry. Beheiry argued against the idolisation of Islamic scholars that lived more than thousand years ago. He argued that their prominence only depended on their literacy in a society that was mostly illiterate. Islam Beheiry also encouraged logical thinking and interpretation and was consequentially targeted by the law and imprisoned. From Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz who survived an assassination attempt because of his religious views, to poet Fatima Naoot who was imprisoned for ‘contempt of religion’ because she criticised the public slaughtering of sheep/cattle in Eid El-Adha.
Egyptian free-thinkers will always risk their lives and their livelihoods every time they choose to have a different opinion than the mainstream, and will constantly be targeted whether by radical Islamists or by the law that has been greatly influenced by Islamist thinkers.
The mainstream mindset of Egypt today resembles the same mindset of medieval Europeans that resulted in the execution of Galileo over charges of atheism, as he claimed the Earth revolves around the Sun and not the other way around. Egyptians that do not fall under the category of the stereotypical conservative Sunni-Muslim male are destined to live as outcasts within their own country.
So, what is the solution? President Abd El-Fattah El-Sisi has fought a long and hard battle with Al-Azhar to reform the teaching of Islam in Egypt. But so far, reform has not only been denied, it has also been apostatised by the mainstream. However, it cannot be expected that those responsible for the marginalisation of moderate Muslims to allow change. Which is why the presence of people like Mohamed Abdallah Nasr is imperative for there to even be any chance of reform.
Egypt which was for almost all its history a melting-pot of different cultures, ethnicities, and ideologies has now become a gravesite for those who challenge the Wahhabi tide. The imprisonment of Sheikh Nasr makes it clear that there is a direct war on thinking. In a society where the mainstream accepts only one religious interpretation, any challenge to that interpretation is a direct threat to the power and influence of Islamists, including ‘incognito’ Islamists within the government’s institutions. In a society where logical interpretations of religion are banned in lieu of interpretations made centuries ago, logic in and of itself becomes a crime. If not punishable by the law then most certainly punishable by the community. But logic scares the mainstream. History and basic study of sociology confirm that there will come a time when Egypt, like every society, will eventually become more tolerant and more logical. It is up to the logical free-thinkers of Egypt to decide how soon this period arrives by how much effort is put in.