Controversial TV host Islam al-Beheiry deserves to be in prison, as his ideas endangered “faith security,” Al-Azhar Dean of Sciences Abdel Moneim Fouad told the privately owned newspaper Youm7 on Monday, after Beheiry was sentenced in absentia to five years in prison on Saturday for insulting religion.
In the current political climate, accusations or grievances are frequently tied to a question of “security” in order to demonstrate their gravity, and justify subsequent legal actions.
Al-Azhar scholars argue that any discussion of core religious issues that occur outside the confines of their institution can endanger “faith security,” and thus society at large. But critics fear that this newly introduced form of security could pose yet another threat to the freedom of belief and expression, which they say is already under attack.
The case of “With Islam”
Al-Azhar has been in conflict with Beheiry for months over the controversial ideas he espoused on his show, “With Islam,” which was pulled of the privately owned channel Al-Qahera wal Nas last April after the Investment Authority issued a cease-and-desist order at the religious institution’s behest.
Beheiry frequently declared that Islam needed to be modernized to be relevant to the current time, and that no beliefs were beyond questioning. He gained notoriety for questioning the sources of the Prophet’s sayings, for example, and arguing that not everything in the Quran could be applied to contemporary life.
Several Al-Azhar scholars have debated Beheiry on television and attacked him in media statements, calling his ideas “odd” and extreme. The institution did not take direct legal action against Beheiry, however, but rather filed a lawsuit with the State Council to stop his show.
Lawyer Mohamed Abdel Salam filed the case that prompted the Cairo Court of Misdemeanors to order Beheiry behind bars on Saturday. Beheiry told the privately owned satellite channel CBC that some 48 similar complaints have been filed against him to date.
What is faith security?
Threats to “faith security” could be defined as anything that “disrespects the beliefs of most people,” according to Amna Noseir, a professor of Islamic philosophy and doctrine at Al-Azhar University.
“What I believe — which is a centuries’-old inheritance, and which deserves to be believed and respected — should not be questioned. We have a significant legacy that’s engraved in our belief system, and Islam al-Beheiry has recklessly assaulted this,” Noseir argues.
Noseir doesn’t object to societal discussion of the sensitive topics that Beheiry would bring up on his talk show. However, she believes such topics should only be discussed within certain established protocols, and using carefully chosen vocabulary.
But Ahmed Koreima — an Al-Azhar professor who issued a fatwa against watching Beheiry’s show last April — refutes Noseir’s acceptance of societal discussion of core Islamic principles. He believes such issues are the exclusive realm of religious scholars.
And as opposed to “faith security,” Koreima prefers the term “Islamic cultural security,” which he says encompasses the realms of faith, Islamic law and morals. He says that protecting this culture entails “protecting the core of Islam … which includes its roots, its core values and its legislative sources, and everything that guarantees protection from aggressors and slanderers.”
Aside from the recent discussion surrounding faith security, however, societal debate over core Islamic issues has been a taboo issue for a long time.
When asked about a potential conflict with the constitutionally guaranteed principles of freedom of faith and of expression, Koreima clarifies that “freedom of faith is for those who have not entered Islam. They are free in their beliefs, as long as they don’t attack Islam. But Muslims can’t go against Islam and cause unrest in religion and society. Muslims have to commit and adhere to this doctrine.”
Security, but only for some
Ishaq Ibrahim, a researcher on religious freedoms at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), says there’s been a “violent return” of cases against insulting religion over the last five months. These cases have targeted public figures with a media platform, but also regular people who like or share Facebook statuses that are considered insulting to Islam.
Al-Azhar has played a key role in mobilizing these cases as it attempts to maintain its monopoly on public discourse concerning religion, says Ibrahim. He argues that this attempt to prohibit the general discussion of core Islamic principles is in fact contrary to the concept of pluralism, which has historically been supported by several imams.
Furthermore, this trumpeted principle of “faith security” is only being used to protect Muslims, Ibrahim adds, while insults against Christianity and sectarian crimes against Egypt’s Christian community are allowed to continue with relative impunity.