Islamic researcher and preacher Islam al-Beheiry‘s one-year prison sentence was widely condemned by public figures, rights organizations and political parties on Wednesday, who claimed that it was a blow to free speech and recent calls for religious discourse renewal.
A misdemeanour court reduced a five-year prison sentence against Beheiry to a one-year prison sentence on Monday, after he was convicted of contempt of the Islamic religion. He was immediately sent to Tora Prison following the court order.
Beheiry was charged after he critically examining early Islamic jurisprudence and expressing opinions against official religious narratives on his now-banned TV show “With Islam,” which aired on the privately owned Al-Qahira Wal Nas channel.
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) said in statement Tuesday that the ruling is a clear case where the Islamic “Hesba law” is being implemented, and demanded the release of Beheiry until his appeal on the verdict is settled.
Hesba laws stipulate that Muslims expressing views deemed contrary to Islamic Sharia are to be persecuted as non-believers.
EIRP criticized the court ruling as solely dependent on a report by Al-Azhar which viewed Beheiry’s opinions as contrary to early Islamic heritage and insulting to Islam. The rights organization said that the ruling reveals the power of Al-Azhar as an institution that aims to impose its guardianship on society.
“This verdict reveals the true orientation of the state toward freedom of religion, belief, opinion and expression. It further confirms that the call for reviewing religious discourse has not so far developed beyond official speeches,” EIPR religious freedoms researcher Ishaq Ibrahim said.
“In this regard, we would like to highlight the danger of having conservative tendencies control society in general. Defendants in such cases have lost the simplest forms of popular support for their fundamental rights,” he added.
Criticism was specifically directed against Article 98 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes contempt of religion but only loosely defines the crime. The article also gives judges far-reaching powers in interpreting the legal text, which usually leads to the conviction of defendants involved in these cases.
The Egyptian Secular Party was on the forefront of defending Behairy and urged that Article 98 be amended, on the basis that it violates the Egyptian Constitution, according to a statement.
Party President Hisham Ouf openly slammed the “domination” of Al-Azhar and its thought over the public domain in Egypt. “The sentence of Islam al-Beheiry is a slap to all efforts of renaissance and demolishes the idea of religious discourse renewal. It is also a huge insult to intellectuals, artists and thinkers in Egypt,” he said.
Parliamentarian and renowned film director Khaled Youssef also criticized Beheiry’s conviction, urging Sisi to use his powers to pardon him.
“To the person who championed the call for religious discourse renewal, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, we wish you to use your powers of pardon until this law is amended in accordance with the constitution, not just for the sake of Islam al-Beheiry but to end terrorism and extremism. [We should] side with renaissance, otherwise darkness will prevail,” he said on his Facebook account.
In January 2015, Sisi called for a religious revolution in a speech at Al-Azhar commemorating the birth of Prophet Mohamed. In his speech, Sisi urged Azhar scholars to reform many misunderstood religious traditions that “tarnished the image of Islam,” instructing the Endowments Ministry and Al-Azhar to prepare a plan for the desired reforms.
“Will the 1.5 billion Muslims kill the seven billion so that they can live? It’s impossible, we need a religious revolution,” he said.
However, a few days later, the president appeared to backtrack on his demand for religious reforms, explaining that the reform of religious discourse is not the responsibility of individuals but of religious institutions, referring to Al-Azhar and Islamic scholars around the world.