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One-year sentence for Egyptian Islamic researcher Behery draws criticism

A petition has been launched calling for the release of Behery, who was jailed for 'contempt of religion,' with several prominent figures adding their voices to his defence

Marina Barsoum , Wednesday 30 Dec 2015
Islam Behery
Islamic Researcher Islam Behery while hosting his show (with Islam) on privately owned channel Al-Qahera W Al-Nas (Photo: Snapshot)
Views: 3728
Views: 3728

Following the one-year prison sentence issued late Monday against Islamic researcher Islam Behery, criticism against the verdict has been raised on social media, with several prominent figures calling for his release, possibly by way of presidential pardon.

Egypt's office of the prosecutor-general set 4 January for a court session to hear an appeal filed by Behery's lawyer, Saied Gamil.

Gamil said in a phone call to the CBC channel that he will file a formal complaint, as his client was previously acquitted on the same charge, which was filed against him several times by different individuals.

On Tuesday, an appeal court reduced an earlier five-year sentence against Behery over charges of “contempt of religion” to one year in prison in connection with the content of his now-suspended TV programme.

Behery stirred controversy by questioning the credibility of some otherwise widely accepted sources of the Prophet Muhammad's sayings, a prime source of Islamic jurisprudence. For Muslims, the Prophet Mohammed's sayings are second only to the Quran in understanding the religion.

Many critics say the verdict against Behery is an infringement on free thought and freedom of expression.

Calls for Behery's release

A petition has been launched calling for the release of Behery, with several well-known figures adding their voices to his defence.

Egyptian director and member of parliament Khaled Youssef wrote on his official Facebook page Wednesday that this issue extends beyond the imprisonment of Behery.

Youssef said that this era, which should be one of enlightenment and development, is being tainted with ignorance and underdevelopment.

He also questioned how the government can ask the youth to think and innovate while at the same time jailing people like Behery.

TV Host Ibrahim Issa said that it is up to the president to issue a pardon, adding that Article 71of the constitution protects the right of Egyptians to freedom of thought and expression.

Al-Azhar vs Behery

Behery, who is known for questioning the credibility of some of the sources of the Prophet Mohammed's sayings, has said that scholars are human and their texts should be dealt with as such. He argued on his TV show which aired on Al-Qahera Wal Nas in 2014-2015 that when these scholarly interpretations are harsh, for instance when calling for capital punishment, then they should be approached just as harshly.

Earlier in April, Egypt's Al-Azhar, the Sunni world's leading religious authority, filed a complaint to the General Body for Investment and Free Zones requesting TV channels not air Behery's show. A warning was later sent by the authority to Al-Qahera Wal Nas, the channel that airs his show.

Al-Azhar charged that Beheiry's show deliberately makes people question what is "certain in religion" and "threatens social peace." Al-Azhar also accused the show of "stirring sectarian strife."

Behery has refuted Al-Azhar's accusations, insisting that his critique of secondary sources of the Prophet's sayings does not amount to contempt of religion, adding that his aim was to renew religious discourse and reclaim the soul of Islam which had been distorted by fundamentalist interpretaions.

The controversy surrounding Behery comes in the same year that saw Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi's repeatedly call on Al-Azhar’s religious scholars to foment  a "religious revolution" in the understanding of Islamic texts to counter the ideas of "extremists."

The president said on more than one occasion that extremist ideas were causing "worry, danger and destruction to the whole world."

"Religious discourse will not be fixed overnight. [But] it requires enlightened effort from enlightened scholars," El-Sisi told Al-Azhar scholars earlier in the year.

Freedom of expression in Egypt

Behery's case is not the only high-profile incident involving the question of freedom of expression recently to cause controversy in Egypt.

Egyptian writer Fatma Naoot is also on trial on charges of "disdaining religion," after she criticised the Muslim Eid Al-Adha tradition of slaughtering sheep as "unethical." She has since apologised for her remarks.

Egyptian prosecutors also recently referred two journalists to criminal court for publishing a "sexually flagrant article" in the state-owned cultural newspaper Akhbar Al-Adab last year. That decision caused an outcry among many who considered it a violation of freedom of expression.

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31-12-2015 07:46am
The strength of a religion is in its ability to handle criticism,
I look at the constant attacks against the Catholic church and on their pope and see their religion strong. There is no one arrested for insulting their church. Are they more confident in their faith then Muslims? They have no law against insulting religion. Having such a law makes Islam look weak, and further shows Al Azhar to be incapable of graciously correcting the one they feel "insulted" the faith. Some non-Muslims in the West who once respected Islam as one of the 3 great Abrahamic faiths have lost respect after reading so many negative things, and that number is growing. Islam Behery is a great intellect to be honored and engaged in dialog. He shows much more awareness of how to restore greatness to Islam than do some of the Al Azhar scholars, and thzt hateful judge who condemned Behery to prison.
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31-12-2015 03:46am
'contempt of WHAT religion'
Islamic institutions in the Mid East, as well as Islamic governments have caused more harm to Islam than any single individual in the region. Where were Saudi, Azhar, and all other hypocrites when Islamic terrorist massacred thousands and thousands of innocent lives under the banners of "Allh akbar", "no God but God and Mohammed is God's Prophet" and "with the name of God"? The real CONTEMPT of religion comes from Saudi, Azhar, and their hypocritical governments with nothing to show for except the fake tattoos on their foreheads!
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Sam Enslow
30-12-2015 09:53pm
Stirring Sectarian Hate?
In 1959, Al-Azar University's Sheik Mohammed Shaltar stated that ashia' is 'religiously correct to follow. Tayeb has stated there are no Shia in Egypt except a few peddlers of religion. Essay contests against Shia have been sponsored, Shia ceremonies blocked. This kind of make one wonder who is stirring sectarian hatreds. It seems the Salafi have a lot of influence in Al-Azar. It seems to the clerics are after cultural experiences they personally do not like. Sectarian hatreds need to be eliminated. Discussions of religious beliefs actually strengthen the people's faith. An Islamic cleric regardless of stature is not a priest that can, like the Roman Pope, dictate dogma. Islam appears to be a very personal religion, between God and Believer.,
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