Taqueen: Fanning the flames

Hani Mustafa , Wednesday 15 May 2024

Controversy erupted following the launch of Taqueen, an organisation that seeks to reform religious discourse

Fanning the flames


On Monday, MP Mustafa Bakri submitted an urgent statement to House of Representatives Speaker Hanafi Gebali on Taqueen Al-Fikr Al-Araby (the Formation of Arabic Thoughts) institute, accusing it of promoting “opinions and ideas that sow confusion and challenge the religious constants of society”.

Bakri’s move followed a week of heated social media debate after Taqueen was launched.

According to its website, Taqueen was set up to promote constructive dialogue and enlightened thought and to create a space that allows its visual, audio and written products to reach the widest audience. Its self-proclaimed goals include facilitating reform and acceptance of others based on tolerance between societies, cultures, and religions.

The board of trustees includes thinkers from Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and Lebanon, including the Egyptian writers Youssef Zidan and Ibrahim Eissa, and TV host Islam Al-Beheiri, all three of whom are long-term advocates of renewing religious discourse and critics of Salafi doctrine in particular. Eissa has in the past claimed that Prophet Mohamed’s journey to heaven should not be taken literally while Zidan has described Salaheddin Al-Ayoubi as a tyrant. Al-Beheiri received a one-year prison sentence on charges of defaming Islam after he made comments questioning the authenticity of some hadith [the prophet’s sayings].

Taqueen’s launch provoked the ire of many Islamists who resorted to social media to claim its true goals were to undermine Islam and promote atheism.

Interviewed by Amr Adib on the Al-Hekaya talk show, Al-Beheiri was asked what he thought the public would make of an organisation whose board of trustees contained such controversial figures. Adib argued that it was only to be expected that, with such figures on the board, the news that Taqueen had been formed to discuss religious issues would stir anger. Al-Beheiri replied that while all questions were welcome, anger is incomprehensible.

“We want to promote the spirit of tolerance between religions, we don’t want to ignite a strife in our own country,” said Al-Beheiri. He added that the board of trustees respects all religious authorities.

Some posts on social media claimed Al-Azhar had created a unit, Bayan, specifically to contest the kind of discourse Taqueen is seeking to promote. Ahmed Al-Sawi, the editor of Sawt Al-Azhar newspaper, pointed out on his Facebook page that Bayan was established as a unit in the Al-Azhar International Centre for Electronic Fatwas in March 2019 to answer questions from the public on matters of faith.

Following Taqueen’s creation, a Facebook page Tahsin (Immunisation) was created to monitor the content it produced. The page’s administrators said Tahsin is unaffiliated and aims to gather the responses of religious scholars to content published by Taqueen.

While Al-Azhar has issued no official statement on Taqueen, Abbas Shouman, the general supervisor of fatwas [religious edicts], posted on his Facebook page that Al-Azhar’s General Secretariat of the Council of Senior Scholars is following what is being published about the formation of “an entity” that seeks to undermine the principles of religion and will take any necessary measures after determining the truth.

On Saturday, the prosecutor-general referred a complaint submitted by lawyer Amr Abdel-Salam against Taqueen to the Supreme State Security Prosecution for investigation. The complaint claimed Taqueen’s board of trustees is spreading extremist ideas and questioning the constants of Islam.

After the prosecutor-general’s decision, Zidan used his Facebook page to deny rumours that Taqueen had been closed.

“Taqueen is not a building that can be shuttered,” he posted. “It is an initiative for public knowledge in Arab countries, launched under government auspices which doesn’t aim to antagonise the Islamic religion, Al-Azhar or the Church.” He added that Taqueen had no intention of becoming embroiled in arguments with people who indulge in superstitious beliefs and maliciously deceive the public.

Taqueen’s website contains articles, videos, and podcasts that criticise Islamic fundamentalism. In one podcast, Fatma Naoot, a journalist and a member of the board of trustees, and Saadeddin Helali, professor of Islamic jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University, discuss how extremists seek to monopolise religiosity in order to impose their own views.

Taqueen’s launch coincided with commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the death of Taha Hussein, a leading figure of Egypt’s 20th century cultural enlightenment. In an incident that alienated some secular intellectuals, Zidan asked another Taqueen member, the Syrian writer Firas Al-Sawah who has published many books on mythology and history of religions, if he though himself more important than Taha Hussein. Al-Sawah replied: “I am more important and so are you.”

During a TV interview Ahmed Megahed, a former chairman of the General Egyptian Book Organisation, disapproved of the comment, saying that while Zidan and Al-Sawah have both made respectable contributions in their respective fields neither could compare to the impact Taha Hussein has had on Arabic culture.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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