Islam El-Beheiry made Egyptian headlines as one of the most debated topics related to the religion of Islam in 2015. The story began when the young Islamic researcher presented himself as an innovator of religious speech.
On his programme With Islam El-Beheiry challenged the authenticity of the heritage of conservative interpretations of religious texts.
He irritated official institutions, who quickly mobilised to silence him. He also exposed defamation campaigns by speakers in the name of the religion, especially from the Salafist community. El-Beheiry then engaged in disputes with different factions, ending in a one-year prison sentence based on a lawsuit accusing him of “contempt of religion”.
El-Beheiry still hopes to annul the verdict in court. Debate on the freedom of beliefs and expression continues to be the talk of political and intellectual communities.
According to a reformist’s point of view shared by social science intellectuals, legal experts, and researchers in different human science fields, including religious studies, El-Beheiry’s case is indicative of a closed and radical society.
There are three factors in this case: the often debated law of religious contempt according to which he was tried and imprisoned; the issue of new exegetical accounts of religious texts; and how the combination of social and state power address or oppress the different principles of freedoms stated by the constitution.
These points were tackled in a seminar held by the Egyptian Social Democratic Party (ESDP) Sunday, in which the speakers based the discussion on the following constitutional texts:
Article (64) Freedom of belief is absolute. The freedom of practicing religious rituals and establishing worship places for the followers of Abrahamic religions is a right regulated by Law.
Article (65) Freedom of thought and opinion is guaranteed. Every person shall have the right to express his/her opinion verbally, in writing, through imagery, or by any other means of expression and publication.
Article (66) Freedom of scientific research is guaranteed. The State is committed to sponsor researchers and inventors and to provide protection for and endeavour to apply their innovations.
The speakers first stressed on their advocacy for freedom of speech, against laws of religious contempt. They outlined the relationship between introducing new ideas, debating religion, and how the society is receptive to reform especially when it comes to the religious taboo and the state’s approach, which they claim has not evolved in decades.
According to constitutional expert and law professor Mohamed Nour Farahat, the constitution’s principles differentiated between freedoms that are absolute and those that are guaranteed, the latter of which are organised and protected by legislations or laws.
He further stressed that the constitution guaranteed freedom of scientific research, which also includes human and social sciences. But Farahat does not see an environment that is favourable to positive restructuring of the Egyptian society.
“Unfortunately, social underdevelopment has become deep-rooted in our country and its institutions and one of the major roles political parties should play in Egypt currently is developing the society,” he said.
Despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of thought, writer and political science researcher Ammar Ali Hassan elaborated on why issues of social debate are often taken to court and not necessarily towards justice.
To begin with, he pointed out three types of freedoms, the first is the freedom of thought, which cannot be controlled at all. The issue begins when thoughts are expressed such as those who dare speak up to share their thoughts, questions, and beliefs. The problem arises when thoughts are transferred into action, a distinction classically known as that between actus reus, which describes the physical component of a criminal act, and the mens rea, the mental intent to do the crime.
“Speak as you please but you will be stopped for acting as you please,” Hassan explained. Political, religious, and social restrictions are imposed, the latter being the toughest to face, as there is often a social aspect of the two former components.
When it comes to renewing religious speech for instance, he said the person carrying the innovative message must be genuinely hoping to seek answers through research and science. He cited the case of renowned Islamic academic Nasser Abou Zeid. In the 1990s, Abou Zeid attempted to renew religious discourse but faced severe crackdown by the state. The situation ended with Abou Zeid being accused of blasphemy that resulted in a court sentence that forced a divorce from his wife and his exile.
Hassan warned reformist speakers to avoid making arguments that attack the commonly accepted, existing religious currents or claim to have absolute truth, without making reference to credible sources, because the method is far from being safeguarded under freedom of expression practices.
“Those do so because they are seeking public attention without having real renewed content but actually retard religious speech. They cause social conflicts over invaluable content and they invite upon themselves systematic distortion campaigns by the political power aiming to curtail their right to expression,” he said.
According to Hassan, to enhance religious reform and freedoms, there needs to be clear definitions and distinctions between what is considered personal freedoms, what constitutes religion, and what falls under theology, religious studies, preaching, or even ‘calling’ for religion by force.
Hassan put faith under personal freedoms and insisted on it being an individual matter that cannot be subject to interference by an institution or a group. He then described religion as a human and social need stemming from humans’ relations with nature and their quest for answers.
“Those who reflect on religion are theologians but a problem arises when religion becomes an ideology or a political project, or when self-appointed guardians of religious morality force people into a certain religious path,” Hassan said.
Those that fall under this category often include extremists claiming to have access to an absolute truth by reinforcing an “invented image of Islam” such as an exaggerated heroic picture of the prophet, who is above humanity. Further there are attempts by such groups to offer a monolithic account of Islamic history, while in reality there are different versions of that history, according to each sect, era, and region.
“What happened with the Salafists is that their understanding of the concepts of belief expanded to include broader life issues unnecessarily related to religion, resulting in people moving away from the sect,” he said.
Social reform and the separation between political and religious powers paves the way for ethical and moderate religious speech, which has solid references, Hassan said.