Saturday,16 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1241, (9-15 April 2015)
Saturday,16 December, 2017
Issue 1241, (9-15 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Al-Azhar vs TV shows

Al-Azhar came out in full force against what it said was a plot to undermine its historic role in representing moderate Islam, reports Khaled Dawoud

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Al-Ahram Weekly

After the failure of an initial complaint to the Free Media Zone Authority to close down a controversial television talk show critical of traditional Islamic schools of thought, Al-Azhar brought official charges to the prosecutor general against the show’s presenter, Islam Al-Beheiri. In its lawsuit, Al-Azhar argued that Al-Beheiri insulted Islam, ridiculed revered religious figures and undermined its role which, as stated in the constitution, is to protect and promote Islamic teachings.

The controversial show, Maa Islam, or “With Islam”, has been running for over a year on a privately-owned satellite channel, dealing mainly with what its presenter Al-Beheiri describes as “faulty interpretations” of Islamic teachings based on the views of key scholars who lived during the early years of Islam. Al-Beheiri says those strict interpretations were outdated and provided the religious reasoning for extremist groups involved in acts of terrorism, including Daesh, known as Islamic State, and Al-Qaeda.

At a time when President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi made the appeal for “renewing Islamic thinking” a cornerstone of his speeches to overcome the violence that has marred Egypt following the removal of former president and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi on 3 July 2013, Al-Beheiri’s show should have been seen as providing the necessary tools to support the president’s message. However, as Al-Beheiri’s criticism grew louder, going as far as trading what many viewers saw as personal insults against prominent Islamic scholars such as Al-Bokhari, who specialised in collecting sayings of Prophet Mohamed, and Ibn Tayimia, known for his strict fatwas, edicts and interpretations of Islamic laws, the country’s oldest religious establishment, Al-Azhar, said it felt it had to intervene.

It was clear that one reason Al-Azhar felt it could not remain silent was that Al-Beheiri’s sharp criticism was directed at its leadership, Grand Imam SheikhAhmed Al-Tayeb, for doing little, if nothing, to confront extremist views, and continuing to teach volumes of religious books, dating back over 1,000 years, that extremist and terrorist organisations use to justify their acts.

Al-Azhar leaders said Al-Beheiri was only one example of a number of television presenters and journalists who have been repeatedly waging attacks against the religious establishment, not with the aim of fighting extremism and terrorism, but to undermine Islam as a religion and to demand a rewriting of its basic teachings.

Sharp critics of Al-Azhar, such as television presenters Ibrahim Eissa and Youssef Al-Husseini, do not only criticise Al-Azhar for its archaic curricula and failure to renew Islamic thinking. They also charge that Al-Tayeb failed to remove hundreds of key Al-Azhar scholars who are known for their strong support of the Muslim Brotherhood, now outlawed and dubbed a terrorist organisation by the government since December 2013.

Al-Azhar spokesmen, such as Sheikh Mahmoud Mehanna, a member of its highest decision body, the Board of Grand Ulamas (scholars), have strongly denied that the establishment is dominated by the Brotherhood. “Our laws and traditions have established that Al-Azhar scholars should not be members of any group or political party,” Mehanna said. “Besides, our Prophet teaches us that we should obey those leading the nation, even if he was a black slave. We love Al-Sisi, we love the military establishment and respect the role of the military,” Mehanna added in an interview with the private television channel, TEN.

Al-Azhar has been a hotbed of the Brotherhood for decades, and the man known as the mufti of the nearly 90-year-old group, Sheikh Abdel-Rahhman Al-Barr, is a dean of one of Al-Azhar University’s faculties. Al-Barr is on the run for alleged involvement in acts of violence led by the Brotherhood after Morsi’s removal, and faces charges punishable by death, if convicted.

Al-Azhar’s Student Union has been dominated by Brotherhood members for decades, and the fiercest and most violent clashes with police in protests following Morsi’s removal erupted at Al-Azhar University. Several faculty members and assistant teachers were reportedly arrested by police for trying to smuggle Molotov cocktails and fireworks to students in the university to use in clashes with the police.

In their talk shows, Al-Beheiri, Eissa and Al-Husseini repeatedly pointed to top figures in Al-Azhar, including assistants of Al-Tayeb, who were known for their sympathy with the Brotherhood, and who described Morsi’s removal by Al-Sisi, then defence minister, as a “military coup”. Those included figures such as Sheikh Hassan Shaafi and Sheikh Mohamed Emara, among many others. However, they also include sheikhs such as Abbas Shouman, the Grand Imam’s deputy, whom critics such as Eissa and Al-Husseini see as the stereotype of the traditional Al-Azhar sheikh who is ready to support whoever is in power, and provide religious justification for that. Shouman was a strong supporter of Morsi, describing his opponents as “Western agents” and “enemies of Islam”. However, as soon as Morsi was ousted, Shouman’s statements shifted 180 degrees. He became a sharp critic of the Brotherhood and a strong supporter of Al-Sisi.

Al-Tayeb was a member of the Policies Committee that was part of the now dissolved former ruling National Democratic Party, and chaired by Gamal Mubarak, son of the former president, Hosni Mubarak. Al-Tayeb initially defended the former president, and said it was against religious teachings to rebel against him. However, his position changed after Mubarak’s ouster, and praised the aspirations of millions of young Egyptians who were seeking change and reform.

Amid a growingly anti-Brotherhood sentiment since Morsi’s ouster, especially in the media, it seems it was difficult for the Free Media Zone Authority that supervises dozens of privately owned television channels airing out of 6 October City to take a decision to close down Al-Beheiri’s television talk show, as Al-Azhar originally requested in its complaint. Instead, Board Chairman of the Free Media Zone Effat Abdel-Hamid said that the board had decided to issue a warning to the channel that airs Al-Beheiri’s show, Al-Qahera Wal-Nas, and that it had to “review” the content of the show and consider the views listed in Al-Azhar’s complaint. Al-Beheiri said he was very happy with the decision, and that it proved that the Media Free Zone continued to respect freedom of speech, and did not to bow to pressure from Al-Azhar.

However, hours after the Free Media Authority announced its decision not to pull the plug on Al-Beheiri’s show, Al-Azhar announced that it had filed charges against the talk show presenter to the prosecutor general, saying his show “intentionally questioned the basic tenants of the Islamic religion, insults scholars who are widely respected, and stirs up conflict at a time the nation needed to unite all its citizens in support of their leadership in its effort to resurrect Egypt”.

While Al-Azhar might have failed to stop Al-Beheiri’s show, experts in the religious establishment believe that it continued to enjoy strong influence and respect among many ordinary Egyptians. While many clearly supported the removal of the Brotherhood and the fight against extremist terrorist organisations, the majority of Egyptians are seen as religious, and would not tolerate attacks against what they believe are tenants of the Islamic religion and scholars of history who have enjoyed respect for centuries. The state would also not want to be seen as being against Al-Azhar, considering the role it has traditionally played over the past 60 years in backing any president who is in power.

Two months ago, Al-Azhar also proved its influence when Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb agreed to remove minister of culture Gaber Asfour. Asfour was known as a sharp critic of Al-Azhar, claiming that it failed to respond to appeals by Al-Sisi to renew Islamic thinking. He also called for a serious review of a plethora of books of centuries-old Islamic rulings that are used up until today at Al-Azhar and that many extremist scholars use to justify acts of terrorism, suppression of women and the banning of art.

While Al-Azhar failed to ban Al-Beheiri’s show, its sharp attacks against the presenter and other critics of Al-Tayeb was clearly a declaration that its leadership would not remain silent, and that it would come out in full force to defend the prominent status that Al-Azhar has maintained over the past 1,000 years.

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