Press freedom issues in Egypt are continuing to make headlines, both within the country and outside it. In several September 2007 court cases, newspaper editors received prison terms for spreading what was ruled to be false information about government officials. Then, on October 8, 2007, Al-Azhar Sheikh Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi gave a speech, in the presence of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, during which he stated that, based on a verse in the Koran, slanderers should be punished with 80 lashes. Coming as it did in the wake of the high-profile prosecutions of the independent press, many in the press took Sheikh Tantawi's statements to have been directed against journalists, setting off a lively polemic and leading to demands that he step down as Sheikh of Al-Azhar.
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Al-Azhar Sheikh Tantawi: 80 Lashes for Slanderers
On October 8, 2007, Al-Azhar Sheikh Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi delivered a speech to mark Laylat Al-Qadr, a holy day during the month of Ramadan that celebrates the beginning of the revelation of the Koran; among those present was President Mubarak. During his speech, Sheikh Tantawi said that slanderers should receive a punishment of 80 lashes.
According to the official Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, Tantawi said: "Islamic shari'a made everyone equal with regard to punishment for the crime of slander… Allah punished those who slander others with false accusations with three punishments. The first is sensory, and it consists of their being flogged with 80 lashes. The second is moral, and consists of their testimony not being accepted. The third is religious, and consists of Allah describing them as sinners."
While there is no evidence that Sheikh Tantawi mentioned journalists or singled them out for punishment, the fact that his speech came against the backdrop of a recent slew of high-publicity prosecutions of journalists led many to conclude that this was his intention – and this fact was reflected in the newspaper headlines. Also contributing to this interpretation was the fact that on the previous Friday, Sheikh Tantawi had called for a boycott of newspapers that "spread false rumors."
In a statement, the Egyptian Journalists' Union said that the statements attributed to Sheikh Tantawi came as a "profound shock, as though he were participating, from his elevated position, in the escalating campaign of incitement against the press." It added that the statements attributed to Tantawi were "doing the greatest damage to Egypt's international reputation."
On October 19, 2007, Sheikh Tantawi told Al-Arabiya TV that his Laylat Al-Qadr speech had not been directed specifically against journalists, but against anyone spreading false rumors. He added that that this was Allah's law, not a law of his own invention, and that it was no fault of his if it applied to journalists as well.
Grandson of Past Al-Azhar Sheikh: Tantawi is an Unimportant Man in an Important Post
In the meantime, calls for Tantawi's removal from his post as Al-Azhar sheikh began to surface. In a sharply worded statement, Islamic scholar Tareq 'Abd Al-Halim, grandson of past Al-Azhar sheikh Salim Al-Bishri, said that he would take judicial action to remove Tantawi, and that if he did not succeed, he would demand that his grandfather's name be removed from the list of former heads of Al-Azhar.
In his statement, 'Abd Al-Halim said that Sheikh Tantawi's ruling on the flogging of journalists (as he put it) was the latest in a series of fatwas in the government's favor, and that it supported the government's attack on freedom of expression. He said that the post of Al-Azhar sheikh was an important one that had been entrusted to an unimportant person who adopted opinions based on the degree to which they concurred with the government's whims.
The matter also became a bone of contention between rival Al-Azhar scholar associations. In a meeting headed by Tantawi himself, the official Al-Azhar Academy of Islamic Research decided to issue a statement in support of Tantawi. The Front of Al-Azhar 'Ulama rebutted with a sharply worded criticism of the academy's statement, saying, "Allah and history will not forgive you," stated its support for the press, and expressed its view that the Koranic verse cited by Tantawi dealt only with false accusations of adultery.
Mustapha Bakri, member of parliament and editor-in-chief of the Egyptian weekly Al-Usbu', also expressed his intention to ask President Mubarak to remove Tantawi.
The official Al-Ahram daily, on the other hand, came to Tantawi's defense; in an October 17, 2007 article, editor Osama Saraya wrote that the press's reaction to Tantawi's speech reflected "a crisis of dialogue among a minority that wants to impose its view, through violence and raised voices, on the majority." He added that Tantawi had not been speaking specifically about the press, and that he was simply expressing a religiously definitive law on slander.
Saudi Liberal Journalist 'Abdallah Al-Mutairi: We Must Stop Looking On With Medieval Eyes and Thinking With a Medieval Mind
On October 17, 2007, the liberal Saudi daily Al-Watan published an article by columnist 'Abdallah Al-Mutairi criticizing Sheikh Tantawi's statement. Al-Mutairi wrote that the fatwa was evidence of the "medieval" state of contemporary Islamic thought and of the need for comprehensive reform:
"In a new fatwa, Al-Azhar Sheikh Tantawi demanded that journalists who 'spread rumors' should receive 80 lashes, in accordance with the [Koranic] punishment for defamation…
"This fatwa could be taken as an indicator of the state of Islamic thought today…
"Could this kind of fatwa be issued today anywhere but in the Islamic world? Could a religious leader anywhere [else] in the entire world demand the flogging of journalists? I don't think this occurs anywhere except in the Islamic countries…
"The majority of peoples in the world are moving towards an intellectual and human horizon in which flogging journalists for publishing unreliable reports is not only unacceptable, but unthinkable.
"The entire world understands the role of the press as the fourth estate that must be accorded the freedom to monitor affairs in the country and the world, and that allows opinions to be represented and assumes its right of expression. Humankind has reached this horizon in the modern age, and it is an important and significant development in the understanding of human freedom and the right to expression…
"And where does Islamic thought today stand in relation to all of this? Or, to be more exact, where do the important, popular, and influential Islamic ideological currents stand in relation to this horizon?... They still look on with medieval eyes and think with a medieval mind…
"In the 1960s, the Catholic Church made peace with modernity and stopped accusing it of apostasy. It recognized all of the Age of Enlightenment's freedoms and accomplishments, and recognized the other religions and freedom of belief… This development in Church thought followed a long series of violent and bloody struggles with free thought…
"In the Islamic [world], this development has not been achieved. Perhaps this is because the struggle has not yet reached the level of the Church's struggle with free thought. The events of 9/11 may be one of the forms of this struggle or clash with the world, but the ideological struggle has not yet materialized in a form that can help shatter fundamentalism and as a result develop [new] Islamic thought.
"In other words, there has not yet formed an influential and active ideological current outside of the religious currents – one that will struggle with them on the ideological level and force them, through criticism, to develop, and abandon the medieval horizons where they hunker down…
"When the Al-Azhar sheikh was asked about this fatwa that he issued and the journalists' anger at it, he said: 'I am free… I say what I believe… Is this not the freedom of opinion for which they call? They allow it for themselves and forbid it for others.'
"[His] use of this 'freedom' excuse… was meant to vex the journalists, and was not [spoken] out of conviction. [Tantawi] does not differentiate between employing freedom to make use of it and to seek more of it, and employing freedom to lessen it, to forbid it to a group of people, and to demand that they be flogged…
"The important thing today is for the ideological and political currents based on human rights and freedoms to redouble their efforts to establish these concepts [of human rights and freedoms], and to openly and clearly confront the thinking that is opposed to them…"
Egyptian Islamic Reformist Gamal Al-Bana: The Fatwa Has No Basis in Islam
In an October 17, 2007 article in the Egyptian opposition daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm, prominent Islamic thinker Gamal Al-Bana argued that Sheikh Tantawi's fatwa had no basis in Islam, and that he was betraying the cleric's proper role of standing with the people against oppressive rulers:
"…I was stunned to read [Tantawi's] words, because the traditional position with which the people entrusted clerics has been to stand together with the people against the ruler and with the weak against the strong. For [Tantawi] to encourage the ruler to punish the press is something that places the religious scholar – the 'successor to the prophets' – in the same trench with the oppressive ruler, and that uses religion in accordance with [the ruler's] political will…"
Al-Bana also disputed Sheikh Tantawi's reading of Koran 24:23, on which he based his punishment for slander. The verse reads: "Those who slander chaste [but] heedless believing women are cursed in this world and the next, and they will be severely punished." Al Bana writes: "These verses were revealed in order to protect the 'chaste [but] heedless women' from being falsely accused of adultery. Allah wanted to protect these poor women, who have neither power nor might, and cannot defend themselves, or even speak.
"Is it right to draw an analogy between these poor women and the government, which has power, might, an army, central security, and police divisions that spread terror and use torture?! Is it this government that is in need of protection, or rather the helpless people?...
"Today, the press is the only voice that is raised to protect the people's moral and material rights; to guard its assets and resources; to fight the policy of 'selling off Egypt'; to reject the succession [of Gamal Mubarak], which is contrary to [both] Islam and democracy; to fight the spreading corruption, which has become ubiquitous in the ministries, the banks, and [public] institutions; and so forth…
"I would hope that the honorable Al-Azhar sheikh would see press activities as a kind of [fulfillment of the Koranic injunction of] 'commanding good and forbidding evil,' especially as only the press is capable of doing so, and thus this becomes a personal obligation [for it]…
"The press has been doing what Al-Azhar should have been doing..."
Egyptian "Heretic" Salah Al-Din Muhsin: Don't Blame Tantawi, Blame Shari'a
In contrast to Gamal Al-Bana and others who argued that flogging journalists is against Islam, Salah Al-Din Muhsin, a liberal secularist Egyptian author who spent three years in prison on charges of offending the religion, wrote on the left-wing Modern Discussion website that there was no sense in blaming Sheikh Tantawi, as the real problem lay in Islamic shari'a and its role in Egyptian public life:
"...The punishment of flogging is an uncivilized punishment which abases human dignity. It is among the punishments employed in ancient times; since then many centuries have passed, and these [punishments] have become outdated. It is unthinkable to revive it today.
"But, frankly, I think that the demand to fire the sheikh of Al-Azhar is no less unjust than the injustice and darkness of the fatwa [itself]…
"The sheikh of Al-Azhar is not responsible for the fatwa and the flogging law. That law goes back to the ages of backwardness and primitivity. The law of flogging, the law of cutting off hands, [the law of] beheading…, the law of stoning, and the law of cutting off [a person's] opposing arm and leg – all of these crude and harsh laws and punishments are laws in Islamic shari'a.
"So why blame the Al-Azhar sheikh personally? Did he bring this law from his father's house? Did Sheikh Tantawi invent something of his own? By no means. These are laws in Islamic shari'a, and [Tantawi] was speaking in his capacity as sheikh of Al-Azhar, the greatest Islamic university…
"Whoever has a just opposition to this law [and] this fatwa should be honest and should not demand that this person be fired, but rather should demand that shari'a, that rules by outdated laws, not be implemented. And he should demand that this shari'a not be taught, and that its laws not be taught at Al-Azhar University…
"So take your hands off Sheikh Tantawi; take your hands off the sheikhs. They, and we, are victims and prisoners of the Bedouin's ancient desert ignorance. The time has come to liberate ourselves, and to liberate them…"
*D. Lav is Director of MEMRI's Middle East and North Africa Reform Project and L. Azuri is a research fellow at MEMRI.
 See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 396, "In Egypt, Debate on Press Freedom Follows Imprisonment of Opposition Press Editors," October 12, 2007, Saudi Defense Minister:Yarmulke-Wearing Congressmen to Blame for Media Attacks on Saudi Arabia.
 The transcript for the speech was given to columnist Salah Al-Muntasar by Minister of Religious Endowments Dr. Zaqzuq. Al-Ahram (Egypt), October 24, 2007.
 Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), October 10, 2007; Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 12, 2007.
 Al-Misriyyun (Egypt), October 26, 2007.
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 12, 2007.
 Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), October 20, 2007.
 Al-Misriyyun (Egypt), October 22, 2007.
 Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), October 21, 2007.
 Al-Misriyyun (Egypt), October 26, 2007.
 Al-Ahram (Egypt), October 17, 2007.
 Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), October 17, 2007.
 For more on Gamal Al-Bana, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 334, "Sheikh Gamal Al-Bana: Social and Religious Moderation vs. Political Extremism," March 16, 2007, 'Al-Hayat' Columnist: The Pressure of 'The Arab and Islamic Street' is a Myth.
 Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), October 17, 2007.
 See Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 28, 2001.