October 20, 2021 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 328

A Sword Of Damocles Over Free Thought In Egypt (And Elsewhere)

October 20, 2021 | By Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
Egypt | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 328

Egyptian Researcher Ahmad Abdou Maher

Imagine living a public life involving writing and speaking on sensitive issues and constantly having to look over your shoulder, wondering if you have gone too far, that you have gored too sacred a cow or somehow offended or caught the attention of those with the power or will to persecute you. This is the reality for intellectuals and thinkers in much of the Arab and Muslim world (it is also a growing reality in the West).

The situation varies from place to place. There is more of this open intellectual space today, more tolerance, in a country like Saudi Arabia, than in the past. In places known for the broadness of their free spaces, like Lebanon, tolerance seems to be shrinking. That has certainly happened in Turkey under Erdoğan.

Some countries have had issues for free thinkers for decades. It was decades ago that iconic Egyptian writers like Naguib Mahfouz and Taha Hussein felt the lash of censors. In 1985, Al-Azhar, Egypt's and the Sunni Muslim world's leading source of religious authority, gave the green light for the execution in Sudan of liberal Islamic intellectual Mahmud Muhammad Taha, judging him to be an apostate and the spilling of his blood licit.[1] Article 98(f) of Egypt's penal code criminalizes "defamation of religions," a subjective category which has been used mostly against minority Coptic Christians but also against liberal, heterodox, or secularist Muslims.

One such case reached its endgame with the trial of Ahmed Abdo Muhammad Maher appearing before the Emergency State Security Misdemeanors Court on Wednesday, October 20, 2021, under the Emergency Law.[2] He is charged with insulting the Islamic religion and promoting extremist ideas with the intention of provoking sedition. He is facing this trial because he authored and published a book, "Misleading the Ummah with the Fiqh [jurisprudence] of the Imams," which, ironically, was published by and is still sold by the governmental publishing house "Dar El-Maaref."[3] The hearing will continue on November 3, 2021. In the initial hearing, the defense focused on the absence of contempt of religion by the defendant and that his criticism was solely of religious jurisprudence that leads to terrorism.

The 77-year-old Maher would seem to have a background that would have given him some immunity from persecution. He is a supporter of the government of President Al-Sisi and a military veteran who rose to the rank of brigadier general before retiring in 1988. Ironically, his work involved combating religious extremism in the military. He became a lawyer and a mosque preacher for 22 years (both positions that require a government seal of approval). He authored 13 books, appeared on hundreds of government or pro-government television programs, with hundreds of newspaper articles and YouTube videos.

Taken as a whole, Maher comes across as a sincere man of religion concerned about extremism and zealous in promoting a vision of Islam that he sees as tolerant enough to appeal to questioning young people.[4] Although no critic of the regime per se, he was bold enough to strongly criticize Al-Azhar in 2017 after ISIS attacked two Egyptian Coptic churches, warning that Al-Azhar "had been taken over by Salafism and Wahhabism" and that its "depraved and criminal jurisprudence" taught hatred against Christians and Jews.[5] In a television appearance in 2016, he described traditional Islamic jurisprudence as "idiocy and insanity."[6] Maher's struggle with Al-Azhar and against what he sees as the violent mis-interpreters of the Qur'an over the centuries has been going on for years and he has a long track record of ruffling the feathers of the religious establishment.[7]

In his commentary, Maher has been trotting a well-worn path. Criticism of Al-Azhar conservatism is not new and there has been and continues to be a school of Islamic reformers who revere the Qur'an but see the source of Islam's travails in the supposedly ossified interpretations of divine revelation codified centuries ago in the schools of fiqh and in spurious sayings of the prophet. This is the view of the so-called "Qur'anist" reformers[8] and, of course, also has Shia echoes in the idea that the door of interpretation of the sacred book and sayings of the prophet need updating and purging.[9]

Maher's latest travails began in May 2020 when gadfly Islamist lawyer Samir Sabri contacted Egypt's attorney general and supreme state security prosecutor accusing Maher of "contempt for Islam."[10] Sabri was able to do this because Egyptian law allows third parties to initiate such processes and indeed Sabri is a notorious figure, having brought thousands of cases on moral and religious grounds against all sorts of figures, including actresses, singers, belly dancers, puppeteers, and writers. He threatened to sue the Egyptian organizers of a Jennifer Lopez concert because of the skimpy wardrobe choices made by the American singer-actress. Sabri's peculiar litigious success and area of specialization even garnered him a 2018 profile in the New York Times.[11]

In his accusation, Sabri described Maher as a figure "who demonstrates hatred for Sunnis in particular and Muslims in general." Maher "fights Islam and questions Muslims in their religion," among his misdeeds was a spat with Al-Azhar where he questioned the number of radicals produced by that institution and called upon Al-Azhar to apologize for the violence of the early Islamic conquests. Among Maher's other misdeeds were questioning fasting in Ramadan or claiming that the Islamic historical and religious record has been "tainted by superstitions, myths, intrigues and lies that characterize most of the writings of historians." For his part, Maher has publicly appealed for support to the Egyptian President, as a fellow army veteran.[12]

Although Egypt under Al-Sisi very much plays the reformist or enlightened card before the West, the reality on the ground in Egypt is more complicated. While the regime is strongly against the Muslim Brotherhood organization, it is perfectly willing and able to allow "approved" types of religious extremism by certain groups and moral policing by the likes of Sabri to run their course. In this way, the national security state can curb or unleash religious sentiment as it best sees fit in order to accomplish its priority – to maintain control and solidify its hold on power. It also sends the clear message to those (liberals, Christians, disgruntled moderates) that "we" (the state) are the only thing standing between you and an avenging Islamist response.

Of course, the Egyptian authorities are not wrong that Islam has power, many or most Egyptians are devout and that is a reality that must be recognized. It is easy for Western diplomacy to criticize and demand greater tolerance but that is perhaps harder to do these days than in the past. Egyptians who know the West might note that the West, especially the United States, has its own proliferating sacred cows even if they are not religious ones (traditional Christianity being one of the safest, most predictable things mocked by elites in the West).

Authoritarian Egypt and democratic America are not the same but the culture wars and cancel culture of the West, with their dogmatic positions on a lengthening list of issues related to gender and race and politics is not unknown in the East. Our image as paragons of free thought looks much shakier these days. America has its own freelance inquisitors searching out gender and pronoun violations, toppling statues and rewriting history, mercilessly enforcing the latest trendy conformity, punishing heretics, and purging them from public life with the zeal and purpose that would make a Samir Sabri proud.

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.


[1] See MEMRI Daily Brief No. 47, Remembering A Radical Reformer: The Legacy Of Mahmud Muhammad Taha, June 11, 2015.

[2] Anahwa, October 19, 2021.

[3] Youtube, September 7, 2021.

[7] Raseef22, October 31, 2018.

[8] Arabicpost, December 11, 2017.

[9] Ahmedabdomaher, accessed October 20, 2021.

[10] Alwafd news, May 9, 2020

[11] Nytimes, January 12, 2018.

[12] Youtube, October 17, 2021.

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