In a January 10 interview on the Egyptian ON TV, former Egyptian Minister of Culture Gaber Asfour came out in support of reformist intellectual Islam Behery, who was recently sentenced to a year in prison for blasphemy, and criticized Al-Azhar's position, saying that reverting to the law, rather than debating one's adversaries politely is "a sign of weakness" and "the beginning of the end" for the institution.
Interviewer: "Do you think that lawsuits and accusations of blasphemy limit free thought?"
Gaber Asfour: "This is an obsolete article in an outmoded law, which was resurrected in order to punish people. There is no such thing as blasphemy. The word is intended to punish people for other things, not blasphemy."
Interviewer: "In what way is it blasphemy when a researcher like Islam Al-Buhairi – or any other young man or citizen – criticizes another researcher, who lived over 1,200 years ago, called Al-Bukhari? We have one researcher criticizing another researcher. In what way is this blasphemy?"
Gaber Asfour: "There is no blasphemy here. On the contrary, when Islam Al-Buhairi or anyone else wants to reform the religious discourse, it is out of respect for religion, and a desire to restore reverence and sincerity to the Islamic discourse. This is the exact opposite [of blasphemy]. When people acknowledge that the Al-Bukhari compilation contains some hadiths that are illogical, what they are saying makes sense! Otherwise, we will have to believe hadiths that even a child could not accept."
Interviewer: "Do you think that under these circumstances, in which a researcher or a thinker is sentenced to imprisonment, merely for thinking..."
Gaber Asfour: "In my view, this has nothing to do with the Islamic religion."
Interviewer: "It's far-fetched..."
Gaber Asfour: "It has absolutely nothing to do with Islam.
"We are surprised when people attack the Shi'ites for no reason whatsoever. Why does it happen? Why is there such inter-Muslim strife? You are a Shi'ite Muslim? Welcome. I am a Sunni Muslim? Welcome. What binds us in Islam is the belief that God exists, and that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is His Messenger. How can one make a distinction between me and another? How can one instill hatred in the heart of my son or grandson toward Shi'ites, merely because they are Shi'ite? This is very strange.
"The people of Al-Azhar say one thing when the president is there, but do something else after the president has left. When [the Sheikh of Al-Azhar] meets the president and talks to him, he says: 'Yes, we will reform the religious discourse.'"
Interviewer: "And what happens?"
Gaber Asfour: "I don’t know how to answer that. On the ground, there is no reform."
Interviewer: "Anybody who has talked about reform or development, or who has leveled criticism against an institution or a scholar, throughout history, from the time of Muhammad's prophecy to this day, has faced lawsuits, has had his books banned, and has been accused of heresy, of atheism..."
Gaber Asfour: "Do you want to hear my opinion?"
Gaber Asfour: "In my opinion, this is the beginning of the end. It is a sign of weakness. When you find no justification, you resort to force, but when you are sure of yourself, you debate adversaries politely. Instead of doing this, Al-Azhar reverts sometimes to the law, and that, in my view, marks the beginning of the end.
"I'd expected the president to use his authority to intervene in Islam Al-Buhairi's trial, and to order his immediate release."