Reformist intellectual Islam Behery gave his first TV interview two weeks after his release from prison following a presidential pardon. Speaking on Mehwar TV on December 3, Behery, who had been sentenced in May 2015 to five years imprisonment for blasphemy, a punishment that was later mitigated to one year, criticized the people of Al-Azhar for defending the books of heritage upon which ISIS based its practices and said that its response to ISIS was very mild. "I didn't notice such mild language when they talked about me, for example. I am much more dangerous than ISIS, as far as the Al-Azhar leaders are concerned," Behery said.
Islam Behery: My crime was my TV show - a crime that doesn't really exist. I didn’t feel - and the people watching the show didn't feel - that I was committing blasphemy, not even for a single moment. The idea of being in prison was a crisis for me more than for other people, because I didn't understand what had got me there.
Islam Behery: So with regard to your question about the presidential pardon - my gratitude was not lip service. It was for real, because this pardon was in keeping with the constitution. The constitution forbids imprisoning any intellectual or researcher.
Islam Behery: You know that I am no hypocrite. In fact, that's what got me into prison. It would have been difficult for any president in the past to give me such a pardon.
Interviewer: Isn't the war you are waging against the Salafi movement in Egypt?
Islam Behery: Absolutely not. The real was is against the books of heritage, which are protected by the Salafis. As an institution, Al-Azhar is great and I have no problem with it. Al-Azhar produced scholars like Muhammad Abduh - but not just him. There were also scholars like Muhammad Abu Zahra, Mahmud Shaltut, and Abdel Muta'al Al-Sa'idi. If you read their works, you'd see how enlightened they were. They were ahead of their times back in the 1940's and 1950's.
But Al-Azhar is made up of people, and people come and people go. The current people of Al-Azhar defend these books, and say that there is nothing wrong with them. And then they condemn ISIS in the strongest of terms. They were really good at issuing condemnations. I have said it before on my show, and that's what got me into trouble: How can you condemn the perpetrators but not [the books] they rely on? So they say: It's not written in the books. This is an erroneous interpretation. This is no misinterpretation. It is written there word for word.
Islam Behery: Even if you were to attack [ISIS members] in Sinai, arrest them all, completely cleanse Mount Helal [of ISIS], and create a 20 km buffer zone - there would be a terror attack once a week, just like now, because this is a matter of religion. The books of heritage tell them that according to the religion, they should act that way. They do this in order to get to Paradise. Nothing bothers them. Do you think they do it out of desperation or poverty? Absolutely not. They have everything, but they will kill you all the same, and kill themselves in the process. They have no problem with that. They'll continue to fight the infidels because they consider this their duty in this life.
Islam Behery: When you tell the [ISIS members] in Sinai that the Sheikh of Al-Azhar refused to label ISIS 'infidels,' that the Sheikh of Al-Azhar refused to label ISIS 'infidels,' you are rendering anti-ISIS sentiment meaningless. You are making these young men think: 'ISIS are our brothers in Islam. True, they made some mistakes, but it's no big deal...'
Interviewer: You consider Al-Azhar's response to ISIS to be very mild.
Islam Behery: Yes. I didn't notice such mild language when they talked about me, for example. I am much more dangerous than ISIS, as far as the Al-Azhar leaders are concerned.