TV presenter Islam El-Behiry’s programme was suspended last week, following the filing of two lawsuits against the programme, one of which charged him with “contempt of religion”.
The programme, broadcast on Al-Qahera Wal Nas satellite channel, and hosted by El-Behiry for two years, has received much criticism by conservative preachers and clerics at government-run institution Al-Azhar, and the Ministry of Religious Endowments.
The channel issued a statement stating it cancelled the show out of “favouring the interest of the homeland … responding to the call of Al–Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed Al–Tayeb to remain reasonable while discussing religion”. The pro-state channel asserted that it does not encourage “debates or even programmes that create division among Muslims”.
It added: “We should let ‘enlightened’ religious preachers handle the task of renewing religious discourse.”
Since the beginning of the year, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has been calling upon Egypt’s Islamic institutions, including Al-Azhar, the Ministry of Religious Endowments, and Dar Al-Iftaa, to “renew religious discourse”.
The president emphasised the importance of “correcting religious speech so that it is in accordance with the tolerant Islamic teachings”. It should also “eliminate sectarian disputes and confront extremism and militancy”.
El-Behiry started his programme with harsh criticism of statements by prominent Salafi preachers, as well as questioning the validity of traditional interpretations of the Quran and some schools of Islamic jurisprudence.
Some Islamic schools of thought questioned by El-Behiry are argued to be manifestos for militant Islamists, which preach a strict understanding of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammed.
However, the programme’s suspension came after several warnings by Al-Azhar and a number of media officials.
El-Behiry and his programme are also facing prosecution in court. The first lawsuit, issued by an independent lawyer, demanded the channel’s closure and the removal of the episodes from the internet, on accusations of “insulting the divine”.
The second lawsuit was issued by Al–Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed Al–Tayeb, accusing El-Behiry of “insulting Al-Azhar”, and basing the case on the seventh article in the Egyptian constitution.
The article entails that “Al-Azhar is an independent Islamic scientific institution”, and the main source in religious and Islamic affairs.
Diplomatically, Al-Azhar has been propagated by Egyptian officials as the vanguard responsible for countering the “extremist” ideas of “Islamic State” (IS).