Doha Al-Jazeera Satellite Channel in Arabic at 1830 gmt on 13 October carries a new episode of its daily "Behind the news" talk show, moderated by anchorman Muhammad Kurayshan. Today's episode hosts Majdi al-Daqqaq, chief editor of the Egyptian Al-Hilal magazine and member of the Education Secretariat in the Ruling National Party, via satellite from Cairo; and Muhammad Abd-al-Hakam Diyab, an Egyptian journalist and political writer, via satellite from London.
The subject of discussion is "the fatwa [religious edict] issued by Egyptian Al-Azhar University President Shaykh Sayyid Tantawi allowing the flogging of journalists publishing false news."
Kurayshan begins by noting that "in this episode, we will deal with the argument raised by a fatwa attributed to Al-Azhar University President Shaykh Sayyid Tantawi allowing the flogging of journalists publishing false news." The fatwa "came on the backdrop of the current controversy over the jailing of journali! sts on charges of circulating rumours about President Husni Mubarak's health condition," he says, adding that "in this episode, we will address the following two questions: What is the Al-Azhar University's position on the current argument over freedom of expression, and what are the religions and political limits in the work of the Al-Azhar University's president, in his capacity as the highest religion authority in Egypt?"
Kurayshan also says that "critics of Shaykh Tantawi view his fatwa as another arrow directed at journalism, which is waging a war with the authority for accusing journalists of circulating false rumours about President Mubarak's health condition," quoting Shaykh Tantawi as "denying that his fatwa targets journalists."
The TV introduces a video report on Shaykh Tantawi announcing that "what I have said is based on God's judgment of those defaming others," that "when I made the statement, I had no journalist, engineer, shaykh, or doctor in min! d," and that "I have just explained God's judgment of those making fal se accusations against others."
Kurayshan also says: "Responding to a question on whether his opinion allows the punishment of journalists on charges of publishing false news about the president's health condition, Shaykh Tantawi did not hesitate to confirm that such behaviour deserves punishment."
Shaykh Tantawi is seen confirming that "those circulating false rumours will be punished by God in life and in life hereafter."
Asked if the Al-Azhar University's president has entered a mine-planted area through his fatwa, Al-Daqqaq says that "the Al-Azhar University's president should not have engaged in a political battle already referred to court" and that "nobody has asked him to show his opinion about a political issue, although the university is respected by everybody in its capacity as a religious institution." Regrettably, "Shaykh Tantawi has opened the door for such fatwas," he says, wondering if Egypt's Coptic Pope Shinudah also has the right to interf! ere and tell us what the Bible says about journalists."
I believe that "men of religion should leave politics to politicians and leave press-related issues to the Journalists Union, to the Higher Press Council, and to journalists, who are capable of dealing with such matters." Al-Daqqaq also says that that "we do not need any Taleban-like solution" and that "we do not want to return to the Medieval ages in which flogging were used." Though we appreciate the Al-Azhar University's president, "we, nevertheless, would like to urge him to confirm his denial that has targeted journalists and not to issue fatwas that have nothing to do with medicine, science, journalism, or politics."
Asked to comment, Diyab says that "this is not the first time Shaykh Tantawi has done this and created problems for himself, for the Al-Azhar University, and for the political authority in Egypt," recalling how "the shaykh abused a correspondent of Al-Hayat newspaper." We still remember ! "his role in normalization [with Israel] and his position on the Iraqi resistance," he says, adding that "he has harmed himself; the political regime, which he tries to defend; Egypt; and Al-Azhar University, which has a considerable influence in the Islamic world." The shaykh "has harmed several parties in the past and is known for justifying his mistakes by committing more serious mistakes," he says, adding that "even though he has not mentioned journalism by name, he has targeted journalists in the midst of the current fierce anti-journalism campaign."
Kurayshan quotes Shaykh Tantawi as denying that he wants to get involved in the government's anti-journalism campaign.
In response, Al-Daqqaq says that "there is no government campaign against the Egyptian journalists, who are part of the state's institution despite some colleagues' mistakes, which can be dealt with by the law, the Journalists Union, and the Higher Press Council." At the same time, "I do not want the statement to be used to attack His Eminence Shaykh Tantawi, whom! we respect and appreciate," he says, adding that "we just ask him to stay away from political or legal disputes" and that "the Egyptian Government backs freedom of expression and does not favour flogging or imprisonment."
Kurayshan says that perhaps the government did not need Shaykh Tantawi's support, quoting Islamic writer Fahmi Huwaydi as saying that "Shaykh Tantawi should have kept silent" and that "more serious issues are facing the region."
In response, Diyab agrees that "there are more important issues in the region" and says that "before participating in this programme, an ulema at the Research Centre of Al-Azhar University told me that under Islam, flogging cannot be applied to the journalists in this case." He also says that "Shaykh Tantawi's willingness to appear supportive of the authority is behind the mistakes he makes from time to time."
Kurayshan says that "when Shaykh Tantawi was asked by a TV space channel yesterday why he does not talk ! about election rigging, corruption, and monopoly, he said that these a re major crimes, but that he would have expressed his position on them if he had been asked to."
Responding, Diyab says that "Al-Azhar University president often volunteers to comment on a host of issues."
Kurayshan notes: "This is not the first time Shaykh Tantawi has found himself in the midst of the storm. The Egyptian street in particular and the Arab street in general have witnessed similar controversial fatwas by Shaykh Tantawi, with some criticizing him for his selectivity and some others expressing their belief that Al-Azhar University should confine itself to religious issues."
TV correspondent Nabil al-Rihani adds that "in their march towards authority, Cairo rulers passed through the corridors of Al-Azhar University, one of the most important religious authorities in the Islamic world, to gain legitimacy." Sometimes, "university ulema criticize Shaykh Tantawi for trying to market certain government policies," he says, adding that "critics still r! emember Tantawi's meeting with Israeli rabbis as a serious normalization precedent, as well as his fatwas denying that Palestinian resistance men killed by Israelis cannot be considered martyrs." Moreover, the correspondent says, "Tantawi has urged Muslim women in France to remove their Islamic veils in accordance with the French Law."
Asked if the recent crisis shows the need to distance Al-Azhar University from the authority and politics, Al-Daqqaq says that "since its establishment, Al-Azhar University has been linked to the head of state," stressing the need "to keep the religious text away from politics and economics."
Asked if Egypt can be an exception at a time when the official religious institutions in most of the Arab countries justify the authorities' policies, Diyab says that "the religious authority in Egypt has given legitimacy to the successive Egyptian regimes" and that "the government's religious and civilian institutions are governed by the ove! rall policies of the state."
Asked if the problem is in the reli gious authority's interference in politics or in the nature of its position on "the ruling institution," Diyab says that "the problem is not in the nature of the religious authority's position on the ruling institution but in the policy of selectivity at the political, religious, and economic level." He also says that "religion is part of the overall system of government," that "the said selectivity is unacceptable," and that "the problem with the Al-Azhar University, its president, and some institutions is in their selectivity and partiality."
Asked how he views the relationship between the ruling institution and the journalists, Al-Daqqaq says that "the government has not asked the Al-Azhar University's president to issue such a fatwa," adding that "the relationship between the two will remain normal, especially since the fatwa does not target journalists." He says that "the problem can be solved through dialogue," expecting the government and the journalists "to rea! ch accord."
On whether the Al-Azhar University's president "has harmed the government by making such a statement," Al-Daqqaq says that "the university's president has corrected his mistake." The man is leading a respectable institution, he says, adding that "the government is not in need of any religious support" and that "the fatwa is not expected to affect the relationship between the government and the Egyptian journalists."
Source: Al-Jazeera TV, Doha, in Arabic 1830 gmt 13 Oct 07