Lecturer probed over alleged defamation of top clerics

An Egyptian state-run university last week suspended a lecturer before instituting an internal inquiry into comments he wrote in a book which allegedly insult prominent Muslim clerics.

President of the Damanhour University in Egypt’s Nile Delta, Obeid Saleh, ordered the inquiry into the writings of Ahmed Rashwan, a history lecturer at the institution’s Teachers' School, who allegedly branded influential clerics Metwaly el-Sharawy and Amr Khaled as charlatans.

Both clergymen have a wide following in predominantly Muslim Egypt.

“The university will not be a forum for political or ideological conflicts,” said Saleh. “We respect Sheikh el-Sharawy, being one of the most prominent symbols of Islam in Egypt and the Arab world,” Saleh added in a press statement.

El-Sharawy, who died in 1998, was an ex-minister of religious affairs. He built a wide fame through mosque sermons also aired on Egyptian state television.

Egyptian media reported that in his book Studies in Modern Arab History Rashwan accuses the government of the now-toppled president Hosni Mubarak of promoting “religious mania” and political Islamism at the hands of theologians including el-Sharawy and Khaled.

Mubarak, who ruled Egypt for nearly 30 years, was deposed in a 2011 popular uprising.

Khaled (50) is a self-styled Islamist reformist and a TV preacher.

Rashwan accused unnamed people of seeking to harm his public image. “There are hidden hands behind stirring this uproar in a character assassination attempt against me,” he told private newspaper Al Youm Al Saba.

“My book includes a chapter tackling the rise of political Islamism that leads to radicalism and terrorism. Some sentences have been arbitrarily taken out of their context in order to create sedition on the campus,” he added without elaborating.

The lecturer said he did not mean to insult the popular clerics.

“How can I insult Sheikh el-Sharawy; I am one of his devotees,” Rashwan said.

No specific date has been set for his inquiry before an academic committee.

The purported defamation has triggered online condemnations and angered some Egyptian lawmakers. One of them is Omar Hamrush, who heads the parliament’s religious committee.

“This is a disgraceful incident. Criticism is one thing and defamation of religious and national figures is another,” Hamrush said. “Sheikh el-Sharawy is one of the most important Islamic symbols in the modern history.”

The lawmaker said he would present a draft bill to the legislature to criminalise what he termed insults to religious and national personalities.

Hamrush urged the higher education minister, who is in charge of Egypt’s academic institutions, to set up an academic committee to revise university books to protect students “from bizarre and radical ideas”.

There was no immediate comment from the minister.