Zagazig University administration took the decision to suspend Maher al-Maghraby, a professor of neuropsychiatry at its Faculty of Medicine, for three months, banned him from campus and referred him to a disciplinary committee for comments considered insulting to Islam, allegedly posted on his personal Facebook page.
The Sunday decision, announced by the University President Dr. Khaled Abdel Bary, included withholding a quarter of Maghraby’s salary, a move being reviewed by the disciplinary committee.
According to a statement issued by Dr. Atef Bahrawy, dean of medicine at Zagazig University, the college administration condemned the posts published by Maghraby, which he describes as “offensive to Islam,” and then decided to take legal action “in view of the seriousness of these posts, which provoked condemnation from all members of the faculty.”
In statements to Mada Masr, Maghraby denied writing the posts attributed to him, claiming that his personal page had been hacked, and that he was unable to take action against it because of his limited knowledge of social networking sites. “I created an account on Facebook in 2014, but I rarely use it because of my limited familiarity with it. When I heard about the posts, I sought help from someone who knew more about the internet, and asked him to deactivate the account and delete them.”
Maghraby expressed his disapproval of the haste with which the university administration decided to refer him to a disciplinary committee without asking him to clarify his position, adding that he will begin communicating with the administration to clear up the matter: “I am now at the college, where the department council will hold an emergency meeting to look into the matter, and I will explain my situation,” he said.
Neither Abdel Bary nor Bahrawy were available to respond to Mada Masr’s questions, although Bahrawy told the privately owned Youm7 newspaper on Tuesday that he “had referred the professor for interrogation immediately regarding the posts that defame God and the Islamic religion, to make sure whether those posts belong to him.”
Facebook users circulated screenshots of a post attributed to Maghraby, which states: “Someone asked me, while crying because of the assault on Al-Aqsa Mosque, why God hadn’t sent the birds of Ababil [divine intervention] to destroy Israel. So I rebuked him.” The post ended with “An atheist questioning the ability of God.”
Mohab Saeed, a lawyer at the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression, told Mada Masr that the law organizing university affairs does not include penalties for opinions expressed by faculty or students. “The law includes penalties for disrespecting university traditions, for students harming the reputation of university professors, all of which are very vague. But there are no penalties for expressing opinions either online or even in classrooms; a right guaranteed by international treaties,” he said.
Saeed added that interrogating people accused of insulting religion can only be done by the prosecution, not by university bodies.
Earlier in August the management of the bakery chain La Poire is reported to have suspended two of its workers, taking administrative action against them and reporting the incident to state security.
Screenshots of their conversation were posted by a person identified as Wael Mansour, who allegedly hacked into one of their accounts. Their personal conversations were said to contain “proof” that they were both atheists.
Mohamed Nagy, a researcher at the academic freedom program at the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression, told Mada Masr that he believes Egyptian universities have started acting like “inquisition tribunals,” used to persecute faculty members and students for personal opinions.
He recalled an incident which occurred in April earlier this year, when Dr. Mona Prince, a professor of English literature at Suez Canal University, was referred to a disciplinary committee for posting a video on Facebook of her dancing on the roof of her house. Nagy added: “The investigation looked at posts on Prince’s personal Facebook page, which the university’s investigative committee claimed were insulting to Islam and glorifyied Satan.”
According to Nagy, “Facebook is gradually turning into a tool which universities use to monitor their faculty members and students, increasingly being used in investigations of those who express their political views or criticize their university’s administration.”
The researcher believes that the referral of Maghraby to a disciplinary investigation constitutes a violation of the right to the freedom of expression and belief, which is granted by the constitution and encompasses “not only the right to adhere to any religious belief, but also the right to publicly express one’s opinion without persecution or punishment.”
In a similar incident last November, Al-Azhar University suspended Dr. Yusri Gaafar, a professor of religion and philosophy, for three months on the back of an internal investigation, accusing him of promoting atheism and secularism.
In earlier statements to Mada Masr, Gaafar said that the investigation was based on a complaint filed against him by a student who accused him of promoting atheism and secularism, asserting that his ideas were “a malignant growth that needs to be removed,” which Gaafar considered to be a clear and personal threat against him. He added: “I had hoped that the university would support me against such accusations. However, for the first time, action was taken against me. The university suspended me in contravention of the law, and without pay.”
Gaafar said: “I am a professor of Islamic philosophy, and as such, I teach and discuss ideas while putting forth and debating divergent opinions. This involves critiquing and refuting ideas. So how is it that a professor from Al-Azhar is accused of atheism?”
The past few years have seen an increase in the prosecution of citizens for defamation of religion, the most prominent of which was the sentencing of writer Fatima Naoot to three years in prison after her criticism of the Eid al-Adha slaughtering sacrifices in January 2016, and the case against Islam al-Beheiry, who was sentenced after his controversial doctrinal views provoked Al-Azhar, which criticized his view and filed a lawsuit against him accusing him of insulting Islamic religion and the followers of the prophet.
Translated by Aida Seif al-Dawla