Since as far back as the 1980s, Egypt has had a law which criminalises the public contempt or disdain of religions when it leads to social unrest. Given that Egyptians are in the major part pious believers who do not take kindly to hearing their faith scorned, the disdain of religion has over time been an explosive issue that frequently leads to social unrest. Before the time of open skies and online social media, the disdain of other faiths brought on social conflict, but was mostly restricted to the locality where it took place. No surprise then that the law was not much of a menace, especially that the space for personal opinion regarding religion was much wider in the first six decades of the 20th century—the heyday of the Egyptian enlightenment movement—than it is today.
This is not to say that high profile criticism of Islam would not land one in trouble; one of Egypt’s most prominent enlightenment figures, Taha Hussein, was taken to court for his book Fil-Shier al-Jahili (On Pre-Islamic Poetry) which called into question the language of the Qur’an. Even though Hussein was acquitted of blasphemy charges, he republished his book with certain modifications. Many other writers faced the same fate; some writers’ careers came to a standstill on this account. Countless books were confiscated on grounds that they criticised Islam. [Watani International, 13 July 2012; http://en.wataninet.com/culture/a-tradition-of-chaining-thought/3547/]
Now the blasphemy law is coming under fire. Last month saw Egyptian courts issue various rulings that aroused heated controversy among the public and prompted a number of law experts, intellectuals, liberals, and rights activists to demand the annulment or amendment of the law.
The disdain snare
Public figures, namely TV anchor and Islamic researcher Islam Beheiri, and the writer and activist Fatima Naoot, as well as mainstream Egyptians were sentenced to prison in different blasphemy cases. Beheiri was handed a one-year prison sentence for questioning the credibility of some sources of the Prophet Muhammad’s sayings, sources widely accepted by Islamic scholars. Naoot was charged with disdain of religion on account of posts on her Facebook and Twitter accounts some 18 months ago, harshly criticising the tradition of slaughtering sheep or cows during the Grand Bayram.
Public figures are not the only ones who get caught in the ‘disdain of religion’ snare. In the village of Nassriya in Beni Mazar, Minya, four Coptic teenagers are being tried for playing a game in the village street poking fun at the Daesh practice of beheading Christians. A 26-year-old Coptic teacher, Gad Youssef, who saw them perform their satirical sketch criticising Daesh was sentenced to three years in prison for having captured footage of the satire on his mobile phone.
The online social media has been a lucrative medium for dragging individuals, especially Copts, into religious disdain cases once any of them expresses an opinion even remotely critical of anything Islamic. Worse, Copts have in several cases been trapped into online discussions and debates on religion with Muslims, following which they found themselves facing charges of disdain. Other Copts had to battle false charges of disdain brought against them by Muslims who wished to avenge themselves in personal disputes. Watani has covered countless such cases; the Coptic teacher Demiana Abdel-Nour of Luxor, the Assiut teenager Gamal Massoud, and the Sohag teacher Bishoi Kamil are but a few of the cases reported.
Ishaq Ibrahim, a researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), explains that most cases of contempt of religion are based on three articles of the Penal Law. Two of these articles, he said, do not explicitly mention ‘disdain’ but cite several practices that pertain to disdain of religion and undermine social peace. The result is that the law is vague, non-explicit, and rulings are thus left to the personal inclination of each judge. The recent cases against Beheiri and Naoot are based on opinions expressed in publishing. Even though the Constitution bans imprisonment in publishing cases, Mr Ibrahim says.
More serious than the targeting of writers and media professionals, Mr Ibrahim stresses, is the implication of mainstream civilians in religious disdain cases. Several cases which did not capture wide media coverage did not get fair trials, he says. For reasons such as the traditional conservatism of the rural communities from which the defendants often hail, lawyers are not given fair opportunity to defend the defendants. The EIPR lawyers for instance were verbally and physically assaulted during their recent defence of the four Beni Mazar teenagers, according to Mr Ibrahim.
Hafez Abu-Seada, head of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, says the term ‘disdain of religion’ needs to be clearly defined, especially to plainly determine the cases that warrant incrimination. Saeda insists that engaging ‘disdain of religion’ in the hisbah cases filed by anyone who sees creativity and personal opinion as an affront to heavenly religions, must stop. Hisbah is an Islamic doctrine which means accountability; it appoints people to carry out the responsibility of enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong according to Islamic sharia.
“Allah can defend His religion”
Amna Nosseir, Professor of Theology and Philosophy at al-Azhar University and MP in the newly elected House of Representatives, believes that Islam is safeguarded by Allah Himself. She describes disdaining religions as reckless behaviour.
“The term ‘disdain of religion’ is abstract,” Dr Nosseir says, explaining that talking about creed requires special language and scholarship. “Those who speak their minds concerning religious issues,” she says, “must abide by scientific approaches in doing so, especially during these intricate times that the Arab World is going through. The amendment of the Disdain of Religion Law will be my first task inside the House of Representatives,” Dr Nosseir promises.
Constitutional law expert Nour Farahat insists that the Penal Law must be reviewed and that the parts that go against the freedoms of opinion and expression stipulated by the Constitution should be annulled. Dr Farahat sees that the Prosecutor General, who represents the community, must stop the implementation of prison rulings in cases of contempt of religion until the Court of Appeals rules. He demands that the House of Representatives reviews the legal texts that concern disdain of religion, in order to “uphold the dignity and freedoms of Egyptians.”
Trading in religion
Commenting on the cases of the four Coptic teenagers and the Coptic teacher, their lawyer Maher Naguib says the charge of disdain of religion has become a rope that strangles Egyptians, especially Copts. “It is absurd and unimaginable that mere children who are not yet 15 be put behind bars, and for this law to continue to be used to terrorise Egyptians,” Naguib says.
During a phone call to the talk show Nazra, literally Glimpse, aired by the satellite channel Sadal-Balad, writer Khaled Montasser said that ‘trading in religion’ has become worse than trafficking arms, explaining that new Wahhabi supporters rally for their own benefits rather than those of Islam. “Religion is not fragile; it does not need us to defend it through cases of blasphemy,” he pointed out. He remarked that such cases are a novelty that was never there before. When Egyptians rebelled against the Muslim Brotherhood Arab Spring regime on 30 June 2013, Montasser reminded, this was not merely against the Muslim Brothers, but against the thought that backs them up. He ended his talk by addressing a message to President Sisi and the government, saying: “This is not what we agreed on [when we voted you in].”
It must be admitted, however, that President Sisi has been tirelessly campaigning for religious reform. Yet the real problem appears to be not about laws which can surely be changed, but about the conservative thought that lingers in the Egyptian society. On 30 June 2013, Egyptians in their millions voted with their feet against political Islam, but no one knows how long it would take for them to vote against conservative, fanatic Islamic thought.
3 February 2016