Freedom of expression firmly upheld

26-04-2013 07:13 PM

Youssef Sidhom

It is a fact on the grounds that, ever since the 25 January 2011 Revolution, the rising sway of the Islamist tide coupled by an upsurge in religiosity has led the Islamists to take to account whoever they perceived to be an ‘enemy of Islam’. In a court case which absorbed the Egyptian public for several weeks and which provoked an outcry by rights activists and advocates of freedom of expression, several top figures in filmmaking and screenplay writing—major among whom was the renown comedian Adel Imam—were charged with derision of Islam. The prosecution charged the defendants with “offending Islam and Muslims; and exploiting Islam in their works to promote extremist thought that aims to incite sedition and intentionally deride Islam in general, and Islamic groups in specific. Such deeds work to harm national unity.”
The Agouza District Court dismissed both the civic and criminal charges, basing on a lack of the elements of crime. The public heaved a sigh of relief and heartily cheered the superstar Imam. He was celebrated, together with the others who were acquitted, not because there had been doubts about their acquittal, but for the defeat of radical extremist thought and attempts to fetter creativity and freedom of expression.
I am here printing excerpts of the legal reasoning behind the ruling to acquit Imam and his co-defendants, since it was not publicised by the media, even though it cites the significant concepts upon which the ruling was based.
•    It does no harm to the ruler, while in the process of establishing a general framework for public order, that some individual’s beliefs should contradict those of the jamaa—‘group’—or the mainstream religion. He should be more concerned with defusing crises and preventing clashes between the different factions among the same people, since such conflict can potentially lead to serious sectarian strife. As for the individual freedom of expression of belief, it is not punishable by law, unless when essential for maintaining public peace.
•    The extensive measure termed “extremist thought” specifies no boundary or limit on what is or is not extremist, and threatens the legal system to end up as an Inquisition. It opens the door for inspecting thoughts, then creeds, then commandeering both under the pretext of battling heresy, apostasy and atheism. It takes the entire community back to the dark ages and the hegemony of one religious [Islamic] stream, and aborts all attempts for the evolution of religious address. On the ground, it would lead to empowering one particular group that exclusively claims the prerogative of understanding, explaining, interpreting, and transporting the word of God. And even though the others in the community spare no effort at ijtihad, the endeavour to interpret and live by the word of God, none other than the “pure of conscience and faithful at endeavour” would posses the privilege to what is right or the censure of what is wrong.
•    Freedom of expression is guaranteed. Every individual has the right to express opinion and publicise it verbally, in writing, through images, or any means of expression, within the limits of the law and the standards for constructive criticism or self-criticism, in order to preserve the national build. Protecting religions does not mean exempting thoughts and creeds from discussion. Nor does it imply shielding sentiments which are normally ruffled by attempts to meddle with cultural, and especially religious, constants. Such shielding would contradict with the very foundations of religions which invited people to think and challenge beliefs that were rooted when the new religions were introduced. The legally stipulated protection is thus not for thoughts, since thought can only be refuted by thought, argument by counter argument, and there is no compulsion in religion. Protection is stipulated to defend unity and avoid sedition, and to secure the freedom to practise religious rites. Only pluralism and freedom of thought can ensure the safety of the society; and diversity enriches the community. Legal immunity does not render religious thought immune to discussion, it renders religion immune to efforts to exploit it for special interests.  The judgment here depends on intent; if the intent is to discuss and criticise [religious] thought, the act is not criminal even if performed with an approach that is cutting and, naturally, hurtful to those who hold that religion dear to their hearts; the criticism of religious thought may even rise to the level of contempt or derision, but is not criminal. Any attempt by the State or any special group to fuse the people into a single ideological, spiritual or political mould is futile; it is like ploughing the sea.
•    Criticism of an intellectual religious stream is not criminal, even given that Islamic sharia includes a penalty for those who consciously choose to renege on Islam—ridda—and the Holy Quran cites it as a crime that warrants the most severe penalty. But this pertains to the after-life; no worldly punishment was specified.
•    Historians and scientists agree that freedom of expression and the frequent scientific debate between scholars were among the factors of the evolution of Islamic jurisprudence. Criticism, conflict and competition are the basis of any evolution, and freedom is the foundation of any creativity.
•    While moderate sheikhs see that Islam is not against fine arts and literature, many of the [Islamists] jamaa youth tend to criminalise singing, plastic arts, music, and theatre; and insist on appointing themselves guards and defenders of Islam. Even if the arts supposedly contradict their interpretation of Islam, does this mean that religion is confined to their own understanding and interpretation? Religion and creeds are engrained in the Egyptian psyche, and the piousness of the people is firmer than to be shaken by a work of art. Since the right to preach religion is granted, the unfettered right to preach religious reform should also follow. Freedom of opinion, creativity and scientific thought were behind the flourishing of both the Islamic community and jurisprudence; which calls for placing tight restrictions on any acts that work to limit these freedoms, since such limitations can curb the progress of any community.
This legal reasoning came in a booklet of more than 25-pages that I would have published in its entirety had I had the adequate space. It is a work of epic legal, literary, religious, and national proportions that delves into the history and conscience of this nation to reveal the best of it and remove the blindfold that is being used to obscure Egyptian constants, moderation, and faith in justice. A word of special thanks is due to our magnificent judiciary.

WATANI International
28 April 2013

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