On freedom of thought and expression

10-05-2013 02:25 PM

Youssef Sidhom

In 2009, the Culture Ministry granted the State Appreciation Award in social sciences for 2008 jointly to Dr Hassan Hefni, Professor of Philosophy at Cairo University; and the writer

and researcher Sayed al-Qemani. The award came in recognition of the lifetime intellectual effort of each, which translated into invaluable works of research and writings. The move, however, earned the disapprobation of Islamists, who saw the works of Hefni and Qemani to be in defiance of Islam and disdainful of the Islamic faith. They filed a lawsuit with the Administrative Court, demanding that the Culture Minister’s decision to grant the awards to Hefni and Qemani should be revoked. 
After looking into the case and listening to the pleadings of both parties, the court ruled in July 2012 in favour of the Culture Minister’s decision.  The ruling declared that the decision was legally sound, and that the court found no evidence of the plaintiffs’ claim of the unworthiness of Dr Hefni and Mr Qemani of the State awards, “The case is not based on any legal backing and is thus rejected,” the ruling read.
I will here present the legal reasoning behind this ruling. I believe it should be properly publicised, since it constitutes an intellectual cornerstone that should act as a guide to the community. It also proves the grandeur of Egypt’s judiciary that is currently obliged to defend itself against the many blows directed at it by the Islamists.  Excerpts from the legal reasoning go as follows:
“Freedom is God’s gift to man. God created man free; and man is distinguished above all other creatures with freedom and intellect. Men and women think and plot in order to insightfully exercise this freedom. God sent His prophets and heavenly messages to free man from slavery to others, and from submission to anyone but God, in order for man to go back to being free as God originally intended. Freedom relates to mankind; it is a right that preceded the formation of the State as a legal entity. Human evolution necessitated the formulation of a constitution for every State, to outline the limitations of the relationship between citizens and the State, and among citizens themselves, to protect rights and freedoms.
“The Constitution cites the rights and freedoms guaranteed to every citizen. Among them is the freedom of opinion and the right of every individual to express this opinion and publicise it verbally, in writing, through images, or any other means of expression, as long as this is done within the context of the law. It is the State’s duty to provide citizens with the freedom of research, and artistic and cultural creativity, and to provide the necessary motivational means to ensure that. Constructive criticism and self-search are among the guarantees necessary for a sound national structure. Freedom of thought and opinion is void unless a person is able to express thought and opinion. Every thought or opinion unexpressed remains confined to its owner’s mind, and remains null for the rest of the community, void of any benefit or purpose. 
“The charges against both writers were based upon extracting clauses from their books and taking them out of context. It is common knowledge that carving a clause out of an original text misquotes it, misrepresents the purpose from it, and leads to a distorted understanding of the original. What was cited in this case is no more than a criticism of the opinions expressed by the two writers. Such criticism constitutes no valid reason to deprive them of the State Award.
“This court is absolutely confident that no creature on Earth has the right to inspect another’s faith, dig into his thoughts, or carve out from his talk anything that casts doubt on his faith or blames him for apostasy or perversion. Only God Almighty knows what is inside the conscience of every human being, and He alone is the just judge especially when it comes to faith and creed.
“Empowering the mind, planning, and thinking are among the ordinances of Islam. Islamic sharia ensures freedom of thought and expression. Every individual who possesses the ability to do research, think and be creative should work to empower his intellect and not refrain from expressing opinions and announcing the results of research and endeavours. He should not refrain from doing so out of fear of erring. The State should ensure that this can be done without fear or oppression. It should not limit its protection to opinions which conform with those of the majority in the community, but should extend its protection to cover opinions which might be rejected by the majority, because it is not right to confiscate thought and opinion that might later prove sound and correct. Every community that oppresses thought under the pretext of its being erroneous sets off against its own benefit, especially that owning to err is a means of reaching the truth. Science and thought only develop through journeying off the beaten track, not through repetition and imitation; through venturing on untravelled paths armed with the intellect bestowed upon us by God and unfettering it from artificial chains. The history of humanity has witnessed attempts at restricting opinion and thought, attempts in which free thinkers were chased, beaten, imprisoned, tried in court, or even killed. The whip and the sword were used to rein in free thought and opinion; but the whip and sword broke, the judge and swordsman died, and free thought and opinion remained immortal.”
Obviously, the legal reasoning behind rulings involves the most elevated of values used to delve into the conscience of the community to separate the wheat from the chaff. It would do us good to heed them.
WATANI International
12 May 2013
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