Problems on hold
In its current issue, Watani carries a long overdue confrontation of the issue of contempt of religion. The issue has gained ominous proportions lately with recent court rulings against intellectuals and writers. Many in Egypt see these rulings as going against the freedoms stipulated by the Constitution, specifically the freedom of thought which the Constitution guards against legal pursuit or incrimination.
A widespread notion prevails that legislation which incriminates ‘contempt of religion’ is a novelty. This is a misconception, since such legislation goes back to the 1970s, the years when Anwar al-Sadat was President of Egypt. At the time, members of the then powerful al-Jamaa al-Islamiya took to publicly disdaining Christianity and vocally mocking and deriding the Christian faith through their mosque microphones. The Contempt of Religion law was born to counter this practice.
But the law which was originally enacted to restrain the slander of any religion and thereby maintain social peace was not applied to achieve that end. Instead, it was turned into a weapon against anyone who dared discuss any issue remotely related to Islam or Muslims. Accordingly, one intellectual after another fell prey to it, whereas Christianity remained an easy target for those who felt like assaulting or deriding it, defaming it or accusing it of apostasy.
It has become a custom of ours in Egypt to direct public furore against the judiciary whenever we disagree with a court ruling. Let me, however, stress that Egyptian judiciary is in no way to blame for the recent court rulings on contempt of religion cases; these rulings were but an application of the law. So the real challenge is for the House of Representatives to take on the responsibility of reviewing the law, either annulling it or amending it to meet the requirements of the Constitution, so that it does not trespass on the freedom of thought, opinion, or expression. The articles of the law should allow well-defined differentiation between endeavours at religious reform and evolution, and calls for hatred and allegations of infidelity. Then again, the articles of the law must clearly define the entities or individuals entitled to file cases of religion contempt, in order to block the way before those who exploit such cases to terrorise intellect and confiscate freedoms.
The Contempt of Religion law will be among the early tests for the House of Representatives, the first elected parliament following the 30 June 2013 Revolution in which Egyptians in their millions succeeded in ridding Egypt of the post-Arab Spring political Islam. If we are serious about building a modern democratic civic Egypt, we must focus not only on the political, economic or social aspects, but on enlightenment too. We must uphold the rights of free thought and creativity, as well as the freedoms of endeavour and evolution. We must also safeguard them against the backwards practice of mixing them with religion, a practice which only ends up chaining the mind and terrorising thought. In other words, this is a crucial test to separate religion from State. This is no rejection of religion and no attempt to drive Egyptians away from it. Quite the contrary, the intention is to ensure religion’s veneration while at the same time to unfetter thought. Traditions, formalities, and social practices may all be freely analysed and given space to evolve. Faith remains constant and immune, but related matters continue to evolve to answer the needs of humans in line with the change in times.
If the House of Representatives succeeds in annulling or rewriting the Contempt of Religion law, it would be taking a substantial step towards moving Egypt from radicalism to a future based on modernisation, knowledge, and enlightenment. Will the House of Representatives do it?
14 February 2016