‘Disdain of religion’ is not an affront that sprung overnight in Egypt. Even before it took on the ominous dimension of being legally incriminating, it was alive and kicking. The history of public figures and innovators accused of disdain of religion is a long one; following are just a few of the most memorable cases. One goes back to the first quarter of the last century, but the others are relatively recent cases.
In 1926 Youssef Wahbi (1900 – 1982), a great Egyptian actor and one among those who established the modern Egyptian theatre movement, considered playing the role of the Prophet Muhammad in a Turkish film production. Islamic scholars at al-Azhar, the topmost Sunni Islamic authority in the world with a history that goes back to the 10th century, strongly opposed the prospect. They issued a fatwa—Islamic legal opinion—banning the personification of the Prophet Muhammad on or off screen. King Fuad, King of Egypt, sent Wahbi a warning threatening to exile him and strip him of his Egyptian nationality if he decides to play that role.
In 1992, the writer and columnist Farag Foda (1945 – 1992) paid with his life for his liberal views. He was shot dead in front of his home in Cairo by members of al-Jamaa al-Islamiya, who admitted they had never read any of his works. The Jamaa had accused him of blasphemy. Foda had spent his life outspokenly criticising extremist thought. He called for a civic State in Egypt and for the separation of politics and religion. This brought about a harsh campaign against him by a number of al-Azhar clerics, as well as by Islamist groups who called for his assassination.
Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz (1911 – 2006) was an Egyptian novelist famous for vividly depicting Egyptian life. Yet he was accused of blasphemy on account of his novel Awlad Haretna, literally Children of our Alley, which was translated into English under the title Children of Gabalawi, the characters of which held strong parallels with those of Allah, Adam, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad and other Biblical and Qur’anic figures. The novel earned Mahfouz a condemnation in 1989 from Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman—who was also implicated in the 9/11 attack—and, in 1994, Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck outside his home by two Islamist extremists. Incidentally, they both said they had never read the novel but had acted upon Sheikh Abdel-Rahman’s fatwa. Mahfouz survived the attack but suffered to his last day from its consequences.
During the same year, Youssef Chahine’s film Al-Muhajir (The Emigrant) created much controversy. Chahine (1926 – 2008) was among the greatest and most innovative filmmakers in Egypt, with films that earned international awards. A case was filed against Chahine in 1994 charging him with contempt of Islam, the prophets and religions. The film was inspired by the character of Joseph son of Jacob, a character that figures in the Torah, the Bible and the Qur’an. As such, Muslim clerics said, Joseph should not have been personified in film. However, Chahine won the case.
In 1995, an al-Azhar Sharia Court declared the Qur’anic thinker Nasr Hamed Abu-Zeid (1943 – 2010) apostate for views which he spread through his project of humanistic Qur’anic hermeneutics. Abu-Zeid had argued that the Qur’an was a cultural product that could be interpreted in more than one way. For this the court ruled that he should divorce his Muslim wife since, as an apostate, he could not marry a Muslim woman. Abu-Zeid and his wife chose self-exile in the Netherlands.
In 2014 writer Karam Saber was sentenced to five years in prison for writing his collection of short stories Ayna Allah (Where is God). Saber was charged with contempt of religion and promoting atheism. He was sentenced to five years in prison by a primary court, but his case is under apppeal.
It is obvious that Fatima Naoot and Islam Beheiri are not the only figures today accused of disdain of religion. Many artists, writers, actors, singers and public figures are accused of blasphemy or disdain of religion, for expressing opinions that may challenge mainstream religious thought and beliefs and upset conservative Egyptians. Film director Inas al-Degheidy who is famous for her outspoken liberal views and works that tackle thorny social issues, was in 2015 publicly accused of blasphemy—but she was not taken to court. The reason was that she claimed she had had a dream of having a conversation with God, and that she told Him she was not convinced with all the teachings of the prophets.
3 February 2016