“We will imprison anyone who violates the law, be it even the Prophet [Muhammad].” The words were said by Egypt’s Justice Minister Ahmed al-Zind in reply to a question in a televised show on Friday 11 March, on whether journalists could be imprisoned. Even though he immediately said “May Allah forgive me” and the following day made a public apology in another talk show, he came under fire from a large number of Egyptians of various walks of life who used the social media to express their censure. The result was that Mr Zind was relieved of his post by Prime Minister Sherif Ismail on Sunday 13 March.
Mr Zind’s words and his dismissal engaged bloggers in Egypt in a near-war. Conservatives accused him of outright contempt of Islam. Those with more liberal views, however, saw the harsh criticism directed at him as uncalled for, since it was obvious his claim to “imprison the Prophet” was a mere figure of speech meant to say that no one was above the law. “It’s absurd to accuse him of contempt of religion,” posted Bassant Muhammad, a Faculty of Science graduate.” The media took the words out of context, and exaggerated the matter out of all proportion. Does Facebook govern the State?
“In civilised countries,” Muhammad said, “The Big Boom and Evolution, theories that practically put God behind their backs, are endorsed and taught in scientific curricula. The perpetrators of theses theories are not accused of contempt of religion. We should learn to make the separation between religion and politics. A person’s relation with his or her God concerns no one but that person.”
For Dr Zeinal-Abideen, professor of law at the Police Academy, the decision to dismiss Mr Zind was a correct one. “Someone in a position of responsibility is a role model,” he wrote. “No slip of tongue is permissible, no matter how he much he apologises. The Egyptian people don’t accept any contempt of religion; others have been accused of that and have been imprisoned.
“In case of Mr Zind, however, Egyptian law stipulates that criminal action against a judge can only be taken upon approval by the Supreme Council of the Judiciary.”
Dose of his own medicine
Many indeed, especially Copts, saw the Zind predicament as ‘a member of the judiciary taking a dose of his own medicine’. They recalled the recent court ruling to imprison four Coptic teenagers in the Upper Egyptian region of Minya for contempt of Islam, as well as many other such cases, and stressed the parallel with Mr Zind’s dilemma. But others thought this was being foolish; “two wrongs don’t make one right” was a common comment on Facebook.
“The problem,” said Samy Samir, a young journalist, “is that instead of doing away with the law of contempt of religion, we are institutionalising the charge. This is very serious and takes us into uncharted waters we are ill-equipped to brave.”
Another journalist, Watani’s Nader Shukry, commented: “Do those who accuse others of contempt of religion believe they are defending God? Is God incapable of defending Himself? How many victims have to fall before we realise that such a charge is trivial and unjust?”
On the talk show he presents, veteran journalist Ibrahim EIssa echoed what many others felt when he listed the long list of positive achievements of Mr Zind, then asked: “Does all this amount to no more than ‘zero’ before one figure of speech he used to make a point, and for which he was accused of contempt of Islam?”
Punished this way
Mr Zind is known to have been publicly critical of Islamist movements, and was also a staunch defender of a strong, independent judiciary.
The Judges’ Club, Egypt’s equivalent of a syndicate for the judges, issued a statement opposing Mr Zind’s removal over “a slip of the tongue”.
“Egypt’s judges are sorry that someone who defended Egypt and its people, judiciary and nation in the face of the terrorist organisation that wanted to bring it down should be punished in this way,” said Abdallah Fathi, head of the Judge’s Club.
14 March 2016