No question, Egyptians are a pious people. They have been so since ancient times throughout their ancient belief in Amun-Ra deity for thousands of years BC, the Christian belief introduced to Egypt in the first AD century, and on to Islam which entered Egypt in the 7th century and eventually became the majority religion in some five to six centuries. The all-too-obvious fact, however, is that piousness taken to the extreme frequently metamorphoses into fanaticism which in turn incites attacks against other religions and violence against those who belong to them. This has been true in case of Egypt which, throughout its history, has witnessed discriminatory behaviour that sometimes escalated into violent attacks against the Copts. True, Copts have not always been the minority religious group, but they always belonged to a religion or sect that was different from that of the rulers of the country, hence the rampant oppression they sustained throughout their history.
The long introduction brings us to our modern times when sectarian conflict, specifically attacks against Copts, finds its way into the media and becomes a public opinion issue. The year 1981 saw an incident of horrendous violence against the Copts in the Cairo district of al-Zawya al-Hamra; 81 Copts were killed in what is considered to be one of the bloodiest incidents of violence against Christians in Egypt. Egyptians in their majority were horrified; the government and parliament reacted by enacting a law that incriminates disdain of religion.
Penalising liberals and Copts
Article 98 (w), which deals with disdain of religion, was added to the Penal Code in June 1981. The primary aim of this article is obvious in its wording: “Anyone who exploits religion to spread verbally, in writing, or in any other manner, extremist ideas that promote sedition or that disdain or hold in contempt any of the heavenly religions is punished by six months to five years in prison.” Article 98 (w) gained fame as the ‘disdain of religion law’.
Now this article is drawing heavy fire from rights activists
and from the Copts on whose account of the article was originally enacted. The reason is that, ever since the Arab Spring uprising in January 2011 and the consequent rise of Islamism, the disdain of religion law has been used to penalise those with liberal religious views such as the writer and poet Fatima Naoot and the Islamic thinker Islam Beheiri, [https://en.wataninet.com/culture_1/liberals-vs-disdain-law/15643/] and to punish Copts who dared sound any criticism of Islamic behaviour. [https://en.wataninet.com/coptic-affairs-coptic-affairs/sectarian/the-sword-of-damocles-that-hangs-over-copts/13547/] In many cases, it was used simply to settle accounts in personal disputes between Muslims and Copts; a Muslim could claim his Coptic adversary had uttered or posted on social media words offensive to Islam, and the claim would effectively bring about a case against the Copt and a harsh sentence. Statistically, Copts have been the majority victims of the disdain of religion law followed by liberal Muslims.
Critics of Article 98 (w) have branded it unconstitutional. A recent study by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) explains that the text lacks the constitutional standards of penal codes, and defines the offence too broadly and vaguely. It thus violates the lawfulness of crimination and punishment. It also curtails the freedoms of belief and expression.
Reword, amend or better still, annul
The criticism directed at the disdain of religion law reached a crescendo last April in the wake of prison sentences against Ms Naoot and Mr Beheiri, also against four Coptic teenagers from Minya. [https://en.wataninet.com/coptic-affairs-coptic-affairs/sectarian/disdain-of-islam-again-in-the-spotlight/15900/]
A very strong movement surfaced demanding annulment of the law or, at the very least, that it should be amended or reworded. Several MPs submitted proposals of drafts for an amended Article 98 (w) to the Legislative Committee in parliament.
Ihab al-Tamawi, coordinator of the legislative committee, told the media that the committee has ordered a legal study on the constitutionality of Article 98 (w), and a study on the historical context in which it was enacted.
Indeed Hamdy al-Assiuty, a lawyer at the Court of Appeal and author of the book Izdiraa’ al-Adyaan (Disdain of Religions) reminds that Article 98 (w) was enacted in 1982 in the wake of horrendous sectarian violence, at a time when lawmakers thought fit to criminalise the incitement of hatred between Christians and Muslims. Today however, he says, everyone should know that Articles 160 and 161 of the Penal Code stipulate penalties that are sufficiently harsh in case of disdain of religion.
Watani decided to sound a number of MPs and intellectuals on the issue.
MP Mona Mounir says she was among the MPs who sought to annul Article 98 (w). “It is unconstitutional in that it contradicts freedom of expression,” she says. “This law, for all the controversy around it, could not put an end to sectarian strife. The Egyptian Penal Code includes sufficient articles to cover all crimes, those relating to contempt of religion included, so there is no need for another law [the disdain of religion law] that has so far caused so much trouble.”
Appealing to religious bodies?
Predictably, Islamists are vehement in their demand to retain the law intact.
Ahmed al-Sherif, MP from the Islamist Salafi al-Nour Party, pronounced the party’s full approval of Article 98 (w). He said that its annulment would threaten national security because, in his opinion, this article preserves values in Egyptian society. “The government itself is against annulling this constitutional article,” he said.
MP Khaled al-Nashaar who is also assistant to the Justice Minister, denied that the ministry had issued any statement claiming the government rejected the annulment of Article 98 (w). “Quite the contrary,” he said, “the ministry does not object to the amendments in this regard proposed by a number of MPs.” However, Mr Nashaar said, the State is committed to guarding the sanctity of religious values. If there were no law against disdain of religion there would be no penalty against promotion of extremist thought and inciting hatred. This in itself is unconstitutional, he insisted.
“Owing to the heated arguments about the matter in parliament and in the media,” Mr Nashaar said, “it was decided to form a joint committee of members of the Justice Ministry’s legislation sector, MPs who demand annulling the law, and representatives of the Islamic al-Azhar institution and the Coptic Church. The committee should investigate the matter and come up with a resolution that would be constitutional and lawful.”
Hussein Abdel-Razeq, a member of the leftist al-Tagammu Party and of the national committee for media and journalist legislations, totally disagrees with the proposal of involving al-Azhar and the Coptic Church in discussions to amend or annul the article on religious disdain. Mr Abdel-Razeq says this would amount to conferring legislation on an authority not charged with it. “Only parliament has the exclusive authority to legislate,” he says.
Faiths equally respected
Mounir Megahed, Coordinator of the civil movement Egyptians Against Religious Discrimination, is all for annulling Article 98 (w) and amending other articles concerned with disdain of religion. “We have submitted to parliament proposals on that score but so far there has been no response.
“The Ministry of Justice,” Mr Megahed says, “has no right to reject annulling Article 98 (w). It is merely working for its own interest by attempting to retain a law which can come in handy once the Ministry wishes to incriminate opponents. We’ve seen this happen in case of intellectuals and Copts.”
“Practically,” Mr Megahed notes, “Article 98 (w) contradicts a number of articles concerned with freedoms in the Egyptian Constitution. As to al-Azhar and the Coptic Church, they should never be part of this political game.”
Saeed Abdel-Hafez, an activist and head of the dialogue forum for development and human rights, seconds Mr Megahed. “Neither Al-Azhar nor the Church are entitled to express their opinion on annulling or amending the article on disdaining religion,” he insists. “The House of Representatives should instead reword Article 98 (w) to cite a well-defined crime and an adequately specified penalty so as to guarantee equality among the members of all religions. It should ensure that the various faiths are equally respected, and secure that none should fall victim to violence on account of belief.”
No disrespect meant
For his part Abbas Shouman, deputy to al-Azhar’s Grand Imam says that proposals to amend the disdain law should be tackled by the scholars and experts.
Aamna Nosseir, professor of Islamic Philosophy at al-Azhar, says that Islam guarantees human rights over choice of religion. “Article 98 (w),” she says, “has bred unjust judicial rulings, such as in case of Islam Beheiry and Fatima Naoot,” Dr Nosseir says. “Why don’t we follow the modern discipline? Chasing intellectuals, in my opinion, represents a ‘heresy’; different viewpoints should not be faced with imprisoning and punishment. Rather they should be met with dialogue; differences among people is a Divine philosophy.”
Anba Lucas, Bishop of Abnoub, al-Fatteh, and New Assiut agrees with Dr Nosseir. He cautions, however, that Article 98 (w) has become a sensitive issue, and talk of its amendment or annulment is bound to ruffle a lot of feathers. “The best solution in my opinion,” Anba Lucas says, “is to amend it to clearly define the offence and the penalty. The intentional incitement of hatred and disdain of another religion would thus be easily defined, and the offender consequently meted the adequate punishment.
“This article was originally enacted to protect Copts,” he says, “but today it is used against them.
“Amending the law,” Anba Lucas stresses, “in no way means that we disrespect other religions. We rather wish to ensure it is not taken as a pretext to foment trouble.”
6 July 2016