Among the many battlegrounds between liberal and conservative visions for Egypt is the blasphemy law, with Islam al-Beheiry and Fatima Naoot its latest victims.
Naoot was recently sentenced to three years and fined 20,000 Egyptian pounds ($2,500) for statements critical of the Eid al-Adha ritual of slaughtering animals. Beheiry’s very public spat with Al-Azhar, meanwhile, concerns the right of the citizen to question, research, and promulgate revisionist interpretations of Islamic heritage.
That his one year prison sentence for contempt of religion followed an acquittal from another court on similar charges reveals a society and judiciary not yet settled on the proper balance between freedom of belief and expression and the protection of religion, both demanded by the nation’s constitution.
Public figures criticized both the Beheiry and Naoot verdicts. In Beheiry’s case, one prominent politician penned an op-ed in the national daily, Al-Ahram, calling the blasphemy law “disgraceful to Egypt.” Many have expressed alarm over what appears to be a recent increase in formal accusations. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) noted in a 2014 report that blasphemy cases increased from three in 2011 to 13 in 2013, averaging about one per month since the revolution. EIPR lead researcher Ishak Ibrahim told EgyptSource that another 17 cases were filed last year.
While local and international rights groups have called for the law to be amended or repealed, Ibrahim favors the strategy of referring a case to the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC). He fears that kind of legislative push might backfire and result in an increase in punishments. There is greater hope, he thinks, that the SCC might rule the blasphemy law to be unconstitutional. This would be on the basis of Articles 64 and 65, which to Ibrahim are clear. They state that freedom of belief is “absolute” and freedom of thought and opinion is “guaranteed,” inclusive of the right to express and publish.
But in an interview with EgyptSource one of Egypt’s senior judges described his understanding of the legal context of blasphemy law, more formally known as contempt of religions. He requested anonymity due to the fact that Beheiry’s file is still working its way through the judicial system, and made clear his comments do not refer to any specific case. In principle, he believes the law in current form to be just and in accordance with the constitution.
The SCC, he said, has already settled the issue. Case 44 of 1988 on the organization of political parties confirmed that “freedom of expression is a fundamental right, inherent in the very nature of a democratic regime and essential to the free formation of the public will.” Meanwhile, Case 8 of 1996, which addressed the question of wearing the veil in schools, described the relation of the right of expression to religious belief. “Freedom of belief, in principle, means for the individual not to be forced to adopt a belief he does not believe in,” the judge related from the court brief. But it also prohibited one “to side with one belief in a manner that would be prejudicial to another by denying, belittling, or ridiculing it.”
According to Khaled Hassan, a liberal Muslim researcher with the Center for Arab-West Understanding, this what Beheiry has done. It is not the content of his argument that is inappropriate, but the presentation. Beheiry’s style on television, he says, is provocative, on occasion offensive, and belittles the belief of millions of Muslims.
EIPR’s Ibrahim explains thatin the court verdict that saw Beheiry sentenced, he was found guilty of “insulting Islamic sanctities, the Sunnah, and the four imams [referring to the founders of the four principle Islamic schools of jurisprudence], considered a tearing down of the constants of Islam.” But the judge who acquitted Beheiry, Ibrahim related, ruled that nothing he said was in violation of the law. The case demonstrates that determining the boundaries of ridicule is left in the hands of the individual judge, who issues a verdict according to his own judgement.
Lawyer Hamdy al-Assyouti has defended many accused on a pro bono basis, and is the author of Blasphemy in Egypt which details 23 cases. He told EgyptSource that he tries to keep the judge’s focus on the law, not religion. Too often, he said, either mob pressure or a judge’s personal conservatism will cause him to ignore legitimate reasons to dismiss a case.
Beheiry was prosecuted on the basis of Article 98(f) of the Penal Code, passed in 1981 following sectarian riots in the Cairo neighborhood of al-Zawiya al-Hamra. Originally meant for protection against sectarian violence, it has become a tool exploited for oppression, Assyouti said. But this article, the judge explained, is not in the blasphemy section at all. Rather, it is included under the section dealing with crimes against the state. The text of the law designates a fine or jail term “against any person who exploits religion to propagate … extremist thoughts with intent to enflame civil strife, defame or show contempt for a revealed religion … or harm national unity.” In the judge’s opinion it only applies when one intends to cause disorder in society.
The formal contempt of religion laws are Articles 160 and 161, which prohibit the disturbance of religious rituals, printing and publishing distorted religious texts, and the public mocking of religious ceremonies. These, along with Article 98(f), do allow prosecution against those who attack religion, such as Abu Islam who was sentenced to five years in prison, after appeal, for tearing a copy of the Bible while protesting the anti-Islam film, The Innocence of Muslims. The judge believes a “sarcastic manner” that attacks the “core of religious belief” is necessary to establish guilt. This, he says, is required to protect society from instability, especially societies like Egypt which show great respect toward religion. He quoted former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, saying, “Freedom of speech is not a license. It does entail exercising responsibility and judgment.”
But he is clear this does not represent a curb on freedom of expression. “The mere propagation of non-belief in the revealed religions or of Islam,” he told EgyptSource, “does not in itself violate the provision of the Penal Code.”
For this reason there is no need to change the legislation, he believes, and in any case such efforts will not be successful. He explained that the legal process is long, involving review by the Ministry of Justice, the State Council, and the High Committee for Legal Reform, and in this case likely also Al-Azhar, which he expects will never accept diminishing the protection of religion. Legislation must also reflect social realities, he added, as necessary public dialogue would reveal non-acceptance by the great majority of a religious society.
So despite the controversies—and perhaps injustices—witnessed in recent cases, the judge’s opinion is firm. “The blasphemy law will never change,” he said. “It secures the faith of Egyptians and is not in conflict with the constitution.” Meanwhile in defense of individuals like Beheiry, Naoot, and many others, activists labor on, fully aware of all the challenges. “I believe in the freedom of belief,” said Assyouti. “But in the climate we are living in, expanding this freedom will be very difficult.”
Please click here for my earlier article that provides an alternate take on the blasphemy law.
Egypt’s Secular Party has called on President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to support legislation which cancels the blasphemy law, because, in the words of lawyer Hamdi al-Assyouti, it has “become a tool in the hands of extremists against minorities, thinkers, and the creative impulse”. And, in his experience as a defence lawyer, 90% of charges are filed against Christians. The first session of Egypt’s new parliament is due to open on 10 January.
“There has been a case each month,” he said at the launch of his new book, Blasphemy in Egypt. “If I have gotten any detail wrong, let me be judged accordingly, but everything is taken from judicial rulings.”
The research confirms the Egyptian lawyer’s claim. World Watch Monitor readers might have read the cases of Gamal Abdou, Gad Younan, and Bishoy Garas, each a Christian who has been tried for insulting Islam. But Muslims who question traditional interpretations of Islam are also targeted, as seen in the recent one-year prison sentence given to Islam al-Beheiry.
According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), alleged blasphemy cases increased from three in 2011 to 12 in 2012. Thirteen cases were recorded in 2013, and of 42 defendants during that time, 27 were convicted. EIPR lead researcher Ishak Ibrahim told World Watch Monitor that 17 new cases were filed in 2015.
Assyouti’s book, which he believes is the first Arabic language book of its kind to be published in Egypt, details 23 cases. But in only two cases did he say the defendants expressed actual contempt for Islam. Oftentimes social media postings provided an excuse for extremists to file charges against local Christians. Then either mob pressure in court, or a judge’s own religious conservatism, resulted in a guilty verdict.
“I try to turn the judge’s focus from religion to the law,” Assyouti told World Watch Monitor, “or else he will bypass legitimate reasons to dismiss the case.”
Law 98(f) of the penal code, he said, was originally passed by parliament in 1981 following deadly riots between Muslims and Christians at al-Zawiya al-Hamra in Cairo. The text of the law designates a fine or jail term “against any person who exploits religion to propagate … extremist thoughts with intent to inflame civil strife, defame or show contempt for a revealed religion … or harm national unity”.
But since then, he said, “it has reversed application and become a tool in the hands of extremists against minorities, thinkers, and the creative impulse”.
Articles 64 and 65 of the constitution declare freedom of belief to be “absolute” and freedom of thought and opinion to be “guaranteed”, inclusive of the right to express and publish. In their legal representation, both Assyouti and EIPR’s Ibrahim aim to convince a judge to refer a blasphemy case to the Supreme Constitutional Court.
But because of the difficulty in persuading a judge to do so, some rights advocates argue for a change in the law itself, if not its outright cancellation. In advance of the first session of Egypt’s new parliament, the Secular Party called on President Sisi to support such legislation.
Assyouti expressed hope his book might result in the issue being tackled in parliament, but gradually: first the law should be amended to lessen the penalties, and only thereafter should cancellation be discussed. “Otherwise it will shock the population,” he said. “Even those who are not overly religious will cling to their religion during a controversy.”
But Ibrahim was cautious, wishing to focus on freedom of expression in general, with blasphemy included under the umbrella. “If we request this article be cancelled, it will result in an increase of the punishment,” he said, fearing a reversal. “No parliamentarians have the courage to raise this issue in parliament.”
Perhaps Anwar Esmat al-Sadat, nephew of the late president, will prove him wrong. Last year, during an open session in the upscale Cairo suburb of Maadi, he spoke boldly to the gathered assembly of foreigners and upper-class Egyptians.
“We are not in agreement with the blasphemy law,” said the president of the Reform and Development Party, recently elected from his district of Menoufiya in the Nile Delta. “Everyone has the right of expression, but it has to be organised. We will work on these laws in the coming parliament.”
But will he? Mahmoud Farouk, head of one of Egypt’s leading liberal lobby groups, is doubtful the new parliament will take on the challenge. His Egyptian Centre for Public Policy Studies advocates not only to cancel Article 98(f), but also to remove the religion marker from national ID cards.
In 2014, Farouk presented his centre’s paper on freedom of belief to most of Egypt’s leading political parties. At the time he estimated that 30 per cent of party members believe in cancelling the blasphemy law. But in a follow-up conversation with World Watch Monitor, he said he thought only five per cent of the elected parliament would be brave enough to speak on this issue.
The problem lies in his estimate of only 10 per cent of the population being in favour of such a change. To spread the message, he invited Paul Marshall, author of Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide, to a public lecture, and promoted the Arabic version of his book online. But similar translation efforts, such as Brian Whitaker’s Arabs without God, can reach only a limited segment of Egypt’s population.
For this reason, Farouk wants to lobby directly, but quietly. Of the major political parties, he sees the Free Egyptians Party (FEP) as one of the few ideologically inclined to support changes to the blasphemy law. Osama al-Ghazali Harb, one of their leading figures, who only recently resigned, penned an article in Egypt’s largest daily calling the law a “disgrace”. But though the FEP is the largest party in parliament, with 65 seats, they are dwarfed by the non-ideological independents that make up just over half of the 596-member body.
But even among these, Farouk sees possibility. Given the current depoliticised playing field, many might not actively stand in the way of greater religious freedom if it does not cost them.
“The majority of people are not politically aware,” he said, “and if the atmosphere is right, legal reforms can be enacted without causing offense.”
Given President Sisi’s many statements about the need to reform religious discourse, rights advocates wonder if the atmosphere has ever been better. Farouk said the issue must be kept before parliamentarians in committee, urging them to take a stand, but like William Wilberforce, who won his fight against slavery in the early 1800s by slowly cobbling together a coalition, Farouk knows the challenges ahead.
“We have to find people who will work with us while keeping good relationships with the parties and their leaders,” he said.
“But to change the climate of ideas in Egypt, we need a politician who will stand and lead the charge, and right now we don’t have him.”
Until one emerges, Farouk, Ibrahim, and Assyouti labour on through each challenge. Even Blasphemy in Egypt has to fight to win a hearing, having been apparentlysubjected to an informal ban. Nevertheless, its back cover makes clear the stakes: Freedom of religion and belief is the first freedom, from which every other freedom emanates – speech, assembly, press, and the supreme right to life.
Please click here for my later article that provides an alternate take on the blasphemy law.