MENASource|News, Analysis, Perspectives

January 27, 2016
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 Beheiry's 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While local and international rights groups have called for the law to be amended or repealed, Ibrahim favors the strategy of referring a case to the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC).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 that, in 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.”

Jayson Casper blogs regularly on Egyptian politics, religion, and culture at A Sense of Belonging. Follow him on Twitter at @jnjcasper.