When Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took office on June 8th, 2014, he was seen by many as a hero come to save Egypt from Islamist rule and bring secularism and democracy to the nation. In fact, these were two political virtues he himself promised to secure in Egypt as president. He sharply contrasted himself to his Islamist predecessor, Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi. However, a look at Egyptian blasphemy laws and how they are enforced dispels the illusion of Egypt as a secular democracy. I first examine how these blasphemy laws are implemented to limit free speech and perpetuate discrimination against the Coptic Christian minorities in Egypt. I then argue that the existence of such laws perpetuates a negative perception of both those who who challenge the status quo as well as the Christian minorities.
Through blasphemy laws, the Egyptian government is able to control speech and hinder people’s ability to criticize both Islam and the state. Shortly after el-Sisi assumed office, he called for a “religious revolution.” He asked Muslim leaders to help fight extremism, saying,“it's inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire Islamic world to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible that this thinking -- and I am not saying the religion -- I am saying this thinking." He also claimed that extremism is pitting the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world against the rest of the non-Muslims. Shortly after this speech, he visited the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo and made a speech in which he said to the Christians, “we will build our country together. We will accommodate each other. We will love each other."
Although the rhetoric is powerful, hopeful, and comforting, it is merely rhetoric. The government has not taken appropriate measures to ensure the fulfillment of their promises. And the blasphemy laws are evidence to this. As long as there exist blasphemy laws remain in Egypt, there will never be progress in reducing religion-based violence, moving towards a more secular state, or fostering a revolution within Islam. The one step the government must take in order to fulfill its promises and move the country forward is to get rid of the blasphemy laws.
Article 98(f) of the penal code of Egypt, known as the ‘contempt of religion’ law, punishes anyone who “exploits and uses religion … by talk or in writing, or by any other method” propagating extremist thought with the intention of “disdaining and contemplating any of the heavenly religions.” The punishment is a sentence between six months to five years in prison, with a monetary fine as well. While it might seem that this law intends to enforce a reverence for religion, it has been used to silence liberal activists, religious minorities, and critics of the state and religion. This law therefore hinders the people’s rights to both religious freedom and freedom of expression.
The most famous cases of how this law has been extended to silence activists and thinkers are the cases of Fatma Naout and Islam Behery. Both were sentenced to prison under Article 98(f) of the penal code. And both were convicted of insulting Islam.
Naout is a female writer who expressed her opinion by condemning the mass slaughter of animals during the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Adha. The Cairo Court of Appeals upheld the punishment of the lower court, which sentenced Naout to three years in prison and a fine of 20,000 Egyptian pounds. Many have condemned the court’s decision, including Naout herself. She claimed that she did not intend to insult Islam. Khaled Montasser, a journalist, argued that the decision shows that “Egypt is not a civil state but a theocratic state par excellence.” Mohamed Salmawy, a writer and advisor to the Arab Writers Union, argued that this ruling conflicts with Article 65 of the Constitution of Egypt, which guarantees freedom of thought and opinion.
Behery is a TV host who was sentenced to a year in prison for questioning the credibility of some of the sources of the Muslim prophet Muhammad’s sayings. Behery said that “Egypt is a land of injustice” and thanked (sarcastically) el-Sisi “and his religious religious revolution” and the “freedom of expression in Egypt.” With such statement Behery is satirically drawing attention to the hypocrisy of the President, who calls for a revolution in thought yet at the same time allows the upholding of laws that limit free speech. Behery said that his aim was to protect Islamic theology from the dangers of Islamist Jihadist interpretations.
The laws have also been used disproportionately against religious minorities. One example of this is a case in which a group of Christian boys imitated Islamic prayer and mocked ISIS while playing. The boys were filmed and the court sentenced them to five years. The lawyer of the teens, Naguib, claimed that the judges did not even want to watch the video. This means that the Christian teens were accused of mocking Islam and sentenced by Judges who refused to even consider looking at what the teens had done. Mere accusation of disrespect of Islam (and in this case it was disrespect of ISIS) under Al-Sisi is enough to get a Christian thrown in jail with no need to look at evidence. Another example came in 2014 when a Christian was sentenced to six years in prison for liking a Facebook page supporting Muslims who convert to Christianity.
The fact that truly illustrates the injustice of the blasphemy laws is that there never seems to be a sentencing of anyone who disrespects Christianity or Judaism. Although Egypt suspended a muslim Cleric, Salem Abdel Galil, for claiming that Christians and Jews followed corrupt religions, he was not treated the same as the Christian teens mocking ISIS, or the activists claiming to reform Islam. A mere apology was enough to get him acquitted. Though this is a good step in ensuring respect for Christianity and Judaism within Egypt, it illustrates the injustice of the ‘contempt of religion’ laws. If the same law is used with a different standard the law is unjust. If the same law punishes any negative rhetoric of Islam, yet acquits harsher negative rhetoric of Christianity, the law is unjust. The ‘contempt of religion’ laws in Egypt are unjust.
In 2011, only three blasphemy cases were filed in court, whereas in 2015, the number of cases filed under the blasphemy laws were 21. The contrast here illustrates how much things have changed from the time of Mubarak to Moursi. Half of the 21 cases targeted Christians, according to Ishaq Ibrahim, a researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. The reason why I compare 2011 to 2015 is because 2011 was when the Revolution against Mubarak took place. The claims were that Mubarak’s regime is tyrannical. Yet, at the height of Mubarak’s tyranny, and the collapse of the government after, there were only three cases in which someone was accused of ‘contempt of religion.’
One problem facing Egypt with its ‘contempt of religion’ laws is that Al-Azhar, the university and center of Sunni Islam’s teachings, supports the blasphemy laws. This is problematic because El-Sisi had empowered them with leading his “revolution” against extremism. There seems to be an absurdity in El-Sisi’s assigning Al-Azhar with reforming Islam while at the same time Al-Azhar supports all suppression of rhetoric against Islam. In order for Egypt to truly experience the revolution that El-Sisi promised, they must be willing to let go of the blasphemy laws.
The most dangerous aspect of the ‘contempt of religion’ laws is the name of such laws. There has been increasing discrimination and persecution towards Coptic Christians in recent years in Egypt. Furthermore, the country is recovering from vast instability, both politically and economically. We have seen how the ‘contempt of religion’ laws have been used mostly against Coptic Christians and liberal activists in the media. This tells the public two things. The first is that Christians are disrespecting Islam. The second is that liberal activists also disrespect Islam. This inevitably challenges any efforts at unity between Christians and Muslims. Because the Muslim majority will see the Christian minority as disrespectful of their religion (which is, of course, not true). The blasphemy laws also lead to a stagnation of reformation (or revolution) in Islam. If those who try to reform Islam are labeled as having contempt for the religion, there will be no way the public can truly trust such individuals. Especially if Al-Azhar, the highest authority on the teachings of Sunni Islam, backs up the ‘contempt of religion laws.’ As a result of this, I believe that the blasphemy laws in Egypt should be completely erased.
The best way to characterize the blasphemy laws is in the words of defense lawyer Naguib, who claimed they are “witch-hunting. There is arrogance, [and] intolerance to others.”
There is no doubt that if you ask many Egyptians they will agree that El-Sisi is better than his Islamist predecessor. However, in terms of religious freedom and freedom of expression, it seems that he is no better than his predecessor. He claimed to lead a revolution of thought to save Islam and the Egyptian soul, yet the upholding of blasphemy laws continuously shows that the words of the president were nothing more than words. As long as these blasphemy laws remain, there will never be freedom of expression in Egypt. And without freedom of expression, Egypt will never be a true democracy.