In Egypt, intellectuals and creatives face the wrath of blasphemy laws

An Egyptian flag flutters at the Egyptian embassy on July 8, 2005 in Baghdad, Iraq.
6 min read
21 December, 2021

As 2022 nears, Egyptian intellectuals and free thinkers who swim against the conventional current still face trial under the country's decades-old anti-blasphemy laws, commonly misused to suppress creativity.

Most recently, controversial high-profile lawyer and Islamic thinker Ahmed Abdo Maher was sentenced to five years in prison, which has sparked outrage among free speech advocates and human rights groups in Egypt and abroad.

Maher is known for his controversial views on Islamic teachings and interpretations of religion, which he has voiced publicly during TV interviews, on social media, and in his books.

The court decision on 17 November found Maher guilty of “contempt of Islam, stirring up sectarian strife and posing a threat to the national unity”, according to local reports.

"The law brings us back to the dark ages. Whether you agree with someone's ideas or disagree, an idea is confronted by an idea, not by a lawsuit"

In one interview with El Mayadeen TV, Maher described the Islamic nation as "static" and lacking innovation or freedom of thought.

He is also believed to have been targeted for his book 'How the Imams' Jurisprudence Is Leading the Nation Astray', released in 2018, in which he refutes earlier teachings by Islamic scholars, especially imam Mohamed Al-Bukhary from the 9th century, revered by Muslims across the world as a distinguished scholar of hadith.

Maher also demanded that Al-Azhar - Sunni Islam's foremost seat of learning - reform its religious curriculum taught to students, calling on the religious institution to apologise for the early Muslim conquests that aimed to spread Islam.

First enacted in 1981 and amended several times over the years, article 98 (f) of the penal code (aka the blasphemy law) prohibits the advocacy of unorthodox religious thoughts, sedition, and/or jeopardising national unity and security.

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The law further outlaws the “contempt” of any of the three Abrahamic religions: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

It was imposed during the reign of late president Anwar Sadat after sectarian strife erupted at that time targeting Egypt's Christian Coptic minority.

“Legally, the anti-blasphemy law itself is equivocal and subject to debate. It does not clearly define the meaning of blasphemy, leaving it to the assessment of the judge and his opinion rather than definite legal terms,” veteran human rights lawyer Mohsen Bahnasy told The New Arab.  

“That’s why any incident, thought, or text could be defined as a form of blasphemy based on the general context or how it’s presented,” he added.

Not only are thinkers, writers, or artists subjected to legal penalties under the infamous law, but ordinary people fall foul as well, especially religious minorities such as Shia Muslims, those embracing non-Abrahamic religions, or atheists.

Egypt's High Court in downtown Cairo. First enacted in 1981, the blasphemy law has been amended several times over the years. [Getty]

Statistically, over the last decade alone human rights lawyers have documented around 130 cases of blasphemy, with penalties ranging from six months to five years in prison.

In short, anybody who refutes religious norms could be put behind bars, which usually appeases ultraconservative elements of society, extremists, and even rigid Islamic scholars, many of whom are common faces on Egyptian TV channels.

Egypt has been gravely influenced by the advent of extremist Wahhabism during the 1970s and the 1980s with the immigration of workers to Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, as well as the radical ideologies of local Salafi groups, transforming parts of society and creating divisions between ultraconservative and secular citizens.

Creativity at risk

Among other high-profile blasphemy cases in recent years was a 2016 incident involving the prominent writer and poet Fatima Naoot, who received a three-year sentence for sarcastically describing on social media the slaughter of sheep during the Muslim Eid Al-Adha festival. She was later acquitted by an appeals court.

“I bitterly experienced the law because of an opinion I voiced after a young lawyer had filed a lawsuit against me, someone who couldn’t even spell the name of God Almighty in Arabic right,” Naoot told The New Arab.

"Legally, the anti-blasphemy law itself is equivocal and subject to debate. It does not clearly define the meaning of blasphemy, leaving it to the assessment of the judge"

“It’s an amorphous law. Religions are far too noble to be blasphemed. Those who file lawsuits against intellectuals are enemies of enlightenment,” she added.

The law is believed to have created a state of self-censorship among intellectuals, writers, and artists.

“The law curbs creativity, creating inside of us what we call self-censorship, which is the most dangerous enemy to a creator. It makes a creator self-censor [his or her] works, which leads to the loss of the instinctive ability to create,” Naoot, sadly, explained.

“Creativity is what makes art or literature genuine,” she added.

Bahnasy agrees with Naoot. “The law brings us back to the dark ages. Whether you agree with someone’s ideas or disagree, an idea is confronted by an idea, not by a lawsuit,” he argued.

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Religious reform on hold

In recent years, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has repeatedly urged Al-Azhar to renew religious discourse, a demand that was not much welcomed by the institution’s Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayeb.

Furthermore, during a public event in November, Sisi spoke openly about his acceptance and respect of the rights of non-believers as long as they did not impose their beliefs or thoughts on the public.

“Islamism is not solely practised by Islamists but also by [the successive] regimes [ruling Egypt] seeking to affirm that they had been pro-Islam and won’t allow any attack on faith. They, in a way, respond to Islamist opposition discourse that the regime has sold out to secularists,” prominent political sociologist Dr Said Sadek argued.

"On the other hand, the regime wants to please everybody and at the same time displeases them all. It’s true the regime calls for reforming religious discourse while restricting the freedom of religious reformers, like the case with intellectuals such as Islam El-Beheiry and Ahmed Abdo Maher,” Sadek told The New Arab.

"The culture of social and religious extremism needs to change first before laws are changed"

Sadek believes that the blasphemy law will likely remain in place for a while.

“The law is difficult to discard now for fear of society’s extremist religious culture as well as a possible violent backlash against reformers. Imagine that in the absence of these laws, reformers or Coptic Christians criticising Islam are gunned down by terrorists rather than being jailed,” Sadek said.

“The culture of social and religious extremism needs to change first before laws are changed …which makes it a security-related issue in the absence of a tolerant, religious culture,” he added.

Bahnasy agrees with Sadek.

“On the ground, there is no actual will or determination for change…. as no steps have seriously been taken to renew religious discourse. The media has not been doing its role efficiently in seeking the support of enlightened thinkers to tackle the issue. You feel that they care so much for the possible reaction of extremists,” Bahnasy concluded.

Thaer Mansour is a journalist based in Cairo, reporting for The New Arab on politics, culture and social affairs from the Egyptian capital