People of all faiths will join forces outside Egyptian embassies to express solidarity with jailed blogger Kareem Amer.
Egyptian university student Abdel-Kareem Nabil (or Kareem Amer, as he is known in the blogosphere) received a hefty four-year prison sentence in February.
Insulting Islam and inciting sedition (three years) and defaming the Egyptian president (one year).
Shockingly, the judge handing down the verdict reportedly took just five minutes of “deliberations” to deprive this young student of the next few years of his life, despite the efforts of a legal team provided by the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights.
Kareem's sad tale began in the spring of 2006, when the grand inquisitors of the conservative al-Azhar, the oldest Islamic seat of learning in the world – which the blogger derided as the “University of Terrorism” – expelled him for contempt of religion, atheism and insulting the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar.
As I've pointed out before, neither apostasy nor atheism are strictly speaking a crime in Islam – and the Grand Sheikh himself has confirmed this. So, it would seem that his own institution does not practise what he preaches.
Matters escalated when Kareem refused to recant his views and his case eventually found its way to court, where a zealous prosecuting lawyer announced that he was on a “jihad” to convict him. But as the prosecuting team were well aware that apostasy is not actually a crime in Egypt, they made full use of the legal climate created by Egypt's so-called “emergency laws” to build their case around the idea that this young man was somehow “inciting sedition”.
“If we leave the likes of him without punishment, it will be like a fire that consumes everything,” one of the prosecutors argued. This view strikes me as very odd. Browsing through Kareem's writings, I got the impression that he is a conscientious but angry, angst-ridden and disillusioned youth trying to understand the world around him. Before this case came to court, few had even heard of him.
Of course, as an a-religious secularist myself, what I've seen of Kareem's views do not particularly shock me, although his anger and the repressive environment in which he grew up do mean that he somewhat lacks perspective.
This thoughtful and sensitive young man also entertains ambitions that can only be described as praiseworthy. On his blog, Kareem described his aspiration to become a human rights lawyer and open up an office to “defend the rights of Muslim and Arab women against all form of discrimination and to stop violent crimes committed on a daily basis in these countries”.
But the question remains how can this solitary voice possibly be a threat to a faith that has endured 1,400 years of onslaughts, both from outside and within the Muslim world, and a president that has sat on the throne longer than Kareem has walked this earth?
“When a young man is punished for having secular views in a country claiming to respect citizens' right to freedom of expression, it is a catastrophe,” Gamal Eid, who heads the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, said at the time.
There seems to be a general apprehension shared by two embattled establishments in Egypt – the state and the traditional religious institutions – triggered by the relatively uncontrollable and independent nature of the Egyptian and Arab blogosphere. And Kareem's harsh sentence has intimidated many bloggers.
Ultimately, however, it is a futile endeavour in this increasingly borderless world, since this campaign has only attracted more bad press and negative attention than would have occurred had the government simply ignored Kareem. In fact, his blog is still online (in Arabic) and attracting visitors. Many of its posts have been translated into English.
That would also explain Egypt's Jekyll and Hyde approach to freedom of expression. Its claims of being a democratising state means that its periodically loosens the reins, often allowing an impressive breadth of criticism – until it panics when the space is used to demand reform.
With no imminent sign of the young blogger's release, the Free Kareem Coalition has organised rallies outside Egyptian embassies and consulates in some 14 American and European cities to express their solidarity with the Egyptian blogger.
Interestingly, although this is an interfaith campaign, most of its members are, in fact, Muslims. “The creators and main supporters of the Free Kareem Coalition are Muslim, and we are doing this despite what Kareem said about our religion. Free speech doesn't mean speech that you approve of. It includes criticism,” they explain on their website.
This is a laudable sentiment which, unfortunately, too many Muslims may object to, arguing that we must draw the line at the disparaging of religion.
As I've argued before, ridiculing and insulting Islam is not a new-fangled innovation or something that only non-Muslims do. Muslims have been doing it and getting away with it since the very dawn of the faith.
Freedom of expression may have reached unprecedented heights in the contemporary West. But despite what some might claim, it is not a notion unique to western society. Muslim culture has also been historically tolerant of dissent. This is a sign of a strong and confident society, and it is only by allowing citizens again to question freely that the Arab and Muslim world can regain the intellectual vigour necessary to advance in the modern world.
Whether or not you've heard of Kareem or agree with his radical views, it is the duty of every believer in human dignity and freedom to add their voice to calls for his release. If you're interested in joining a rally near you, information can be found on the campaign website. You can sign a petition demanding his release in Arabic or in English.
Of course, we must all, whether religious or secular, be consistent and demand with equal fervour the release of other prisoners of conscience, whether they be bloggers, newspaper editors, opposition leaders, Islamists or homosexuals.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 8 November 2007.