The sacred right to ‘insult’

By Khaled Diab

Jailing Egyptians for insulting and the military goes against the revolution's spirit, and violates people's secular and sacred rights.

Monday 31 October 2011

The revolution seems to have made the Egyptian regime very quick to take offence from all those ungrateful pesky Egyptians. In April, the courageous blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad was jailed for three years on the ludicrous charge of “insulting the military” – which is an offence only to our intelligence. The posts that got him in trouble include one in which he contends that “the army and people were never a single hand” and another that accuses the interim regime of “recycling the same old shit” but this time on a china plate – not to mention his view that the Coptic Pope Shenouda III has a “long history of hypocrisy with [Egypt's] leadership”.

In protest against his sentencing, Sanad began a long hunger strike in jail which has placed his health at serious risk. Now reports are emerging that he has been moved to a psychiatric hospital, drawing severe condemnation from Egypt's mental health community. An interesting blog containing Sanad's determinedly outspoken writings from prison has been set up by his friends.

Human rights activists cautioned at the time of Sanad's imprisonment that it set a “dangerous precedent”, and their warning seems to have been sound. Since the revolution began in January, an estimated 12,000 civilians have stood in the dock before military courts, which is more than the total number of cases during the era. This is despite the fact that one of the key demands of the revolution was to abolish the emergency laws that make it possible for the regime to execute such summary “justice”.

Now Egypt's civilian courts have joined the fray of Egyptian institutions making offenders out of bloggers who cause offence. Ayman Youssef Mansour also received three years, but this time not for offending the demigods of the military but rather for “insulting” Islam, “promoting extremist ideas” and “inciting sectarianism” on Facebook.

Unfortunately, the court gave absolutely no details about what exactly Mansour had written and my repeated attempts to dig up his writings online only led me to the empty shell of his Facebook page. But judging from other online content, which has riled pious Egyptians, I suspect that, though Mansour's page may have caused offence, especially if it was atheistic, it probably did not incite sectarianism or fitna.

Although can be just as oppressive as any other belief system if it becomes the official ‘religion' of a repressive state, as the Soviet Union amply demonstrated, I've never heard of any member of Egypt's marginalised, unrecognised and forgotten atheist minority ever calling for a ‘jihad' or ‘crusade' against believers.

For instance, many Egyptians have been campaigning for the removal of a controversial satirical Facebook page, which mocks religion mercilessly. The content of the page ranges from juvenile and absurdist – “If a prophet comes who declare ‘Aha‘ [‘Oh Shit'] I shall believe in him” – to biting political satire and social commentary, but it is all rather harmless.

One post, citing God's various haughty titles such as “King of Kings”, asks whether “God suffers from megalomania or is just the of the heavens”. Another post, mocking Mubarak's attempts to hold on to power by ostensibly delegating his authority to his intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, reports: “God has declared … that he does not intend to run for a second godly term and that he is handing over all his powers to the angel Gabriel.”

Though each of these posts gets dozens of likes, indicating that many Egyptians and Arabs approve of this brand of humour, they also elicit hundreds of comments, many of them condemnations and childish insults by believers, many of which are, ironically, blasphemous in nature.

Of course, I can see why, in a largely religious , the mocking or deriding of the most fundamental beliefs people hold dear can cause anger. But trying to shut down such debate or jail those who hold contrary views goes against the spirit of embodied in the Egyptian revolution. And even for those Muslims who do not believe in modern secularism, itself has traditionally guaranteed freedom of belief for all. This is spelt out, for example, in the constitution of Medina and the long tradition Muslim societies have had of tolerating criticism and the ridiculing of Islam.

More pragmatically, it is in every Egyptian's interest to scrap the vague legislation that outlaws the “ridiculing or insulting” of any of the Abrahamic faiths. Though the law appears to accord all Egyptians equal rights, this is only the case if we assume that all Egyptians are Muslims, Christians or Jews – but there are those who belong to other religions or none. Then there are those with alternative, more liberal interpretations of their faith, such as academics, novelists and film-makers who have had cases brought against them by Islamists. And not only is this vague law a gift to ultra-conservative Islamists, it was also thoroughly exploited by the former regime to silence its critics.

And far from preventing the fitna the law is apparently designed to do, it may actually stoke the fires of sectarianism and division by creating a new battleground in the courts. This can be seen in how some conservative Christians have taken the Islamists' lead and are, too, bringing cases to the courts against those they perceive as having defamed their faith.

And who is to determine what's defamatory? In some ways the very existence of Islam and can be seen, at one level, as being mutually insulting to each other. After all, regardless of the respect Muslims hold for Christians and their faith, Islam ultimately emerged as a ‘corrective' for the deviations that Christianity had apparently taken from the ‘true faith', and challenges some fundamental Christian beliefs. Could that not be interpreted as insulting?

Similarly, Christianity still exists because Christians do not accept that Muhammad is a true prophet, regardless of how much many Christians admire and respect him as a man, leader and visionary. So, it is best for everyone just to live and let live.

The new Egypt must uphold the rights of everyone to believe in what they want and speak freely about their beliefs. It must also protect its , not only Christians and Baha'is but also the officially voiceless but significant nonbelieving minority.

This article first appeared in The Guardian's Comment is Free section on 27 October 2011. Read the related discussion


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