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Blasphemy Cases Highlights Islamic Nature of Egypt

Egypt's blasphemy-cases
The mothers of two of four Coptic Christian teens convicted for contempt of Islam, in Bani Mazar, Egypt. Photo Thomas Hartwell ©Hollandse Hoogte ⁃ Thomas Hartwell

Under Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi (2012-2013), many in Egypt feared the state would become more Islamic, perhaps even turning into an Islamic republic similar to Iran.

The ouster of Morsi led by general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi initially took away those fears. Al-Sisi continued the tradition of military leaders started by Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and ’60s, who have pursued a secular nationalist agenda, and, often violently, crushed any Islamist opposition.

Al-Sisi also followed Nasser’s tradition of cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood, putting most of its leaders and many of its members in prison. The party went from being the largest in parliament in 2012 to being designated a terrorist organization by the end of 2013. However, under al-Sisi, Egypt is far from a secular state and appears to be becoming less so.

The 2014 constitution, although less religious than the previous one introduced by the Muslim Brotherhood, declares Islam the religion of the state and Sharia law the prime guidance for legislation. The state recognizes three religions – Islam, Christianity and Judaism – which is noted in citizens’ identification papers. Any other religion, let alone atheism, is not recognized. A Christian man cannot marry a Muslim woman, although the other way around is permitted.

Legislation on marriage and divorce follows Sharia, allowing, for instance, men to have up to four wives. Christians are governed by their own religious laws on personal status issues, such as marriage and divorce. According to the Coptic Orthodox church, the country’s dominant Christian institution, adultery is the only grounds for divorce recognized by the state, making it almost impossible to divorce and remarry as a Christian in Egypt.

Aside from such legislation, Egypt has seen a number of notorious blasphemy cases over the past years under Article 98 of the Penal Code, known as the religious contempt law.

Egyptian journalist Beshoy Armia, previously Mohamed Hegazy, converted from Islam to Christianity in 2007. After covering the Muslim Brotherhood protests that took place following the ouster of Morsi in 2013, he was sentenced to one year in prison for ‘spreading false news’ and ‘inciting sectarian strife’. In early 2015, he faced new charges related to the manner of his conversion, which was deemed to be blasphemous and ‘insulting to religion’. Only after converting back to Islam in July 2016 was he released.

More recently, in December 2016, writer Fatima Naoot received a reduced six-month sentence for ‘contempt of Islam’ for a critical Facebook post on the sacrifice of animals during Eid al-Adha (Sacrifice Feast).

Since his election in 2014, al-Sisi has made a strong case for ‘reforming religious speech’, in order to combat the extremist ideologies of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS). Egypt has been plagued by an ISIS-affiliated insurgency in North Sinai, and has witnessed numerous ISIS attacks on its territory. The most dramatic were the downing of a plane carrying Russian tourists in Sinai in October 2015 and a suicide attack in the main Coptic church in the capital Cairo last December 2016.

Policy related to ‘reforming religious speech’ has primarily come down to controlling sermons in mosques. The Ministry of Religious Endowments censors Friday sermons and dispatches loyal sheikhs across the country. Various sheikhs have been suspended after their sermons differed from prescribed subjects.

Yet when it comes to combatting ISIS ideology, the state sends an ambiguous message. Several individuals who publicly criticized the extremist group in one way or another were also accused of blasphemy.

Earlier this year, television anchor Ibrahim Eissa suspended his talk show citing ‘pressures’. He was known for critical comments regarding the blasphemy law and religion in general. In February 2015, he argued that the “crimes of ISIS are based on Islamic sources”. More recently, he came under attack from parliament members for criticizing the new church building law.

In December 2015, television presenter Islam al-Beheiry received a reduced one-year prison sentence for ‘insulting Islam’, after he challenged the religious teachings of the 9th-century Sunni scholar Sahih al-Bukhary on his show. He currently faces a new lawsuit, filed by the highest seat of Sunni teaching, al-Azhar, to shut down his show, on charges of ‘deliberately aiming to make people question their beliefs’.

Al-Bukhary’s teachings have stirred more controversy. Egyptian citizen al-Sayed al-Naggar was given a one-year jail term in May 2016 for contempt of religion. He burned al-Bukhary’s teachings in front of al-Azhar’s headquarters in Cairo and called for an ‘Islamic revolution’ on Facebook, arguing that the scholar’s teachings promote extremism and support ISIS’s ideology.

In April 2015, four Coptic Christian students and their teacher were arrested over a video posted on social media in which they make fun of ISIS. The video stirred sectarian tensions in their village in Upper Egypt, with local residents viewing it as an insult to Islam. In February 2016, the students were sentenced to five years in prison for ‘mocking Islamic prayer ritual’. After being released on bail, they left Egypt and sought asylum in Switzerland.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) said in a reaction to the verdict that in the period from January 2015 to February 2016, at least 12 people had been convicted on blasphemy charges.

Even the highest ranked officials are not immune. Former justice minister Ahmed al-Zend came under fire following comments he made on television in March 2016 that he would jail a journalist “even he was a prophet, peace and blessings be upon him”.

The comments were widely interpreted as being an insult to the Prophet Muhammed. Although al-Zend said it was a “slip of the tongue” and asked for forgiveness, he was fired from his position a few days later. Al-Azhar issued a statement on the same day warning against blasphemous comments about the Prophet, even when made unintentionally.

The Islamic nature of the Egyptian state and society becomes particularly evident during the holy month of Ramadan. Eating and drinking in public during fasting hours is generally not accepted. In 2016, the Grand Mufti of the Sunni Dar al-Ifta institute suggested that breaking fast publically was not a matter of free choice, but “an attack against Islam’s sacredness”.

Many venues that serve alcohol close their doors completely during Ramadan, and those that remain open are banned from serving Egyptians, even after fasting hours. During Ramadan last year, police enforcement of this ban appeared to be stricter than previous years. Several local teahouses that were open during fasting hours were raided, customer IDs were checked and Muslims expelled.

Fanack was present during one of these raids, and overheard costumers complaining that the situation is worse than under the Muslim Brotherhood.

Human rights groups have criticized the blasphemy law. Human Rights Watch has called for Egyptian authorities to reverse the blasphemy sentences handed down to the Christian students and their teacher and to revoke Article 98.

The EIPR stated in a June 2016 report on religious diversity that ‘current religious policies in effect give the state a monopoly on the practice of Islam’, and that Article 98 is used ‘to prosecute Shias and others with variant religious expressions’.

EIPR urged ‘a radical reform of official religious policies to ensure freedom of religion and belief’.

Considering the latest blasphemy cases and pending trials, it appears such calls have been in vain. The state continues to take a hard line on religious practice.

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