Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
3 - 9 August 2000
Issue No. 493
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Re-drawing the line

By Fatemah Farag

Salaheddin Mohsen was tried by a State Security Court and found guilty on 7 August of deriding Islam and questioning the Holy Qur'an. But he got away with a relatively lenient sentence -- a suspended term of six months imprisonment. However, the trial of the almost unknown Mohsen seemed of little consequence. In handing down the sentence, the court itself said it did not want to turn him into a hero.

The ruling was welcomed by many liberal intellectuals, not only for its relative leniency, but also for the fact that the Court affirmed -- in its explanatory note -- that freedom of expression was a basic constitutional right. Mohsen's lawyer, Samir El-Bagouri, disagrees. He told Al-Ahram Weekly that the ruling was, in fact, a dangerous precedent. "How can a verdict of guilty be seen as positive for intellectual freedom? To argue that the reasons given by the Court for its verdict were good is irrelevant. In the law there are only two things: guilty or innocent," he said.

Court hearings had opened on 17 June and requests by the defence to call in witnesses were turned down. "I requested that Hamdi Zaqzouq, minister of Al-Awqaf [religious endowments] be called in as well as prominent intellectuals, such as Samir Sarhan and Salah Eissa. The point was that the issues at hand are philosophical and cannot be judged by law. Moreover, these arguments are not new and have been made repeatedly throughout the course of history," El-Bagouri said.

El-Bagouri based his defence on the argument that "derision" is a very loose term, so loose in fact that it actually has no meaning. "If a text or argument is deemed offensive, then it should be refuted in kind, but not by criminal investigations and courts-of-law. Granted that Mohsen argued that some verses of the Qur'an were contradictory and could not have been handed down by God. Possibly, these are the queries of someone confused. Why criminalise him?" asked Bagouri.

Commenting on the verdict in more positive terms, Salah Eissa, editor-in-chief of Al-Qahira, a weekly newspaper published by the Ministry of Culture, opined: "It is a good ruling which upholds the constitution and Islamic Shari'a [law]." He added, however, that "the verdict is worded in such a way so as to be vague and, consequently I do not think it can be used as a precedent."

For his part, Gamal Badawi, editor-in-chief of Sawt Al-Azhar (Voice of Al-Azhar), said that "the easiest thing for anyone who wants to become famous, any young idiot, is to bad-mouth God and religion. Such people do not deserve our consideration. Anyway, those who want to be atheists can do so, and may they go to hell, but they do not have the right to publish such ideas."

Eissa argued that a distinction must be made between freedom of belief and deriding religion. The first is a constitutional right and is also enshrined in Shari'a. Accordingly, citizens have the right to change their religion or give up religion altogether, if they wish, he said. But deriding religion, using disrespectful and derogatory terminology, is illegal. "Atheistic ideas can be discussed, but only within a framework that shows respect for the sentiments of religious people," he added.

According to Badawi: "In a case like this, the government has to intervene. It must play the role of conductor to restore balance to society. After all, it is the government which fought terrorism, and the government must also protect the feelings of Muslims."

Today's intellectual climate may be different from that of the early 20th century. In the 1920s, Ismail Ahmed Adham authored a book under the title Why I am an atheist. There were also other thinkers, such as Shibly Shumayel, Yacoub Sarouf and Salama Moussa, who freely discussed atheism, the theory of evolution, Marxism and other, then, novel ideas.

In an article by Anwar Mughith, a researcher of modern Egyptian thought, entitled Dialectical materialism and its philosophical debates in Egypt , he describes the intellectual environment of those times. In 1889, there were 50 daily newspapers and 200 weekly newspapers. The number of daily newspapers rose to 84 in 1909. The pages of many of these publications were forum to the ideas of thinkers such as Herbert Spencer and Hussein Heikal, both of whom advocated the primacy of science, Nietzsche who was overtly critical of religion, and Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau who urged political reform and democracy.

Those were the ideas to which Egyptians were exposed at the time. It was a time when even essentially conservative thinkers, as well as liberals, fought long and hard to lay down the principles of intellectual freedom. Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayed, for example, argued strongly in favour of the establishment of a faculty of philosophy in 1908, a suggestion vehemently opposed by conservatives who believed that such a move would promote scepticism and atheism.

"The socio-political environment at the time was conducive to liberal thought," explained Ahmed Atef, an independent researcher. "There was a degree of social stability that allowed an elite, in close contact with intellectual developments in Europe, to float their ideas. Even within the ranks of the religious establishment there were calls for reform made by Mohamed Abdou and Rifa'a El-Tahtawi."

Sawt Al-Azhar's Badawi acknowledges that Egypt of the first half of the 20th century entertained a considerably more liberal climate for philosophical and religious debate. Today things are different, he insists, however. "Foreigners associate Islam with terrorism and religion has become a very sensitive issue in today's Egypt. The raucous that accompanied the publication of A Banquet for Seaweed is a good example of that sensitivity," he noted, recalling protests at Al-Azhar University against the allegedly blasphemous novel.

According to Atef, the emergence of an influential middle class with a rural mentality as well as the politicisation of Islam with the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood created a new ball park. "Possibly in reaction to the liberal trend within which religion was viewed as something personal, developed the idea that society should be organised according to religion. This is the perception which has gained hegemony today," said Atef.

Alluding to the open intellectual climate of the early 20th century, Badawi said: "They [secularists and atheists] were allowed to discuss their ideas in total freedom, but what did it all boil down to? Nothing. They all returned to religion and Egyptians were unaffected by atheistic propaganda."

Related Stories:
Shudders of rage- 18 - 24 May 2000
Detained for deriding Islam- 13 - 19 April 2000
Deriding religion- 22 - 28 June 2000


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