Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
21 - 27 December 2000
Issue No.513
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Limits to expression

By Jailan Halawi


On 14 December, an office for the ratification of court sentences, attached to the presidency of the republic, abrogated a verdict handed down by a State Security Court four months ago against a little-known author accused of deriding Islam. The office ordered a re-trial.

Salaheddin Mohsen, 52, was first tried in August and found guilty of holding Islam and the Prophet Mohamed in contempt and questioning the divine sanctity of the Holy Qur'an.

The court gave him a "lenient" suspended six-month sentence, apparently on the grounds that it did not want to turn him into a hero.

The ruling was welcomed at the time by many liberal intellectuals as a mark of respect for freedom of expression. However, prosecutors, arguing that even the most fundamental right to freedom must have its limits, submitted an appeal to the office for the ratification of court sentences, requesting the abrogation of the ruling and a re-trial.

Mohsen has openly stated that he is an atheist. He has also called for the establishment of an Egyptian atheists' association. In Egypt, such blasphemous sentiments are not only illegal, but widely considered to be contemptuous of the religious sensibilities of the great majority of the population.

The basis of the appeal, filed by prosecutor Ashraf El-Ashmawi, was that the law granting respect for freedom of expression also gives the state the right to defend religion and fight subversive, anti-religious ideologies.

It is argued that in four of his books, Mohsen mocked Islam, its beliefs and religious rites and duties in the context of a discussion of enlightenment ideas and the nature of free creativity. He claimed that Islam is the reason for Egypt's "backwardness", that Prophet Mohamed is not in fact a prophet but rather the author of the Qur'an and that the Qur'an moreover is full of contradictions.

As a result of all this, prosecutor El-Ashmawi reached the conclusion that Mohsen had used the issue of religion in his writings to promote extremist ideas and denigrate Islam, provoke conflict and undermine national unity. El-Ashmawi added that Mohsen used derogatory terminology in propagating his "beliefs", and was blatantly disrespectful of the sentiments of pious individuals, "which is illegal."

Samir El-Bagouri, Mohsen's lawyer, told Al-Ahram Weekly that he is basing his defence on the legal right of free expression. Mohsen's case is "a philosophical issue", and therefore not a matter for the law.

"He has an opinion and he expressed it in these books," El-Bagouri said. "Mohsen's arguments are not new. In fact, they have been made repeatedly throughout history. Why charge Mohsen for making them now?" he asked.

Trying Mohsen for his beliefs is a dangerous precedent, El-Bagouri continued, because "it not only threatens intellectual freedom but also the lives of intellectuals themselves."

Alaa, Mohsen's oldest son, told the Weekly that it is his father's right to express his ideas freely.

"You may criticise what he writes," he stated, "but the matter should not be taken to the courts. Unfortunately, our society does not respect anyone who tries to challenge traditional assumptions," he argued.

Alaa added that, while he himself is a believing Muslim, he respects his father's courage in defending his lack of belief.

Some intellectuals have accused Mohsen of being deliberately provocative in order to attract attention.

He was arrested back in March after he published a limited edition of a book in which he expounded his anti-religious views.

Mohsen is charged with inciting strife through his publications Shudders of Enlightenment, Communing with Heaven and A Muslim's Memoirs. According to investigators, these books propagate ideas that violate Shari'a (Islamic law) and hold Islam in contempt.

Mohsen faces up to five years in jail if convicted.

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