Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1300, (16 - 22 June 2016)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1300, (16 - 22 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Defamation and fact

Despite government pressure, some MPs continue to call for the repeal of the so-called “blasphemy law”, reports Gamal Essam El-Din

Al-Ahram Weekly

Ministry of Justice officials told a meeting held by parliament’s Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee on Sunday that eliminating Article 98 of the Penal Code, popularly known as the blasphemy law, would undermine the 2014 Constitution which bans religious defamation and discrimination.

Justice Ministry official Ayman Rafah argued that Article 98 of the Penal Code is necessary to prohibit defamation of religions.

“The article is in line with the constitution and distinct from Penal Code Article 160, which deals with attacks against religious festivals and rituals, and Article 161, which deals with books that insult religion,” said Rafah.

“There is a thin line between freedom of speech and defamation of religion. People need to understand there is no such thing as absolute or unrestricted freedoms.”

Liberal MPs reject Rafah’s argument and say Article 98 should be cancelled. Nadia Henry, an MP affiliated with the Free Egyptians Party, stresses that writers who have received prison sentences under Article 98 have seldom set out to insult religion.

“I want to remind people that poet Fatma Naoot was sentenced to three years in prison in January for criticising not religion but the way animals are slaughtered during the festival of Eid Al-Adha,” said Henry. “Television host Islam Al-Beheiry was sentenced to one year in prison not for insulting religion but for questioning the attribution of some disputed hadiths [sayings] to the Prophet Mohamed.”

She continued, “The Justice Ministry’s position against the elimination of Article 98 contrasts with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s many public speeches in which he has called for the renewal of religious discourse.” She added, “Despite President Al-Sisi’s pro-religious reform speeches the number of prosecutions for contempt of religion and inciting sectarian strife rose during his first two years in office.”

During a meeting with Al-Sisi in April many writers complained about the dramatic rise in the number of blasphemy cases.

“This contrasts with the ideals of 30 June Revolution against religious persecution and bigotry,” said writer and journalist Mohamed Salmawy. According to Salmawy Al-Sisi told writers that though he is in favour of freedom of thought and expression and reform of religious discourse he cannot interfere in judicial affairs or court orders.

MP Mohamed Zakaria Mohieddin says that while Egypt’s 2014 Constitution outlaws “the defamation of religions”, protecting Judaism and Christianity alongside Islam, “what is happening is that Article 98 is being used solely to prosecute secular Muslim and Christian writers.”

Mohieddin also accused prosecutors and judges of behaving arbitrarily when sentencing secular writers to prison.

“They often act like medieval inquisition courts rather than judges whose job it is to uphold freedom of expression,” said Mohieddin.

Article 98 stipulates prison sentences of between six months and five years and/or fines of between LE500 to LE1,000 for anyone found guilty of inciting sedition or contempt of the three Abrahamite religions.

“While Christians are most likely to be prosecuted under the blasphemy law, secular Muslim thinkers and writers are also on the hit list,” said Conservative Party MP Ihab Al-Khouli.

“The Egyptian state is basically schizophrenic when it comes to this issue. On one hand we have the president talking about the need for religious discourse to be reformed while on the other we are seeing more and more convictions of writers accused of defaming religion.”

MP Amina Nosseir, a professor of Islamic philosophy, says Article 98 is being used as a tool to stifle religious tolerance and attack human rights.

“Historically, such laws have been used to prosecute writers and free thinkers. It is deplorable that Egypt is among the handful of countries that have retained blasphemy laws,” she said.

Independent MP Tharwat Bekheit condemned judges for sentencing many Christians and writers to prison without first referring to Al-Azhar.

“A female Christian teacher was imprisoned for six months after Salafist clerics concocted trumped up charges and accused her of insulting Islam by telling her pupils that Akhenaton was a prophet because he had called for monotheism,” said Bekheit. He added that there are many other examples of Christians ending up behind bars on trumped up blasphemy charges.

MP Shukri Al-Guindi, a member of the conservative majority on the Religious Affairs Committee, launched a scathing attack on those who want to see Article 98 eliminated.

“The Muslim Brotherhood would exploit such a situation to portray the president as an enemy of Islam,” claimed Al-Guindi. He accused “Egypt’s secular writers” of seeking to impose “their radical liberal ideology on Egypt’s conservative society”.

Mahmoud Fawzi, special advisor to speaker Ali Abdel-Aal, told the committee that since MPs are divided over Article 98 a national dialogue should be conducted.

“I think we should seek the opinion of moderate religious institutions such as Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church. We do not want to be at loggerheads with them,” said Fawzi.

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