Article 65 of Egypt’s constitution guarantees freedom of thought and expression. Article 64 guarantees the absolute freedom to worship, to build places of worship and practice religious beliefs for all monotheistic religions.
In practice, however, these rights do not protect people from the country’s controversial blasphemy law.
The law has been wielded for decades by Islamists against thinkers, actors and writers. The latest victim is an Egyptian physician, writer, and television host, Khaled Montaser, who is known for his reformist, secularist, anti-extremist, and anti-Islamist views. He gained fame exposing the religious and scientific fallacies of old Islamic interpretations propagated by Islamists.
A lawsuit filed on Nov. 11 accuses Montaser of showing disdain to Islam and defaming famed Egyptian Muslim cleric Mohamed Metwaly Al Shaarawi, who died in 1998. Al Shaarawi, Montaser said, radicalized Egyptians through his Quranic interpretations on his long-running nationally televised weekly show “Religion and Life.”
Montaser accused Al Shaarawi in one article of being responsible for the deaths of thousands of Egyptians who rejected organ transplants, based on Al Shaarawi’s fatwas prohibiting transplants from deceased donors. “What is this hysteria to exalt humans (Al Shaarawi) and revoke logic and reason to protect these kind of twisted thoughts?” Montaser asked.
Al Shaarawi also preached that Muslims have to seek forgiveness for anything that Christians and Jews would approve of, or otherwise become apostates.
The lawsuit, filed by attorney Ayman Mahfouz, also accuses Montaser of ruining Egyptian tourism. It cites an article in which Montaser accused some Egyptian tour guides of acting as Islamic missionaries, giving tourists booklets about Islam. The Egyptian tourism ministry vowed earlier this year to revoke the license of any tour guide who did any form of proselytizing. Such tourist guides are answering calls by some Islamist clerics to exploit tourism in favor of proselytizing tourists.
Attorneys like Mahfouz exploit Egypt’s 1996 “Hasaba Law,” which allows a third party to sue any citizen or entity if it is in the public interest. If it is found Montaser committed blasphemy, he could face a fine a prison sentence between six months and five years. “I will not be silenced,” Montaser said. “I will keep smashing the idols and will face them without armor and I know that the mind will prevail.”
Montaser has been targeted by clerics connected to the Al Azhar Grand Mosque, the world’s most famous Sunni Islamic authority. Hassan Abou El Ezz, for example, is a cleric working for the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs. He called Montaser “a secularist, low life and useless. Khaled Montaser, you vile secularist, the world will be over, atone to God and watch out for a day that you will return to him.”
In 2015, Egyptian Islamic studies researcher and TV anchor Islam al-Beheiry was sentenced to one year in prison after a similar complaint accused him of blasphemy. President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi pardoned al-Beheiry.
In other examples, Egyptian writer Fatima Naoot who was sentenced to three years in prison in 2016 for criticizing the way some Muslims celebrate the Eid Al Adha feast by slaughtering cattle in the streets. “[It’s] a yearly massacre because a good man once had a nightmare about his good son,” she wrote, “and although the nightmare has passed for the good man and his son, the [sheep] pay their lives as a price for that holy nightmare.”
Islamists claimed that Naoot’s comments showed “contempt for religion.” Her punishment later was reduced to a six-month suspended sentence.
The blasphemy also has been used to target Egyptian Copts. In 2014, Demiana Emad, a Christian social studies teacher, was sentenced to six months in prison and fined 100,000 Egyptian pounds – about $6,204 – for insulting Islam. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) issued a report denying that Emad said anything insulting. Rather, she “presented a comparison between religions in ancient, middle and modern ages.” It provided statements from her students backing her up.
In 2016, four Christian teenagers were convicted and sentenced to five years in prison for sharing a video mocking the practices of the Islamic State. The four teenagers left for Switzerland seeking asylum after the conviction.
The blasphemy law, enacted in 1981, has been bashed by secularists, liberals, and human rights activists. They see it as violating the constitution’s protection for freedom of speech and belief.
Al-Beheiry’s case led some Egyptian MPs to propose a law in 2016 eliminating prison terms for blasphemy. It was defeated in parliament.
Abdullah Rushdy, a radical Al Azhar cleric, claimed that abandoning the blasphemy law would turn Egypt into a jungle, and even demanded that the maximum sentence be extended to 25 years. Abolishing the law would mean that ” everyone will assault the other religion and, in a year, you can have a sectarian war in the country,” Rushdy said.
Rushdy’s respect for religion is limited, however. He called Christians heretics, leading the Ministry of Endowments to bar him from leading prayers for six months. “Yes I said it! Christians are infidels,” he said in a March 2017 debate, “and anyone who will die as non-Muslim is also an infidel.”
Egypt is one of 71 countries with some form of blasphemy law. For years, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation OIC, representing 57 Muslim-majority states, pushed the United Nations to enact an international blasphemy law.
The UN General Assembly abandoned the OIC’s concept of “Defamation of Religions” in favor of a resolution reaffirming “that everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief, which shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”
Egypt’s June 2013 revolution may have ended the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule and aimed at reducing Islamist power. But the blasphemy law’s endurance shows that people are still subjected to the power of clergymen and Islamists.
Sisi’s numerous calls for religious reformation have fallen mostly on deaf ears among the clergymen of Al Azhar and other religious institutions. Khaled Montaser may be the latest victim of the law, but he will certainly not be the last.
Hany Ghoraba is an Egyptian writer, political and counter-terrorism analyst at Al Ahram Weekly, author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy and a regular contributor to the BBC.