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The curious case of Egypt’s law on deriding religions

According to article 98 of Egypt’s penal code, deriding religions is punishable by imprisonment

Sonia Farid

Published: Updated:

The election of a new parliament, together with the sentencing of TV host Islam Behery and writer Fatma Naaout, have initiated new attempts to abolish the law criminalizing “deriding religions.” According to article 98 of Egypt’s penal code, deriding religions is punishable by imprisonment for a minimum of six months and a maximum of five years.

According to the law’s detractors and the 100 MPs who have called for its revocation, its menacing nature is due to the way it has so far been used against intellectuals. Do they have enough leverage to have the law revoked, and is the government’s decision to postpone crossing out the expression “deriding religions” from the penal code indicative that no change will take place in the near future?

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Judge Khaled al-Nashar, official spokesman of the Ministry of Justice, said the ministry voiced its objection to crossing out the article on deriding religions, and to the entire discourse used by intellectuals. “It is not possible to view any deriding remarks about religious beliefs as a form of creativity,” he told Egyptian independent daily Al-Masry al-Youm, adding that article 98 is important for the country’s stability.

“This article addresses two types of actions: the first is using religion to spread extremist ideologies or incite violence, and the second is undermining national unity between Muslims and Christians.”

Judge Mahmoud Fawzy, vice-president of the State Council, said the law on deriding religions is in line with a significant article in Egypt’s constitution. “The constitution explicitly criminalizes hate speech and incitement of violence, and this is exactly what deriding religions does,” he said following a meeting of the Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which is in charge of discussing the law’s annulment.

“Plus, the law is also congruent with the principle of equality and which, by definition, necessitates fighting any form of religious-based discrimination.” Fawzy said the law on deriding religions is not exclusive to Egypt, but is part of numerous international charters.

“For example, article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that people have the right to adopt the beliefs they choose provided that they respect the beliefs of others. Article 20 of the same covenant prohibits hate speech.”

Opposition

Writer Khaled Montasser said the word “deriding” is relative, and differs from one age to another. “This was the same accusation leveled against Galileo, who is now one of the world’s most important scientists,” he said. “The most influential Muslim scholars, such as Ibn Rushd, Ibn Sina and Ibn al-Haitham, were all accused of heresy in their time.”

Montasser said “deriding” is mainly about not accepting ideas that are different from the mainstream. “Only backward societies always have the tendency to reject whatever they aren’t familiar with.”

Shadi Abdel Karim, director of Al-Haq Center for Democracy and Human Rights, objected to claims that the law on deriding religions regulated the relationship between followers of different religions in Egypt.

“On the contrary, this law gives the chance to anyone to level accusations against whomever he or she chooses, and practically makes it possible to penalize all the people, especially that the law doesn’t give a clear definition of what the word ‘deriding’ means,” he said. “The same applies to actions that are seen to undermine communal peace, as is mentioned in the law.”

Christians

While concerns about the use of the law on deriding religions are focused nowadays on Islam, it was issued in 1981 to protect Christians from attacks by extremist Islamists. However, many Christian Egyptians do not believe that the law achieved its initial purpose.

Coptic activist Naguib Gobrail says the law has only protected Islam. “All those charged with deriding religions were either Christians or Muslims accused of deriding Islam, as was demonstrated in the recent cases of Islam Behery and Fatma Naaout,” he said.

“On the other hand, those who deride the Christian faith are left unpunished, such as Islamic preacher Yasser Borhami, against whom 18 complaints are filed for calling Christians apostates.”

For Gobrail, who is head of the Egyptian Union for Human Rights, the problem is not in the law itself, as much as how and against whom it is applied. “Those who apply the law are in fact the same people who engage in the crime of deriding religions,” he said. Lawyer and Coptic activist Ramsis al-Naggar had a similar view: “While the law was supposed to protect Christians, it’s practically used against them.”

Constitutional expert and former president of the State Council, Judge Mohamed Hamed al-Gamal, said the government’s decision to postpone taking action means the law might not be crossed out altogether, but rather modified. “There will be a clear definition of what ‘deriding’ means, so that it will be limited to blasphemy and insulting the prophets,” he said. “The law should not in this case include criticism, like the case with… Naaout.”