As Egyptians continue to grapple with a revolution and seek freedoms commonplace in other parts of the world, there is no sign that Egypt’s version of an anti-blasphemy law will be changed. Violation of Article 98(f) can bring five years of prison for “defaming a heavenly religion or “insulting Islam.”
The law, in theory meant to discourage people from offending others’ religious sensitivities, is instead used to stifle free speech and punish and intimidate those who do not subscribe to the standard, Orthodox version of Sunni Islam practiced by most Egyptians. Strictly speaking, Article 98(f) is not an anti-blasphemy law, but it is used in much the same way as other anti-blasphemy laws throughout the Middle East and the greater Islamic world. Violating this statute is known as having “defamed a heavenly religion.” Others have been charged under the statute with “insulting Islam.”
Ashraf Thabet, 45, knows all too well about being charged with defaming a heavenly religion. The Port Said merchant was a committed Muslim until an economic downturn and a canceled business deal gave him time to investigate Islam more closely. What started as a quest to find deeper meaning within his religion led him to embrace Christianity. As he expressed his newfound ideas to others, Thabet found himself under the watchful eye of Egypt’s State Security Intelligence service (SSI).
During an early morning arrest on March 22, 2010, SSI agents kicked down the door of his apartment and dragged him off to prison. Accused of violating Article 98(f), Thabet spent 132 days in solitary confinement but was never brought to court. Thabet said he believed the SSI left the charges unresolved to harass and pressure him to convert back to Islam.
Converts to Christianity aren’t alone in falling prey to the law. People in Egypt who follow the Islamic Shia tradition and numerous other non-Sunnis have been brought up on defamation charges. In some cases, even Sunnis who have expressed non-conformist opinions have been accused of defamation. Several Sunni journalists, bloggers, lawyers, university professors, at least one renowned poet and a Nobel laureate have all been accused of religious defamation – not for actually insulting Islam or any other tradition, but merely for exploring non-orthodox ideas about religion.
Outside of human rights groups and a few religious groups, there has been no large outcry to reform the law. Part of the reason the laws are unlikely to change is that Article 2 of the Egyptian Constitution states, “Islam is the Religion of the State. Arabic is its official language, and the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence.” Although the Egyptian Constitution also has laws enshrining freedom of religion and expression, Article 2 supersedes those laws, rendering them ineffective.
There has been widespread pressure from Members of an ethnic religious group from North Africa but primarily Egypt, where they are the largest Christian denomination in the country. and secular groups to do away with Article 2, but the recent national referendum to reform the constitution did not include any language to strike the article. The referendum passed with 77 percent voting in favor of its reforms; defamation laws remained intact.
Father, we believe that You have the power to reverse cultural norms, and so we ask that You would orchestrate a change in Egypt’s justice systems. We pray that religious persecution would cease and that blasphemy laws would be overturned. Through political and social shifts, we pray that Christians would be put in places of influence and therefore begin to affect and infiltrate the Muslim-dominated culture. We ask above all that Your glory would shine and be a light in the darkness, particularly through the lives of believers in these persecuted places.
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