Attention liberals: Blasphemy cases on the rise in Egypt

As I have said numerous times, I cannot imagine how hard it must be to cover the aftermath of the Arab Spring in a land as complex as Egypt, especially in news articles of a thousand words or less.

For example, some of the key terms used by people at the heart of the events — “Islamist” is the best example — are being used in vague ways that make them almost impossible for outsiders to understand. What is the difference, in practical terms, between a “moderate” Islamist, an Islamist and a Salafi Islamist?

A recent New York Times report took on one of the most dangerous trends in Egypt today, which the rising number of blasphemy cases being filed against Christians, liberals and other religious minorities. This story does not mention that, as a rule, blasphemy charges are used against Islamic minorities and dissenters even more than against Christians, Jews and other non-Muslim believers. One must assume, I guess, that the actual trend in Egypt at the moment is a rising number of cases filed against Coptic Orthodox believers and other Christians.

This story impressed me for one simple reason: It provided human, understandable details about the cases. The story disappointed me, however, in that it never offered examples of what people were saying or doing that led to the blasphemy charges.

That’s a rather basic fact to omit. Was the Times afraid of printing so-called blasphemy?

Here’s a crucial chunk of the background:

Blasphemy cases were once rare in Egypt, and their frequency has increased sharply since the revolution. More than two dozen cases have gone to trial, and nearly all defendants have been found guilty. At least 13 have received prison sentences.

The campaign is driven at the local level, where religious activists have also forced officials to suspend teachers and professors. In at least 10 cases, Christian families have been expelled from their homes after perceived insults, according to Ishaq Ibrahim of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Blasphemy complaints have been lodged across the society, against poor teachers in villages, a deputy prime minister, Egypt’s richest man, and some of its most prominent writers and journalists. A firebrand Muslim preacher who tore up a Bible at a protest was sentenced to 11 years in prison. His son received eight years on similar charges.

“Contempt of religion, any religion, is a crime, not a form of expression,” said Abdel Moneim Abdel Maqsoud, a lawyer for the Muslim Brotherhood, which has not been instrumental in filing the cases but does not oppose them. “Is setting fire to the Bible freedom of expression? Is insulting religion freedom of expression?” …

None of this should have surprised anyone who watched the polls in Egypt during the overthrow of the previous government. In a 2011 Scripps Howard column, I noted some numbers from the Pew Forum:

About six-in-ten (62 percent) think laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran. However, only 31 percent of Egyptian Muslims say they sympathize with Islamic fundamentalists, while nearly the same number (30 percent) say they sympathize with those who disagree with the fundamentalists, and 26 percent have mixed views on this question.”

Meanwhile, on two other crucial questions: “Relatively few (39 percent) give high priority to women having the same rights as men. … Overall, just 36 percent think it is very important that Coptic Christians and other religious minorities are able to freely practice their religions.”

So while only 31 percent sympathize with “fundamentalist” Muslims, 60-plus percent decline to give high priority to equal rights for women and 62 percent believe Egypt’s laws should STRICTLY follow the Quran. Also, only 36 percent strongly favor religious liberty for religious minorities.

Thus, this new Times story — for once — looks beyond urban Egypt and finds the reality in the heavily Islamist regions far from the stain of modernity.

And what is going on out there? Here is one of the case studies offered in this sobering report. This is long, but I want GetReligion readers to see the kind of detail one needs to understand what is happening at the local level:

Last July, a Christian teacher, Beshoy Kamel from Sohag in central Egypt, heard that someone had created a Facebook page using his name and photograph and was posting messages insulting Islam and President Mohamed Morsi, his family said. Mr. Kamel told the police about the page, his family said, and posted a warning that still stands on his personal page that the other account was not his.

But when a local Salafi received a private message from the account insulting him and his religion, he filed a complaint against Mr. Kamel, who was arrested soon afterward. Local Islamists heard about the case and spread copies of the texts from the insulting page, causing protests that twice forced the police to delay hearings.

The day the trial opened, Mr. Kamel was sentenced to six years in prison: three for contempt of religion, two for insulting the president and one for slander, court documents say. Islamists protested outside the court, and a video shows them rushing to attack Mr. Kamel as the police led him outside.

There’s more:

Court documents show that prosecutors never tried to prove that Mr. Kamel had administered the insulting page, which has since been removed but whose contents were quoted in case files. Egypt’s Interior Ministry filed a report saying it could not determine the page’s owner. That made no difference to Salah Khanous, a Salafi lawyer involved in the case, who said there was a “systematic campaign” among Egypt’s Christians to insult Islam.

“They should have cut his throat for it,” Mr. Khanous said.

So what constitutes an insult? What are these Christians, atheists and others being accused of saying or doing?

Perhaps these kinds of basic facts are too dangerous. There may be questions, in today’s Egypt, that cannot even be asked by New York Times reporters.

PHOTO: A protest in Egypt against blasphemers, drawn from Facebook.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    Attention GR readers, especially liberals, here is yet another post using religious arguments to make a political point denigrating liberals because the writer assumes they’re dumb as posts, ignorant or not paying attention.

    I write this because at GR, some editor is not making up headlines.

    This kind of bias is one reason I’m reading fewer and fewer posts here. Bias by headline, bias by story selection and so forth are causing GR to stray from its stated mission.

    • David D

      I have noticed that tmatt has become increasingly snarky recently. Maybe it’s just my interpretation, but if it’s accurate, maybe he’s frustrated that GR is not getting more of a response from reporters and editors. This is not how to go about it.

    • tmatt

      JERRY:

      In what way did my headline denigrate human-rights liberals? This is a primarily positive post about an article that I thought would interest genuine liberals on human-rights issues.

  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

    “Attention liberals.” I suppose your headline ‘won’ in that you got me to read a GR post, something I’ve been doing less and less since you’ve joined Patheos, but it also reminds me of how much this blog’s focus has narrowed. I remember when GR was about all kinds of religious reporting, when it avoided partisan language. Now you seem increasingly focused on certain social issues favored by cultural conservatives and little else. I’m genuinely saddened by this, because I had long considered you a resource, and recommended this site to people despite my theological and political differences with the authors.

    The point being: You could have written this post and its headline differently without softening your critique, you simply chose not to.

    • tmatt

      JASON:

      Very sorry that you read the headline that way. In the history of GR, have I ever — on human rights issues — used liberal in a negative way?

      • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

        I have friends who work with prominent human rights organizations, and while they may be “liberal” in some broad sense, I think their understandings of human rights issues are nuanced beyond partisanship. Your mileage may vary, I suppose. So I think “attention liberals” (which implies that “conservatives” are not in need of such a bulletin) taints the message you are trying to send.

        • tmatt

          Well, we have to disagree on that one. I honestly meant nothing partisan — simply that the defense of human rights and religious liberty in these cases would be of special interest to true liberals.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    I’m having a hard time understanding why “liberals” is mentioned in the headline. There was nothing in the body of the piece about anything political.

    And I’m not sure what this has to do with “liberals” or “conservatives.” What I see is a news organization not doing its job by reporting a basic fact — what these “blasphemers” say that gets them into trouble. But this is something that any group — Fox or even the Christian media — could have failed at, so I don’t see what is “liberal” or “conservative” about it.

    • David D

      I think the implicit premise of Get Religion is is that “the press … just doesn’t get religion” because the press is almost 100% political liberals who are either indifferent or openly hostile to religion that doesn’t support liberal aims, either politically or culturally. Most posts here strongly imply that view, at least. I wish they’d just come right out and say it, if that’s what they mean.

      As for the OP’s premise, most of the blasphemy cases I’ve ever read about involve stuff that’s so mild, I can’t imagine why the Times would decline to reprint it. For example, in a recent case of a 15 year old boy executed for blasphemy in Syria, what he said was he would not lend someone money “even if Mohammed comes back”, which is a common saying in Syria but was unfamiliar to the foreign fighters who killed him.

      I don’t know why the content of the blasphemy is all that important, although I am curious about it. I think most people would consider the main point to be that blasphemy is being prosecuted at all. Implicitly, such prosecutions would be assumed by most readers to be arbitrary.

  • mountaintiger

    A couple of notes:
    Tmatt writes, “This story does not mention that, as a rule, blasphemy charges are used against Islamic minorities and dissenters even more than against Christians, Jews and other non-Muslim believers. One must assume, I guess, that the actual trend in Egypt at the moment is a rising number of cases filed against Coptic Orthodox believers and other Christians.”
    The reader need not assume any such thing; the article claims outright that, “Most blasphemy cases have been directed against Egypt’s Christian minority and filed by ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafis.” Unfortunately, neither tmatt nor the Times provides a source for their claims.
    The Times quote continues, “Many [of the cases] lack clear evidence.” And we find out at the end of the article, “Mr. Saeed’s family does not know what he said in school that day, but guessed that he had been joking or asking a question.” These lines only make tmatt’s closing questions more mysterious. It seems that the Times tried to discover the content of the speech in one case and could not. They also suggest that there is a low burden of proof but leave unexplained what sort of testimony is accepted; in particular, does the court or the accuser have the final say in whether particular speech is blasphemous?

  • David D

    Wait. Liberals caused what’s happening in Egypt?

  • tmatt

    Interesting that everyone assumes snark in the headline: Actually, I assumed that liberals would be interested in this major trend in human-rights abuses in Egypt.

    There was a time when liberals, true liberals, were the people most concerned about these kinds of issues of conscience.

    It would help greatly if more human-rights liberals KNEW about this trend.

    Thus, my headline.

    • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

      I think the pertinent question at this point would be: Why did virtually everyone take “attention liberals” in your title in a certain way? How has your site’s content shaped our expectations?

      • tmatt

        It could be that people have no ability to read language in terms other than political. GetReligion, meanwhile, is much more interested in religion, doctrine and history than party politics. I say that, of course, as a culturally conservative Democrat who is very — accurate use of the term here — liberal on all First Amendment related issues.

  • FW Ken

    causing GR to stray from its stated mission.

    The complaint of choice when someone doesn’t like a perceived political slant.

    But my interest was in the use of the word “fundamentalist”, about which many bytes have been spilled here. We know the term derives from a specific movement within Christianity, but get (mis)used to mean anyone the reporter wished to dismiss (ok, that was snark). But most people really do have “fundamentals” which they don’t question. In the case of “Islamic fundamentalists”, you have two groups with opposite views of what is fundamental to Islam. Still, the term is only applied to those who adhere to the violent understanding of Islam. I submit those who adhere to a peaceful understanding of Islam are also fundamentalists.

  • John Pack Lambert

    I took this to be calling into question the general euphoric reactions towards the Arab Spring initially show by liberals, one that has not really coincided with the realities involved. I do think that the specific content should be addressed.
    While I do not think anyone should be prosecuted for these things, burning the Qu’ran is different than saying “Muhammad was not a prophet of God.”

    • RayIngles

      The question is whether those prosecuting blasphemy see any difference between those, though, isn’t it?

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Thanks for making that clarification, tmatt. I keep forgetting that there still exist “liberals” in the old sense of the word — and you’re one of them.


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