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:

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Let’s revisit Benghazi and the 1st Amendment

YouTube Preview ImageIf you didn’t get a chance to watch the Benghazi whistleblowers testify before Congress yesterday, you should. Part of what made it so interesting was how dramatically their testimony contradicted the official line received and published by the media in previous months. It was also just a good lesson in how bureaucracy works and how competing interests can impede the search for truth or justice.

You may recall that “What difference, at this point, does it make?” was a main takeaway from former Sec. of State Hilary Clinton’s fiery testimony on Benghazi.

State Department counterterrorism officer Ed Nordstrom responded to that by saying, as he choked up, “It matters to me personally. It matters to my colleagues, to my colleagues at the Department of State. It matters to the American public for whom we serve. And most importantly, excuse me. It matters to the friends and family of, of Ambassador Stevens, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty, Tyrone Woods, who were murdered on September 11th, 2012.”

And Gregory Hicks, the deputy chief of mission in Benghazi, testified that when he heard Obama administration officials say that the Benghazi attack was due to a blasphemous YouTube video, “I was stunned. My jaw dropped. And I was embarrassed.”

Now, given who the perpetrators were, the 9/11/12 terrorist attack has serious and complicated religious angles that should be explored. But there was another huge religion angle to this story and I’m disappointed that we didn’t see more or better coverage of that angle.

That religion angle is about freedom of religious expression and government action against blasphemy.

For reference, my posts on the matter from last September (aka “a long time ago”) hold up well: Missing the forest for the YouTube video, The missing anti-Muslim movie stories, and Journalism means never having to say you’re sorry.

I thought about this angle again when reading Reason‘s “Hall of Shame” for people who thought the overarching lesson of Benghazi was that freedom of expression needed to be restricted. It’s frightening how highly placed or influential some of those people are.

Falsely assessing partial blame for the violence on a piece of artistic expression inflicted damage not just on the California resident who made it—Nakoula Basseley Nakoula is currently serving out a one-year sentence for parole violations committed in the process of producing Innocence—but also on the entire American culture of free speech. In the days and weeks after the attacks, academics and foreign policy thinkers fell over themselves dreaming up new ways to either disproportionately punish Nakoula or scale back the very notion of constitutionally protected expression.

I also thought of that angle when reading Rich Lowry’s column in Politico today that began:

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula deserves a place in American history. He is the first person in this country jailed for violating Islamic anti-blasphemy laws.

 

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