Religious speech: freedom of expression or insult?
Columnist Fatma Naout - YOUM7 (Archive)

CAIRO: Columnist Fatma Naoot, accused of insulting Islam, will stand trial on Jan. 28 on allegations she criticized Islamic animal sacrifices, even though some clerics and conservatives say the charge is “broad” and contradicts freedom of expression.

Naoot wrote a Facebook post in October in which she expressed her disagreement with the traditional practice of slaughtering animals during the Islamic Eid al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice) and described it as the “biggest massacre.”

She wrote that she would not take part in this “massacre that is committed by humans for 10 and half centuries and which they continue to repeat with a smile.” She added that the practice started because of a “nightmare by a good man regarding his son,” referring to the willingness of biblical figure Abraham to sacrifice his son when ordered by God in a vision to do so.

Facing scrutiny over her opinion, Naoot posted a clarification on her Facebook page saying her statements were meant to be taken wrong by members of the Muslim Brotherhood. “I respect all divine religions, non-divine ones and everyone who searches for the divine, but I do not respect those who trade in the name of religion,” Naoot told The Cairo Post Sunday.

Furthermore, she said she believed those who filed the lawsuit against her are “Brotherhood [members] who took an interest in me beginning in 2005 after I started tracking their flaws.”

She also said Facebook posts are private and sometimes include jokes, so “it is strange to be tried for Facebook posts; it is not even an article in a newspaper.” However, she added, “I stress that I respect the Egyptian judiciary and the prosecution that referred my case… and whatever the result will be, it is going to be a simple price for [me] so as not to be fake.”

Insulting religion: does charge need adjustment or removal?

Naoot is not the only Egyptian currently facing charges of insulting religion this year, “as some Shiites, Copts, writers and others are now standing trials or being investigated on the same charge,” Isaac Ibrahim, human rights researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), told The Cairo Post Sunday.

A misdemeanor court upheld in March a five-year prison sentence against author Karam Saber for insulting God in his stories.

Following Saber’s verdict, Human Rights Watch called on Egyptian authorities to stop pursuing writers and abolish laws violating freedom of expression, including those banning “contempt of religion.”

Ibrahim said that it was his opinion insulting religion is “a charge pursued against bloggers and thinkers for expressing their opinions in issues related to religion or in some cases for liking [religion-related] posts on Facebook; however, the Constitution guarantees freedom of both expression and beliefs.”

Article 98F in the Egyptian Penal Code stipulates that those who use religion in talking, writing or by any method to “instigate sedition and division or disdain and contempt of any of the heavenly religions or the sects belonging thereto” will be sentenced to not less than six months and up to five years in prison.

“What does disdain mean? The article is very elastic. There should be clarification when talking about religion as to when it is an act of freedom of expression and when it is an insult,” said Ibrahim. He added that article 98 “violates the right to freedom of expression in the Egyptian Constitution and international conventions.”

Ibrahim said he has attended a number of trials in which people were facing charges of insulting religion, and said “the trials are mostly built on the person’s affiliations and inclinations and not the crime itself, and sometimes the defendants are asked about their religious commitment.”

He added he has observed an increase in such filed cases since the January 25 Revolution of 2011.

EIPR released a report titled “Thinking Siege” in August 2013 citing 36 religious disdain legal cases filed between 2011 and 2012. The report said “it is a big number indicating the size of the challenge facing the freedom of expression in general and the freedom of religion and belief in particular.”

When he was asked to comment on Naoot’s case, Ahmed Kreema, a professor of comparative jurisprudence at the Faculty of Islamic and Arabic Studies at Al-Azhar University, told The Cairo Post Sunday that as an Islamic scholar, he did not see the need to bring such religious disdain cases to court.

“I am against ambushing people. In Naoot’s case and in others like hers, the scholar’s role is to teach and correct mistaken thoughts by argument and proof—not by trials—if the thought is proven mistaken,” Kreema said.  “This is Islam’s approach and this is how the Prophet Mohamed wisely dealt with similar cases.”

“The scales are deranged in Egypt, where pulling [people] to courts is considered an act of heroism,” he continued. He argued that the definition of the charge “disdain of religion” needs more adjustments by Al-Azhar Institute, as he believes that such legal loopholes pass very “trivial and baseless” cases to the courts.

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