Guest post by Areej Hassan
ِA fierce debate is currently taking place in Egypt’s Parliament over whether the country’s blasphemy law should be repealed. In response to the recent rise in blasphemy accusations against religious, political, and media personalities, as well as some of the country’s Christian minority, 100 out of a total 596 Egyptian Members of Parliament (MPs)s support a proposed bill to repeal the law.
The blasphemy law, or Article 98(f) of Egypt’s penal code, states:
Detention for a period of not less than six months and not exceeding five years, or paying a fine of not less than five hundred pounds and not exceeding one thousand pounds shall be the penalty inflicted on whoever exploits and uses the religion in advocating and propagating by talk or in writing, or by any other method, extremist thoughts with the aim of instigating sedition and division or disdaining and contempting any of the heavenly religions or the sects belonging thereto, or prejudicing national unity or social peace.
The most famous of the MPs who support the proposed bill is Dr. Amna Naseer, who is also a teacher of Islamic Jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. She is highly regarded by many Egyptians. With regard to the bill, Dr. Naseer stated that “Islam urges people to believe and does not call for imprisonment as punishment for anyone’s thoughts. For the sake of protecting my religion and the freedom of the Shari’a, I agree that the defamation of religion law should be repealed. This bill would also ensure that three of the freedoms enumerated in the constitution– thought, speech, and artistic expression– are protected.”
Standing in opposition to this bill are members of the Islamist Al-Noor Party, such as MP Muhammad Ismail. Ismail explained that calling for the repeal of the law would essentially be a call to chaos. He believes that the repeal would be extremely harmful to society, though he doesn’t explain how any harm could arise. He rejects the concept of challenging ideas with other ideas, arguing that insults to religion should be an exception to that concept.
Between these two positions are those who want only to amend the law. Those who are in this camp acknowledge that the current law is problematic. However, because they also believe that a blasphemy law for the protection of sacred beliefs is necessary, they argue that the current law need only be amended so that it is not applied unfairly to those undeserving of its punishments.
Imad Jad, a Christian MP who also supports the bill’s adoption and the blasphemy law’s complete repeal, said, in response to those who want to only amend the law, that if Parliament does not repeal the law in its entirety, he and other MPs will try other means to repeal the law. He has expressed his support of Dr. Naseer’s statement and also believes that the law’s existence serves to harm more than help the Islamic religion.
When Egyptian scholars of Islam were asked for their opinions regarding this new bill, Al-Azhar University’s Deputy, Abbas Shouman, explained that Al-Azhar is opposed to blasphemy against all religions, regardless of whether there is a blasphemy law in place. However, because Al-Azhar scholars themselves are not members of Parliament, they will not interfere in Parliament’s decision-making.
The fact that the proposed bill has the support of a highly respected MP like Dr. Naseer is a very promising sign. What makes this current debate so significant is the absence of the “Islamic vs. secular” division that has plagued Muslim-majority countries for so long.
The participation of mainstream Muslim scholars like Dr. Naseer in such a debate is extremely powerful in shifting people’s attitudes towards certain issues. Had the likes of Dr. Naseer been absent from this debate and had the only parties debating this issue been members of the Islamist Al-Nour Party vs. members of secular parties, the debate would have been unproductive. In such a scenario, the Al-Nour party, no matter how extreme, would have been presented and viewed as representing Muslim interests, while those from the secular parties, no matter how moderate, would have been viewed as representing any number of anti-Islamic interests.
It is refreshing to see scholars of Islam and other Muslims standing in opposition to Egypt’s blasphemy law on religious grounds, arguing that such measures are actually harmful and even antithetical to their religion, thus wresting power from parties like Al-Nour and their purported claim to speak as the sole voice of Islam and Muslims in Egypt.
Though it’s still uncertain whether this debate will lead to an actual repeal of Egypt’s blasphemy law, the fact that a debate is taking place at all, and with such nuanced arguments, is definitely a step in the right direction.
Areej Hassan is Director of Media and Research at the Center for Islam and Religious Freedom. She has a B.A. in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University.