The War Over Blasphemy

by Maikel Nabil Sanad

Two weeks ago, Iceland abolished its 75-year-old blasphemy law. The parliament’s decision was a victory for the unconventional Pirate Party, which made the call to abolish the blasphemy law in Iceland after the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in France. Churches in Iceland publically opposed this step, but this didn’t prevent the bill from gaining a vast majority in the Icelandic parliament.

One month before, on June 7, Saudi Arabia’s supreme courts decided to uphold the sentence of 1,000 lashes and 10 years imprisonment on the Saudi activist Raif Badawi. Raif, the founder of the Saudi Liberal network, was originally detained in June 2012 on charges of blasphemy and apostasy. So far Badawi has served three years of his sentence and already received 50 lashes last January. His courageous wife Ensaf Haidar has initiated a huge campaign on his behalf. Raif was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize because of his contribution to freedom in Saudi Arabia. But it seems that all of that is not enough to get him released.

Saudi Arabia isn’t the only country that targets blasphemers and nonbelievers. According to a report published by the Pew Research Institute in 2012, one out of every five countries has anti-blasphemy laws or policies, and one of every 10 countries penalizes apostasy.

Both the Icelandic and the Saudi decisions show contrasting approaches to dealing with blasphemy these days. Countries like Netherlands, Norway, and Iceland are getting rid of their old blasphemy laws. Other countries, like Ireland, are introducing new blasphemy laws. And countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt are increasing their persecution of blasphemers.

The Saudi Hell

Saudi Arabia is the last place an atheist or a blasphemer would like to be in. Not only is atheism classified as an act of terrorism and apostasy and blasphemy are punishable by death, but also because physical punishment is legal in Saudi Arabia. A blasphemer can be tortured and lashed for years before he is handed to the executioner.

Saudi Arabia’s legal system is based on Sharia law, which is basically the instructions of the Quran, Hadith, and some other historic Islamic sources. But the main difference between Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries that apply Sharia law is that Saudi Arabia doesn’t have written laws that define Sharia but leaves it to policemen and judges to interpret and implement the historic Islamic texts. And since the prophet of Islam, Mohamed, had ordered “You shall kill whoever changes his religion, Saudi judges would consider blasphemy an act of apostasy and punish blasphemers by death.

Last April, the former Saudi king Abdullah issued a new decree criminalizing activities considered hostile to the kingdom and now defined as acts of terrorism. The Saudi Interior Ministry followed with a list of groups criminalized by this decree, and atheists were among those groups. The irony here is that terrorism is now punished in Saudi Arabia, according to the new decree, with 20 years imprisonment, while apostasy and blasphemy are punishable by death. But as atheists are considered terrorists as well, they will be punished under both laws.

Raif Badawi isn’t the only one whom Saudi Arabia punished for blasphemy and apostasy. The kingdom has a long list of victims, and it’s hard to know most of the names in the list because of the country’s lack of transparency and efficient civil society. The Saudi Blogger Hamza Kashgari was hunted down in Malaysia, deported to Saudi Arabia, charged with blasphemy because of his anti-religious writings, and kept in prison for 20 months until he recanted his apostasy. The first act Kashgary did after being released was publishing a picture of him together with an Imam, receiving a gift of a copy of the Quran.

In 2005, Hamza Al-Maziani and Muhammad Al-Harbi were sentenced to imprisonment and a whipping for blasphemy. Al-Maziani’s crime was writing an article about the quality of education in Saudi Arabia, and Al-Harbi’s crime was talking to students about chemistry and Judaism. In 2007, the general court of Jeddah sentenced Turkish National Sabri Bogday to death for “swearing at Allah.” Bogday remained in prison until 2009, when King Abdulla pardoned and deported him back to Turkey. Sabri’s release came, according to a Saudi diplomat, after he repented and asked God for forgiveness.

But such harsh Saudi stance on atheism and blasphemy should be seen as a reaction not as an action. The Saudi authorities have been overwhelmed lately with the growing numbers of atheists in the kingdom. The Saudi royal family uses religion an essential tool to remain in power, and growing disbelief threatens their legitimacy. It has been reported that atheists represent now 5-9% of the Saudi population. In 2010, 7% of Saudis did not consider religion important in their lives. In 2014 only, Saudi authorities has blocked over than 24,000 websites, mostly atheist and pornographic ones. The authorities arrested 76 people because of some of these websites.

Last January, Saudi atheists secretly held the first atheist forum in Mecca. Around a 100 atheists took part in this event. It was a shock to the Saudi regime, as Mecca is the holiest city for Muslims, and non-Muslims aren’t allowed to enter the city. The fact that organized apostates, who left Islam, could meet in Mecca was enough to drive the Saudi king to issue his decree three months afterward

Sudan: Run By A War Criminal

Sudan has many things in common with Saudi Arabia. Both criminalize apostasy and blasphemy, and both approve physical punishment including lashing. Sudan as well doesn’t have a properly developed civil society or free media, which makes it easy for the Sudanese government to target individuals without international attention.

Section 125 of the Sudanese Criminal Law criminalizes blasphemy with punishments of imprisonment, fines, and up to 40 lashes of a whip. Apostasy, criminalized by article 126 of the same law, is punishable by death.

The most famous blasphemy case involved Gillian Gibbons and became known in media as the “Sudanese Teddy Bear Blasphemy Case.” Gibbons, a school teacher, was sentenced in 2007 to imprisonment and deportation after she was found guilty of blasphemy. Her crime was that she used a teddy bear named “Muhammed” in her classroom, which the court considered blasphemous. Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, erupted in riots as religious extremists demanded her death. Gibbons’s British citizenship helped ensure that she returned safely to her country.

Mohammed Taha wasn’t as lucky as Gibbons. Taha, the editor of the Sudanese newspaper Al-Wifaq, was an Islamist and a member of the National Islamic Front. Taha’s newspaper ran an article in late 2005 questioning the ancestry of the prophet of Islam. The Sudanese authorities detained, tried, and convicted him for blasphemy, and fined his newspaper eight million Sudanese pounds. Islamic radicals set fire to his newspapers and kidnapped him. He was later found beheaded.

Egypt: Theocratic Military Junta

Egypt’s legal system is a total mess. On one side, article 2 of the 2014’s constitution makes sharia law the main source of all legislation. But on the other side, article 64 of the same constitution guarantees the freedom of belief. Article 64 also restricts the freedom of practicing religious rituals to “heavenly religions,” a term used in Islam to refer to the three religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Article 7 of the constitution gives special status to the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, making it a kind of a state church. Many bills and court decisions are sent to Al-Azhar for approval before being issued.

Egypt’s penal code, which goes back to 1937, criminalizes blasphemy in article 98. According to this article, only blasphemy against the three “heavenly religions” is punishable. In practice, most of blasphemy cases in Egypt are made against atheists and Christians, some against Shiite Muslims, and very few against Sunni Muslims.

Al-Azhar, a conservative institution, has used every possible opportunity to put atheists and blasphemers behind bars. In 2006, Al-Azhar started a blasphemy case against the atheist blogger Kareem Amer. He was sentenced to four years in prison and became the first-ever Egyptian blogger to be imprisoned because of his writings. The authorities tortured Amer several times during his imprisonment because he left Islam.

After the 2011 uprising, the Egyptian state started using every possible oppressive tool, including the anti-blasphemy article in the penal code, to silence the youth struggling for democracy. The number of blasphemy cases and convictions in Egypt in the last four years exceeds the entire number of such cases from the previous 30 years. The list of people charged with blasphemy after the revolution included the famous businessman Naguib Sawiris, Google, Charlie Hebdo magazine, and the former French president Nicolas Sarkozy. I too was charged officially with blasphemy in October 2012 over some comments I made on Twitter.

One of the significant blasphemy cases in Egypt is the case of Gamal Abdou Masoud, 17, a Christian from Asyut in Upper Egypt. In January 2012, Masoud was tagged on Facebook in a picture that criticized Islam. Because of this picture, angry mobs surrounded his house, burned it down along with the houses of other Christians in the village, and forced his family to leave. The police didn’t arrest anyone from the mobs. Instead, Masoud was sentenced to three years in prison for “insulting Islam.” The same thing happened with Alber Saber in September 2012 and Karim Elbanna in January 2015. In all three cases, mobs attacked individual atheists, the authorities ignored the mob, and only the blasphemer was arrested.

Many atheists have left the country for fear of persecution. Alber Saber lives now in Switzerland after he was sentenced to three years in prison for blasphemy. I haven’t been back to Egypt since I was charged with blasphemy in October 2012. Others are now living all over Europe and America.

The power struggle between secularists and Islamists who support the new Egyptian administration may bring a change to the current situation. Secularists are demanding the abolition of the anti-blasphemy law, while Islamists are demanding harsher penalties for atheism and blasphemy. The Egyptian president reacted by celebrating Lailat Alkadr with Al-Azhar’s imams. He promised them that that the atheism issue will end soon. He didn’t tell specify how that would happen.

Europe: 400 Years after the Thirty Years War

Nearly four centuries ago, Europe was torn apart in a bloody war between religious groups, primarily Catholics and Protestants. Europe looks a lot better these days from the point of view of tolerance, but there is a long way to go.

In November 2012, the Dutch parliament decided to revoke the Netherlands’ blasphemy law. The law was introduced originally in 1930 but hadn’t been used in half a century. The electoral success of the liberal parties in the parliamentary elections in September 2012 made this change possible, as it decreased the power of the conservative and religious parties.

On January 7, 2015, a day celebrated as Christmas in Eastern churches, two terrorists attacked the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, leaving behind 11 dead and 11 others injured. The attack was a reaction to Charlie Hebdo’s blasphemous comics about religion, specifically Islam. The attack triggered a pan-European debate about freedom of expression and blasphemy.

Norway was the first to respond. In May 2015, the Norwegian parliament voted to end the country’s blasphemy law. Members of the Conservative Party and the Progressive Party led the initiative for this change. True, the last time Norway used its blasphemy law was in the trial of the Norwegian writer Arnulf Overland in 1933. But now blasphemers won’t feel the threat of persecution when they express their opinions about religion.

Iceland followed this month by ending its 75-year-old blasphemy law, decreasing the number of European countries that criminalize blasphemy to seven countries: Germany, Denmark, Poland, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Turkey. Six out of these seven countries are members of the European Union. Some other European countries, like France, have a blasphemy law only in some regions in the country. Other European countries, like Austria, don’t criminalize blasphemy but do criminalize the “vilification of religious teachings.”

The Irish case is very interesting. The Irish constitution in Article 40 criminalizes blasphemy. But an Irish court declared the former “blasphemous libel” unconstitutional in 1999 because the law only protected Christianity and this was incompatible with the constitutional guarantee of religious equality. This court decision created a legal gap, which remained for 10 years until the Irish lawmakers introduced a new blasphemy law in 2009. Ireland is the only case in Europe of introducing a new blasphemy law in recent time, and it runs counter to the general direction Europe has been heading.

Arguments Against Blasphemy Laws

There are generally three different arguments against blasphemy laws: the human rights argument, the secular argument, and the atheist argument.

According to the human rights argument, everyone should have the freedom to express their views on everything in life, including religion, without being punished for their opinions. You should also have the right to access all opinions and views, without having them filtered by authorities who might consider some of them blasphemous. Simply, you have a right to access and express opinions without state restrictions. That’s the core of freedom of expression and press freedom.

The secular argument is based on an understanding of the state as an institution that citizens have elected to perform some earthly services. So, it’s not the state’s job to punish citizens for crimes committed against the gods. A state is an organization with a mission of keeping security, justice, and order within a specific territory. The state shouldn’t waste taxpayers’ money building churches or hunting down those who don’t believe in a specific god.

The atheist argument is that a god who needs a man-made law to protect him can’t be actually a god. A god is supposed to be a powerful all-mighty being who is able to protect himself and take revenge on those who insult him. But if a god can’t take revenge for himself, and he needs his followers to protect him, then he isn’t much of a god.

It has been over than 24 centuries since Socrates was sentenced to death for blasphemy. Centuries of religious wars, inquisitions, and witch-hunting have passed since, and humans still stone, lash, imprison, burn, behead, and kill each other to defend their various gods.

Photo: Demonstration outside the Saudi embassy in Helsinki, Finland on behalf of Raif Badawi (courtesy of Amnesty Finland via Flickr).

Maikel Nabil Sanad, an Egyptian writer and peace activist, is a former political prisoner and the founder of NoMilService. He is based now in Washington, D.C.;

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