Egypt's Liberals Being Sacrificed on the Altar of Religion

A publicist critical of animal sacrifices on Muslim holidays was sentenced to prison in Egypt, sparking discussion on the conflict between the regime and religious groups in the country.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A livestock dealer carries a sheep to a customer in Cairo, Egypt ahead of Id al-Adha, Oct. 14, 2013.
A livestock dealer carries a sheep to a customer in Cairo, Egypt ahead of Id al-Adha, Oct. 14, 2013.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The revolution in religion that Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi declared a year ago remains dead in the water in Eygpt.

Millions of innocent creatures will be driven to the most horrible massacre committed by humans for 10-and-a-half centuries, said Fatima Naoot, adding that the animals' heads would be cut off and their blood spilled for no reason, as part of a massacre which is repeated every year because of the nightmare of a righteous man about his good son.

Thus the Egyptian author and publicist – who is an engineer by profession – referred to the ceremonial slaughter of sheep on the major Muslim holidays: Id al-Fitr (marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan) and Id al-Adha (the Feast of the Sacrifice).

Naoot may be a member of the Egyptian engineering society, but her claim to fame is mainly her opinionated views in the press and on her Facebook page where, more than a year ago, she wrote sharp criticism of animal sacrifices.

It is not entirely clear why lawyer Mahmoud Afifi decided to keep an eye on Naoots Facebook page. But the result was that he and two of his colleagues sued her in court in Cairo, complaining that Naoot had violated the law that forbids blasphemy.

Under Article 98 of the Egyptian penal code, anybody insulting other religions, hurting them, preventing its adherents from holding their religious ceremonies, or disseminating extremist religious positions is liable to five years in prison and a fine.

The court could not ignore the lawsuit but it did not spare the complainants either and even temporarily arrested them – apparently on suspicion of membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, and of suing Naoot chiefly in order to humiliate the regime and to present it as being too lenient with blasphemers.

Naoot. “Thanks to those who file suit against us, accusing us of belittling religion, while they don’t even know how to write the name of God," she wrote.Credit: Fatima Naoot's Facebook page

This wouldnt be the first time that Muslim Brotherhood activists use legal means to demonstrate the feebleness of the leadership when it comes to protecting Islam in Egypt. But at a time when the regime is ceaselessly hounding the Muslim Brotherhood, President Sissi is particular sensitive to the accusation that he has "abandoned" the religion.

The court eventually debated the lawsuit and late last month sentenced Naoot to three years in prison and a fine of 20,000 Egyptian lira. Naoot did not hold back, and wrote: I thank the court for the sentence. Thanks also to those who file suit against us, accusing us of belittling religion, while they themselves dont even know how to write the name of God.

Actually, Naoot has joined a long list of academics, thinkers and activists – like Farag Fawda, the intellectual who was murdered in 1992 by extremists; and film director Inas El Degheidy, who was questioned last year after calling for a ban on veils, and mockingly saying she talked with Allah; and Hamed Abu Zayd, a religion researcher who was arrested and declared a heretic in 1995 because of the new interpretation of the Koran that he developed. All were tried for blasphemy.

The article of law used to convict them had been handed down originally by President Anwar Sadat against the Muslim Brotherhood, who at the time were abusing the religious pulpit, as it were, to incite against the Christian community in Egypt.

Naoot was sentenced at a time when Sissi is urging the Cairene parliament and most important religious institution in the country, Al-Azhar, to recreate religious discourse in Egypt in a manner that will prevent extremist interpretations, offer ways for different religions to cooperate, and ensure moderate religious education in the school system.

It was a year ago that Sissi inaugurated the so-called religious revolution, designed to eradicate the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical sects from the public discourse. But the revolution is dead in the water. Aside from two conferences held by Al-Azhar, the content of which remained unpublished, one cannot point at any real change in the school curriculum or in sermons at mosques.

Al-Azhar cant protect our children from radicalism, charges the influential journalist Khaled Salah. Indeed, staff and researchers at the institution see the call to renew the debate over religion as an attempt by the government to force political policy on religion.

Sissi himself held a meeting with intellectuals and religious leaders to discuss issues related to the discourse surrounding Islam in the country. Among the participants was Fatima Naoot. The meeting did not result in the turnaround for which the president had hoped.

The fear now is that the initiative to renew the religious debate could set new criteria that would affect freedom of speech. Who exactly is to say what blasphemy is? What expressions would be legitimate, and which not? Who, among the religious leaders, will advise the courts as to how to handle blasphemous statements?

Those are just some of the issues raised by Egyptian intellectuals following what seems to be another tack being used by the regime – not only against religious extremists but against liberals, too.

The frustration of secular liberals is reflected in statements by journalist Ibrahim Eissa, who has asked, How can just any person be allowed to file a suit against another person, accusing him of blasphemy, at the same time that Egypt hosts the biggest book fair in the region?

Enlightenment and religion, in Eissas opinion, cannot dwell together in harmony. But, then, who is to define what enlightenment is?

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