“Tried and Found Guilty of Deriding Islam”

Source : http://web.archive.org/web/20010222145050/
; 3-9 August, 2000
Al Ahram Weekly  Reporter, Fatemah Farag, reported (3-9th August, No 493)


That  Salaheddin Mohsen, the novelist, with more than a dozen books to his credit, was tried by a State Security Court and found guilty on 7 August of deriding Islam and questioning the Holy Qur'an. Mohsen  holds Islam responsible for the intellectual, economic, and moral stagnation of not only Egypt but the entire Muslim world.

Mohsen started as a clerk at the Ministry of Agriculture in Cairo , but  moved onto Lebanon where he worked as a typesetter before moving yet again, this time  to Iraq where he found employment as a clerk. On  returning to Egypt, he started a small business for selling painting materials. He used the profits to finance the publication of his books. According to  Mohsen, advanced nations achieved success through scientific research, and not religion.

Mohsen escaped with a relatively light sentence -- a suspended term of six months imprisonment. The court evidently did not wish to turn him into an Egyptian Freethought  Martyr, a kind of   Giordano Bruno of the Nile.

.The Court  also affirmed -- in its explanatory note -- that freedom of expression was a basic constitutional right. Though the decision and the explanatory note were seen as victory by certain intellectuals, Mohsen's lawyer, Samir El-Bagouri, disagreed. He told Al-Ahram Weekly that the ruling was, in fact, a dangerous precedent. "How can a verdict of guilty be seen as positive for intellectual freedom? To argue that the reasons given by the Court for its verdict were good is irrelevant. In the law there are only two things: guilty or innocent," he said.

Court hearings had opened on 17 June and requests by the defence to call in witnesses were turned down. "I requested that Hamdi Zaqzouq, minister of Al-Awqaf [religious endowments] be called in as well as prominent intellectuals, such as Samir Sarhan and Salah Eissa. The point was that the issues at hand are philosophical and cannot be judged by law. Moreover, these arguments are not new and have been made repeatedly throughout the course of history," El-Bagouri, Mohsen’s lawyer, said.

El-Bagouri had argued  that "derision" is a very loose term, with no  meaning. "If a text or argument is deemed offensive, then it should be refuted in kind, but not by criminal investigations and courts-of-law. Granted that Mohsen argued that some verses of the Qur'an were contradictory and could not have been handed down by God. Possibly, these are the queries of someone confused. Why criminalise him?" asked Bagouri.

Salah Eissa, editor-in-chief of Al-Qahira, a weekly newspaper published by the Ministry of Culture,claimed : "It is a good ruling which upholds the constitution and Islamic Shari'a [law]." He added, however, that "the verdict is worded in such a way so as to be vague and, consequently I do not think it can be used as a precedent."

Gamal Badawi, editor-in-chief of Sawt Al-Azhar (Voice of Al-Azhar), said that "the easiest thing for anyone who wants to become famous, any young idiot, is to bad-mouth God and religion. Such people do not deserve our consideration. Anyway, those who want to be atheists can do so, and may they go to hell, but they do not have the right to publish such ideas."

Eissa made a distinction  between freedom of belief and deriding religion. The first is a constitutional right and is also enshrined in Shari'a. Accordingly, citizens have the right to change their religion or give up religion altogether, if they wish, he said. But deriding religion, using disrespectful and derogatory terminology, is illegal. "Atheistic ideas can be discussed, but only within a framework that shows respect for the sentiments of religious people," he added.

According to Badawi: "In a case like this, the government has to intervene. It must play the role of conductor to restore balance to society. After all, it is the government which fought terrorism, and the government must also protect the feelings of Muslims."

 Farag  underlined the fact that “today's intellectual climate may be different from that of the early 20th century. In the 1920s, Ismail Ahmed Adham authored a book under the title Why I am an atheist. There were also other thinkers, such as Shibly Shumayel, Yacoub Sarouf and Salama Moussa, who freely discussed atheism, the theory of evolution, Marxism and other, then, novel ideas.”

Anwar Mughith, a researcher of modern Egyptian thought, has described how in 1889, there were 50 daily newspapers, rising to 84 in 1909, and 200 weekly newspapers, many of which  openly discussed ideas of thinkers such as Herbert Spencer and Hussein Heikal, both of whom advocated the primacy of science, Nietzsche who was openly  critical of religion, and Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau who urged political reform and democracy.

  Courageous, freethinking intellectuals laid the foundation of freedom of thought in Egypt. Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayed, for example, argued strongly in favour of the establishment of a faculty of philosophy in 1908, a suggestion opposed by conservatives who believed that such a move would promote scepticism and atheism.

"The socio-political environment at the time was conducive to liberal thought," explained Ahmed Atef, an independent researcher. "There was a degree of social stability that allowed an elite, in close contact with intellectual developments in Europe, to float their ideas. Even within the ranks of the religious establishment there were calls for reform made by Mohamed Abdu and Rifa'a El-Tahtawi."

Sawt Al-Azhar's Badawi acknowledges that Egypt of the first half of the 20th century entertained a considerably more liberal climate for philosophical and religious debate. Today things are different, he insists, however. "Foreigners associate Islam with terrorism and religion has become a very sensitive issue in today's Egypt. The raucous that accompanied the publication of A Banquet for Seaweed is a good example of that sensitivity," he noted, recalling protests at Al-Azhar University against the allegedly blasphemous novel.

According to Atef, the emergence of an influential middle class with a rural mentality as well as the politicisation of Islam with the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood created a new social and philosophical environment. "Possibly in reaction to the liberal trend within which religion was viewed as something personal, developed the idea that society should be organised according to religion. This is the perception which has gained hegemony today," said Atef.

Alluding to the open intellectual climate of the early 20th century, Badawi said: "They [secularists and atheists] were allowed to discuss their ideas in total freedom, but what did it all boil down to? Nothing. They all returned to religion and Egyptians were unaffected by atheistic propaganda."