On Sunday, Egypt’s minister for Religious Endowments, Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa, called for an “international law to criminalize contempt of religion,” which would make it a crime to publish articles or cartoons showing disdain or ridicule of religions.
Contempt of religion is already illegal in Egypt, with a punishment of between six months and five years in prison and a fine of 500 to 1,000 Egyptian pounds. In recent years, many people have been arrested on this charge and faced trial. As recently as last week, an Islamic show host was sentenced to prison in absentia for accusations of being in contempt of religion.
A Ministry official announced the proposal in Gomaa’s name during a conference for world religious leaders in Kazakhstan this weekend.
Though Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has not publicly weighed in on the proposal, he has been calling upon Egypt’s Islamic institutions, including Al-Azhar, the Ministry of Religious Endowments, and Dar Al-Iftaa to “renew religious discourse” since early this year.
The president has emphasized the importance of “correcting religious speech so that it is in accordance with the tolerant Islamic teachings,” as well as insisting that it “eliminate sectarian disputes and confront extremism and militancy.”
This is not the first time such a proposal has been made. Last January, following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, the Qatar-based International Union of Muslim Scholars called for protection for “prophets” and urged Islamic countries to submit a draft law to the UN, outlawing defamation of religions. The union said the UN should then issue a “law criminalizing contempt of religions and the prophets and all the holy sites.”
Though Gomaa has said he believes such an international law should criminalize contempt of religion universally, “without any discrimination,” skeptics are already wondering whether a statute of this sort would not invite selective enforcement based on personal beliefs.
The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, a legal organization, warned that under such a law, “anyone could be presented to court” for publishing an article, images or any material on any religion if the opinion expressed is different from that of the ruling faction.
The warning is not an exercise in hyperbole. Complaints of selective enforcement of blasphemy laws are a regular occurrence in countries that still have them, such as Indonesia, Pakistan, and even Egypt itself.
According to Paul Marshall of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, while Islam is zealously guarded, people publicly insult Judaism and its adherents “everyday and every way in Egypt,” without anyone being called to task under the contempt of religion law.
Thus, while the Egyptian law is, in theory, meant to discourage people from offending people’s religious sensitivities, it is, instead, used to stifle free speech and intimidate those who do not subscribe to the standard.
More importantly, the principles of freedom of speech and of the press are meant not only to protect the speech of individuals with whom we agree, but above all, to protect those with whom we do not agree.
A healthy criticism of religion, like criticism of politics and culture, is a hallmark of a free society. All freedoms can be abused, but their abuse does not negate their value or the wisdom of defending them.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.