Freedom of religion in Egypt no better under military rule

Cairo — After June 30, 2013, many people thought that the end of Muslim Brotherhood rule would bring about military-enforced secularism, or more religious and personal freedom. Instead, they are slowly finding out that the new state is very similar to the old state and employing the same — if not worse — tactics against said freedoms. The Islamists may no longer be in power, but religious despotism seems to be alive and well in the land of the Nile.

Exhibit A: Shiite college student Amr Abdallah was just sentenced to five years in jail for “contempt for religion.” Amr was arrested Nov. 14, 2013, when he entered Al-Hussein Mosque during an Ashoura celebration, an act the authorities deemed worthy of arrest and interrogation. The court, in its opinion, stated that its function is to dispense justice based on the rules that God has laid out. The court also stated that the views presented by Amr after his questioning were an abominable attack on religion that cannot be defended by the constitutionally protected freedoms of belief or expression, given that the basis of all legislation is Sharia principles, which Amr’s views are completely against.

Exhibit B: On March 11, 2014, the Beba misdemeanor court in Beni Suef upheld the June 2013 verdict against Egyptian author and human rights activist Karam Saber, which sentenced him to three years in jail for contempt of religion and the publishing of his book, Ayn Allah? (Where is God?). The charges were filed by a number of citizens in Beni Suef in 2011, accusing Saber of calling for atheism, insulting God and inciting sedition and bloodshed. The public prosecution has asked the opinion of the Beni Suef diocese and Al-Azhar regarding the validity of publishing that book. Al-Azhar stated that the book destroys the intellectual values of Egyptian society, while the diocese said that the author derides the sanctity of religion with stories that are far from sophisticated literature. Both agreed the book should be banned. Writers, intellectuals and activists have called the ruling a violation of the Egyptian Constitution's Article 67, which states, “No freedom-restricting sanction may be inflicted for crimes committed because of the publicity of artistic, literary or intellectual product.” Unfortunately, no one in the judiciary seems to care.

Exhibit C: Al-Azhar is currently calling for banning Darren Aronofsky’s film “Noah” from Egyptian theaters, since the religious institution has decreed it forbidden for holy prophets to be portrayed by actors. There has been a huge backlash against that call, with the Ministry of Culture challenging Al-Azhar’s opinion. So far, it is unclear whether the movie will be shown in Egypt. It is worth noting that “The Passion of the Christ” was screened in Egyptian theaters, and many Egyptian reviewers raved about the accurate (read: unflattering, anti-Semitic) portrayal of Jews in the movie.

Welcome to post-Islamist Egypt, where the involvement of religious institutions in creativity and freedom of opinion cases is alive and well, and where there is very little difference between theirs and Salafist Islamists' modus operandi. In two of the aforementioned cases, Al-Azhar is definitely on the side of stifling artistic expression and curbing freedom of religion. This is the same Al-Azhar whose centrist Islamic thought — according to presidential media adviser Ahmed al-Moslimany — is direly needed by Egypt and the Arab world; it is the same Al-Azhar whose university is the site of regular clashes between the police and Muslim Brotherhood-supporting students.

Needless to say, such cases violate the principles of rule of law and citizenship, and completely cast aside rights enshrined by the recently voted upon constitution. The state seems OK with that, in an effort not to appear as anti-Islam heathens, a characterization promoted by Muslim Brotherhood supporters. By continuing such court cases and rulings, the state hopes to present itself as a paragon of Islamic faith so as not to drive more young Egyptians down the path of religious extremism or jihad. The same tactic was used by Hosni Mubarak regime officials to prove they were not the "infidels" that the Islamists claimed them to be. Instead, the tactic gave the Islamists the ground to grow and become the force they are today.

This tactic, in which the state casts itself as defender of Islam, had previously failed miserably because religious conservatives did not buy it. To allow the jailing of authors or the banning of books doesn’t endear the government to religious fundamentalists — only the strictest adherence to Sharia would. Such cases only achieve the normalization of a culture of religious and artistic persecution, which religious fundamentalists use to their advantage in their war against secular or non-Sunni Muslims.

While the continued use of such charges and practices has shocked the Egyptian intellectual elite and proponents of secularism and anti-Islamist beliefs, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Egyptian military is a religiously conservative institution that insisted upon the inclusion of the Salafist Nour Party in the July 3 ruling coalition, despite objections from a majority of June 30 participants, who view the party as worse than the Muslim Brotherhood. Their inclusion of conservative religious ideology in the ruling of a population that has become outspokenly anti-Islamist only mirrors the Muslim Brotherhood's own insistence on defending the military-security apparatus in 2011 and 2012, when antagonism against it was at its height. Though security and religious authorities might seem to be at odds — or even at war — they view one another as indispensable partners in ruling Egypt. They come to the other’s aid when one is getting rightfully attacked by human rights-oriented citizens. In Egypt, the reign of the Islamists may be over, but the age of secularism is nowhere in sight.