Faith Trials: A Study in Cases of Defamation of Religion by the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression

Analysis, posted 09.05.2014, from Egypt, in:

The report written by Ahmed Ezzat head of legal unit at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, consists of 6 sections as well as a final ‘recommendations’ section.

The report highlights issues related to the freedom of expression in Egypt and argues that it is not necessarily related to the government being Islamist but to structural impediments and the absence of a true political will to support it. The study relies on the analysis of legislation related to freedom of expression and specifically the expression of religious beliefs. It highlights some judicial ruling in cases that involved defamation of religion accusations.

The first section of the study explores whether or not criticizing religions falls under the auspices of the freedom of expression. Through bringing this debate to light, the author also presents examples of relevant legal cases brought before the Egyptian courts. This also shows statements made by both Muslim and Christian religious institutions. Ezzat presents both sides of the argument in this section discussing various themes like hate speech and the limitations on freedom of speech. The first view point presented is that which considers the criticism of religion as part of the right to free expression and speech. This should not therefore be impeded so long as ones freedom of speech does not incite violence or discrimination. Ezzat mentions the relevant articles of international law supporting this view point as well as various instances where the Egyptian Constitutional Court upheld the right to freedom of expression in this context while dismissing charges brought against individuals for defamation. This includes snippets of the proceedings and statements made by judges and jurists that highlight the logic behind this argument. The second view point presented is the argument against the criticism of religion under the premise that this constitutes hate speech. Ezzat thus presents the international conventions that address the issue of hate speech and articles that defines and criminalizes hate speech against religious communities. Here, Ezzat presents the stances of local Egyptian courts in juxtaposition of the constitutional court discussed earlier. The contradiction between the freedom of expression, religion and belief an the courts own understanding of freedom of belief is highlighted.

The second section investigates the politics behind the legislation of criminal laws in Egypt against the defamation of religion. Ezzat discusses what he refers to as the “policy of criminalizing and punishing [defamation of religion].” This section focuses primarily on the legislation relevant to crimes against religion, in other words, it shows how the criticism of religion is considered a crime either of defamation or degradation. The discussion also brings to light how public and legal concerns only relate to monotheistic religions recognized by the Egyptian government: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Ezzat goes into several examples in detail of crimes against religion with real trials presented like the ‘propagation of extremists views,’ ‘the disruption of religious rites’ and the ‘changing in holy religious texts,’ as well as how Egypt’s criminal code addresses them. The legal culture is also explored in this section showing the extent to which judges have the liberty to interpret and create their own understanding of freedom of speech and defamation.

The third section tackles the right to privacy and its importance as well as its relation to the freedom of religious expression. Ezzat goes on to discuss discrimination in regulating the freedom of religion or belief in Egypt in the fourth section, in which the Baha’i religion is brought up as a religion that is not recognized as Abrahamic and thus like other minority sects like Shia’a Islam as well as atheism are not actually protected under the law. This is not the case with Christianity and Judaism, at least in theory. The fifth section discusses the ‘monopoly’ over religious opinions and uses Al-Azhar as an example for this. Ezzat goes into the religious authority of Al-Azhar and the institution’s position in being the primary and only official dispenser of religious Islamic opinion. Laws and constitutional articles are discussed in this section to highlight the institution’s sphere of influence and jurisdiction. The study is concluded by presenting the criteria forwarded by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights upon which the freedom of expression, of religion or belief and the protection from discrimination are based. The sixth section briefly surveys international laws with regards to freedom of belief and expression.

freedomspeech.pdf1.63 MB