Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Increasing number of cases of "insults to Islam" in Bangladesh and Egypt

by Salman Hameed

There is a battle going on in much of the Muslim world on the place of religion in a modern state. We are seeing an increasing number of people (mostly young) testing the boundaries of free-speech and freedom of expression. But there is also another trend where an "insult to Islam" is being used as a broad and blunt weapon for the purposes of silencing various kinds of oppositions. I wouldn't call this a backlash to free-speech debate, but this gained its own momentum from the Danish cartoon controversies and other such events. I will have a longer post on this in a few days. In the mean time, I want to highlight couple of things that are happening in Bangladesh and Egypt.

In Bangladesh, there is currently turmoil that brings together history (as per related to its bloody independence from Pakistan), politics, and the role of religion in public sphere. But within that context, the religious groups are going after "blasphemous" blogs and actually killed an atheist Bangladeshi blogger. The story is quite complicated (thought you can get the gist of it in this fantastic article), but the Islamic parties in Bangladesh are now going after "blasphemous" websites (however, they define it):
Bangladesh has widened a crackdown on allegedly blasphemous blogs after a threat by Islamists to march to the capital demanding the prosecution of atheist bloggers, an official said on Wednesday. 
The telecommunications regulator ordered two leading Internet sites to remove hundreds of posts by seven bloggers whose writings it said offended Muslims, according to its assistant director Rahman Khan. 
These writings have defamed Islam and our prophet.
The two sites — Somewhereinblog.net and Amarblog.com — have removed most of the posts, Khan said. Khan said the regulator was scrutinising other sites to identify and erase “blasphemous blogs” in an attempt to ensure religious harmony in the mainly Muslim nation. 
The move comes after Islamic groups and clerics, who have staged a series of deadly protests against atheist bloggers in recent weeks, threatened to march en masse to Dhaka on April 6 unless the bloggers are prosecuted.
In Egypt, an atheist from a Coptic Christian was sent to jail for 3-years on "blasphemy charges":
Mr Saber was initially accused of circulating links to a 14-minute trailer for the film, Innocence of Muslims, which denigrates the Prophet Muhammad. 
But he denied promoting the video and later faced charges relating to other statements critical of Islam and Christianity which police investigators allegedly found online and on his computer at his home. 
Human rights groups have called for Mr Saber's release.
There has been a proliferation of prosecutions for blasphemy in Egypt in the nearly two years since Hosni Mubarak was overthrown. Many of those targeted are Copts, who make up about 10% of the population. 
Although blasphemy has long been a criminal offence, Article 44 of the draft constitution contains a specific article prohibiting insulting prophets.
But on the flip side, you can also find this case of a former Muslim Brotherhood member putting religion on hold, and he has been able to avoid the jail (tip from Michael Murray):
What would prompt a former youth member of the Muslim Brotherhood to declare that he is putting his belief in Islam “on hold”? What would convert young people to become not only non-religious but extremely anti-theist following long periods of activism with Egypt’s ultra-conservative Wahhabi club, the Salafis? 
What I said may be surprising for many, but not for others. The past several years have witnessed every single young man or woman with a shred of critical thinking to leave the Islamist movement. Starting with the Egyptian revolution and the Islamists’ shameful position against it, young middle class educated members have ever since continued to trickle out. 
But this mere organisational friction is not the subject of this article. What I intend to expound on is more far-reaching. It’s about those often-silent people who decided to abandon faith completely as a result of their faithful experiences. 
“I’ve decided to put Islam on hold as a religion,” wrote former Muslim Brotherhood activist Osama Dorra in his blog post. “For the conflict I’ve found between some of its details and what I think is sanity, justice, and logic has reached an inconceivable limit.” 
The young Islamist dropout was courageous enough to come out with these views publicly on his blog. For days comments and shares continued to fuel the discussion. Islamists and their acolytes, who may have one day been shoulder to shoulder with Dorra, were unable to discredit his opinion as simply a fake conspiracy against Islam. Hence, I guess, they were more than cautious not to take him to court. 
In any case, Dorra’s “Flying high above religion” blog post was later followed by other articles that suggested more revisionist takes on his initial position.
All that brings to Egyptian Satirist, Bassem Youssef:
The popular Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef has been released on bail, after questioning by prosecutors over allegations he insulted Islam and President Mohammed Morsi. 
He was ordered to pay 15,000 Egyptian pounds ($2,190; £1,440). 
Mr Youssef had spent five hours at the public prosecutor's office, a day after a warrant was issued for his arrest. 
He has faced several complaints over his show El Bernameg (The Programme), which satirises many public figures. 
On his Twitter feed, Mr Youssef said the bail conditions were related to three lawsuits, while a fourth was still being investigated. 
The case has highlighted worries about press freedoms in Egypt. 
At one point during his arrival at the prosecutor's office Mr Youssef donned an oversized academic hat, mocking one which Mr Morsi wore recently when he received an honorary doctorate in Pakistan.
Oh - boy. It is really hard to keep Pakistan out of any news even tangentially related to blasphemy. Bassem's show is based on the style of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. And sure enough, Jon Stewart   has come to his defense and has a fantastic segment that gets to the hypocrisy of Morsi (there is even an evolution joke in there). Here it is:



Actually this segment has led to a diplomatic tiff as well:

The American comedian Jon Stewart’s criticism of the Egyptian government briefly escalated into a diplomatic incident on Tuesday, as the United States Embassy in Cairo shared a link to a “Daily Show” segment on Twitter, causing the office of Egypt’s president to react with anger.
The Lede has the details and it has been following Bassem related happenings in Egypt.
And just for a taste, here is Bassem talking about charges against him in January - and he is quite funny!



This battle will continue. We should and we must support support others in the fight for freedom of speech and expression. Respect of religion is also essential. But this is where open debates are essential. But many of the recent cases of "blasphemy" or "insults to Islam" are actually based either on flimsy evidence and/or have political motivations behind them.

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