Egypt Aggressively Pursuing Blasphemy Charges under New Regime

By Derek H. Davis, J.D., Ph.D.

The New York Times reported on June 18 that Egypt’s legal system is now flooded with blasphemy complaints. The increase in blasphemy charges is largely a consequence of the regime change experienced by Egypt in February 2011 when Hosni Mubarak lost power and was eventually replaced by U.S.-educated engineer Mohamed Morsi, a long-time member of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi, generally considered to be a moderate Muslim, proclaimed himself a leader for all Egyptians, vowing to protect the rights of women, children, and those belonging to non-Muslim religions. Nevertheless, Muslim activists have successfully pushed hard for prosecution of non-Muslims who allegedly blaspheme the Muslim religion.

Blasphemy cases were relatively rare before the new regime took office (although approximately 5 executions took place annually since 2000), but in recent weeks a Christian lawyer was sentenced to a one-year sentence for insulting Islam in a private conversation, a Coptic Christian teacher was fined $14,000 for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad in the classroom, and a writer was sentenced to a five-year prison term for supporting atheism. It total, approximately thirty cases have gone to trial since Morsi took office, with few findings of innocence.

According to the Times report, “blasphemy complaints have been lodged across the society, against poor teachers in villages, a deputy prime minister, Egypt's richest man, and some of its most prominent writers and journalists. A firebrand Muslim preacher who tore up a Bible at a protest was sentenced to 11 years in prison. His son received eight years on similar charges.” According to Abdel Moneim Abdel Maqsoud, a lawyer for the Muslim Brotherhood, "Contempt of religion, any religion, is a crime, not a form of expression. Is setting fire to the Bible freedom of expression? Is insulting religion freedom of expression?" He claims the increase in cases prosecuted are attributable to abuse of the "unprecedented freedom of expression" since Mubarak’s demise.

Egypt has a considerable Christian population, most of them now nervous about the new crackdowns on non-Muslim religions, especially the aggressive filing of blasphemy cases against them. “Slapping criminal charges with steep fines and, in most cases, prison sentences against people for simply speaking their mind or holding different religious beliefs is simply outrageous,” Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director, said recently. Fines and torture have been the rule since Morsi took office, but many non-Muslims believe that momentum for eliminating all religions but Islam in Egypt is growing and they fully expect prosecutors to begin pursuing the death penalty with more regularity.