The events in Paris last week cannot be condemned in terms strong enough. The attack on Charlie Hebdo employees, and subsequent sieges were an affront to humanity and to peaceful freedom of expression.
In Egypt this week there was a separate incident which called into question the right to freedom of expression and it is this that I wish to draw attention to as it raises certain questions about the purpose and use of a legal system, and how that power is exerted over the people who must adhere to it.
Last November a student by the name of Karim Ashraf Mohammed al Banna went to the police to report harassment against him after he had declared himself an atheist on Facebook. Rather than investigate the accusation of harassment, the police arrested Karim Ashraf Mohammed al Banna for writing Facebook posts which were “insulting” to Islam and held him in custody until his trial in the Nile Delta province of Baheria earlier this week.
Under the Egyptian Constitution it is illegal to make insults against Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. In accordance with this the 21 year old student was found guilty of publishing Facebook posts containing atheistic views which were “insulting” to Islam and sentenced to three years imprisonment.
It was a trial in which the Defendant’s own father gave evidence against him, reportedly telling the court that his son was “embracing extremist ideas against Islam”.
What we do not know is exactly what was written; the content of the posts declaring or promoting atheism. However, what I do find troubling is that there was little suggestion that Karim Ashraf Mohammed al Banna had written anything other than a declaration of his personal religious view; that he is an atheist. It is not apparent, but one can infer that he did not textually attack Islam or Muslims for their beliefs, in the way that those accused of harassing him had done for his atheism.
Does a failure to believe constitute an insult? Logically and emphatically, no it does not. The Egyptian Constitution protects three religions from insults: Christianity; Islam; and Judaism. If under the Constitution a failure to believe in Islam is sufficient to constitute an offence then it follows that all Christians and Jews have committed the same offence by failing to believe in Islam; and by virtue of the same principle all Muslims are equally guilty for not believing in Christianity, or Judaism; et cetera. My point is simply that a failure to believe cannot, or at least should and must not be sufficient to constitute an “insult” under the Constitution.
This issue highlights how powerful the law is, and the way in which it can be used to oppress at the will of a majority, or in fact a minority properly positioned.
Freedom of expression is protected throughout Europe by the European Convention on Human Rights, and more specifically in UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998 (which gives force to the European Convention on Human Rights in domestic law) and the Equality Act 2010. The law protects the individual’s right to their beliefs and how they express themselves, provided that this does not cause harm to another or infringe upon another’s rights; the law operates as a shield by which freedoms are protected. To use the law to enforce a particular doctrine or belief, as is the case in Egypt, is to weaponise the law to the benefit of those in power.
That is not to say that laws are never beneficial to those in power, they are, and numerous examples exist in terms of regulations and practical rules. However, there is a distinction between what some may argue to be natural law: murder, rape, violence; that these laws exist even if they were to be technically legalised, that is to say they exist in nature regardless of whether they are positively enacted; and laws which provide order, a prescribed and established way of doing things.
Although I do not accept natural law as a principle, but rather believe that what is considered to be natural law is an acceptance of shared morality derived from empathy, these laws are protective in construction; they prohibit harm. Whereas the laws which provide order can be manipulated so as to ensure that business and society operates in a manner beneficial to those in power, without causing direct harm to any individual.
The most disagreeable issue regarding the use of the law to enforce a religious principle in Egypt is that the law was used to the detriment of one individual who needed its protection. Karim Ashraf Mohammed al Banna went to the police in order to receive protection from harm, but rather faced punishment for views that did no harm. It is a cautionary tale and one which deserves publicity, the law was not used to prevent oppression but as a mechanism of oppression, and this is very sad indeed.