In contempt

Human rights organizations and the media in Egypt have reported on a worrying recent spike in "contempt of religion" cases. Most of them involve Coptic Christians, whether it is 25-year-old Albert Saber, who allegedly linked to the Islamophobic porn B movie The Innocence of Muslims on Facebook, or school teacher Bishoy Kamel, who has been sentenced to six years in prison for posting cartoons considered defamatory to Islam and Prophet Mohammed on Facebook and for insulting President Mohamed Morsi and his family. 

Now, according to this report by the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, the charge is being used to settle domestic disputes: after a mother and daughter in Sharqiya got ito a fight about the daughter's unorthodox "ideas and views," the girl accused her mothering of threatening to kill her, and the mother accused the daughter and a male friend, who showed up at the police station to check up on her, of insulting Islam.  

At least the case against an 8-month-pregnant Coptic school teacher in Upper Egypt has been dismissed, after the student who accused her of insulting the Prophet turned out not to have been in class that day. 

Of course insulting religion -- or the president -- has always been a crime in Egypt. Laws that forbid it have been used before to persecute prominent secular intellectuals and artists. What may be new and disturbing about the recent cases is the indiscriminate and arbitrary targeting of regular, anonymous citizens (in the context of who-knows-what very local relations and tensions). 

It's great that President Morsi said in his speech yesterday that: "Any assault on Copts is an assault on me." But the recent cases are an assault on all Egyptians' freedom of expression.

Morsi has also called for an international law against insulting religion. Islamists have long amalgamated Western wars in the Middle East with the idea that Islam needs to be protected from offense domestically, in Muslim-majority countries. And who better to act as its protectors than they? Yet Islamists have a hard time admitting that they have, for political advantage, contributed to an atmosphere of intolerance and belligerance or that there is a double standard in the way Islam, versus all other religions, is protected from contempt.