Picture credit: KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Freedom for a fool

An Egyptian anti-Christianity activist should not have been imprisoned

The harmonious coexistence of religious communities in the Middle East and North Africa is a delicate matter. It is a region that has been the wellspring of a multitude of the world’s religions, but has often been made inglorious by inter-religious turmoil, instability, and bloodshed.

Egypt is a country that has seen its fair share of persecution over the millennia. It is a land which received the blood of Israelite slaves. It witnessed the unfathomable violence of Roman Emperors. It survived the tyranny of the Byzantines. It endured the atrocities of Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah. And then it suffered some very dark episodes of British colonial brutality. More recently it weathered the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood, and experienced the revolting spectre of Da’esh. However, less widely publicised examples of community affray and violent extremism, in particular targeting the smaller religious communities of Egypt, are not infrequent.

It is against this backdrop that one can see the good intentions behind legislation which outlaws “holding in contempt an Abrahamic religion” and “sowing discord among Egyptians.” Shouldn’t we herald any and all efforts to keep the peace and prevent division, especially when protections extend beyond the Islamic majority? Far from it. Earnest endeavours in the pursuit of societal harmony and religious freedom are necessary and welcome but misdirected efforts will do more harm than good. 

Article 98(f), the aforementioned legislation, was originally placed on the statute books in 1981 as a means of addressing sectarian violence against Christians. As a prime example of well-intentioned but illiberal measures failing in their intended task, the law was subsequently weaponised throughout the following decades to oppress, amongst others, the very Christians that it was supposed to defend. 

The most recent example of the application of these laws came on Thursday 23rd February, when a court in Alexandria sentenced a Muslim vlogger, Osama Lotfy Sharaf El-Din, to three years in prison. Sharaf El-Din, who calls himself the “Egyptian Prince” on his social media accounts, was arrested in October 2022 for insulting Christianity in videos and posts he published on Facebook and TikTok. He was accused of using religion to spread radical thought using audio and video content online and of holding in contempt an Abrahamic religion, in this instance Christianity, and sowing discord among Egyptians in a way that threatens national unity.

Osama Lotfy Sharaf El-Din is no “Egyptian Prince”. He might more aptly be compared to a court jester or fool. His videos display nasty, spiteful mockery of the Bible, Christianity, and the Cross — the most revered symbol for the Christian Church and those who follow Jesus. It should be pointed out that many Muslims have condemned his behaviour online. 

Sharaf El-Din represents a sneering, tasteless, and unintelligent form of intolerance. It is as familiar to religious communities in the West as to those in the East, with political leftists in Europe and the United States reviling and ridiculing their favoured targets and their values without any kind of mature and serious engagement.

The answer in Egypt, as in the rest of the world, is not censorship. The way to preserve harmony is not to deploy de facto blasphemy laws, whether against Christians, Muslims, or indeed atheists. 

Christianity and Islam have endured far more deadly threats than the offensive ramblings of TikTokers. As long as violence is not being incited, citizens must be free to express their views and opinions, even in ways that are insulting and vulgar. Indeed, such delinquents expose themselves and their message as unworthy of serious credit or consideration. The response should be no more than pity, denying them the oxygen of publicity afforded by backlash. 

More aggressive state or societal reactions to religious insult provide the offender with status and a “cause”. There is nothing quite so enticing to rebellious youth than the illicit and proscribed, and movements that are driven underground are much more dangerous than those that wither in sunlight. 

Either way, one might imagine that Egyptian authorities have their hands full preventing and punishing the various authentic examples of persecution, motivated by the victims’ identities and beliefs, that are committed throughout the nation. They should be devoting any spare time and resources to preventing violent attacks on religious communities and places of worship. And they should be thinking proactively and strategically about how to shape the future of the Egyptian state and society for a sustained peaceful plurality of communities. 

The “Egyptian Fool” should be freed

As such, the Ministry of Religious Affairs should be developing and implementing coordinated policies with the Ministries of the Interior, Justice, and Higher Education. The central government could be investing to equip and educate regional and local government agencies on the importance of religious freedom for the wider flourishing of Egyptian society. It could also be developing local plans to advance peaceful coexistence and equality for all Egyptians. Potential investment in this important social endeavour would have very little financial burden but could see significant social and financial benefits into the future as security and stability improve. 

President Al-Sisi has made statements, attended places of worship, and advanced policies at various times that give real reason to be encouraged on behalf of Egypt’s religious communities. But his symbolic and practical efforts, through the initiative of the central government, need to filter down to the local level if any of it is to make the slightest difference to the experiences of Egypt’s religious communities.

The judicial ruling against Osama Lotfy Sharaf El-Din on Thursday can be appealed. The time is now for Egypt to adopt a new, self-confident approach to religious freedom, encouraging a more stoic posture on the part of the “potentially offended”. Truth is powerful and does not need the defence of state coercion. Taking a stand for freedom will ultimately promote a greater respect for and, likely, devotion to Egypt’s religions, as well as a healthy attitude toward the identities and beliefs of others. The “Egyptian Fool” should be freed.

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