In June 1981, Cairo’s Al-Zawiya Al-Hamra neighbourhood witnessed one of the most violent incidents of sectarian strife, in which hundreds were killed and injured. A personal dispute on the ownership of a land was the initial cause of the violent clashes between Muslims and Coptic Christians.
At the time, the state’s reaction was underwhelming. Former president Anwar Sadat tried to minimise the event by stating it was a fight between neighbours. However, by the end of the year, the government sent a proposal to the People’s Assembly to introduce amendments to the Penal Code, which aimed at stricter penalties in cases of sectarian strife.
However, the legislature’s revision of the law included vague and broad terms, which brought restrictions on personal freedoms in contradiction to constitutional guarantees. As such, this led to its improvement over the years, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
The law, commonly known as “the Religious Contempt Law”, comes in Article 98 (f) of the Penal Code. It states that:
“Whomever exploits religion in order to promote extremist ideologies by word of mouth, in writing or in any other manner, with a view to stirring up sedition, disparaging, or contempt of any divine religion or its adherents, or prejudicing national unity, shall be punished with imprisonment between six months and five years, or the payment of a fine of at least EGP 500.”
Over the years, the law has been implemented in the prosecution of Copts only on accusations of insulting the Islamic religion, with the exception of the case of Sheikh Abo Islam, a preacher and owner of a publishing house who became known for frequent rhetoric that was hostile to Egyptian Copts.
In June 2013, Sheikh Abo Islam and his son were sentenced to 11 and eight years in prison, respectively, over three charges that included religious contempt, after they destroyed the Bible during demonstrations that erupted over the film entitled “Innocence of Muslims” .
The film had sparked anger and violence among the Arab and Muslim communities due to its portrayal of the Prophet Mohamed, which was widely perceived as inflammatory.
“Other than that, I think it is ridiculous that a law, which is historically linked to protecting Copts, is being used against Copts,” said lawyer Hamdy Al-Assiuty, who has been defending many people on trial under Article 98 (f).
In many cases, the defendant had expressed either atheistic views or criticised their own religion. Sometimes it was neither, such as the odd charges brought up against three young Coptic men in Alexandria last July. The three were accused of contempt of religion after having been arrested while distributing dates to fasting Muslims around Iftar time, a common practice by young volunteers.
The holy month of Ramadan is often characterised by a peak in conservatism, both within the state and society. Restaurants and bars are prevented from selling alcohol. It is socially unacceptable to eat or drink “publicly” while Muslims are abstaining. On top of this, even self-appointed police forces often pursue “non-fasting Muslims”.
Moreover there have been debates as to whether the contempt of religion charge that led to the trial of Islamic researcher Islam El-Beheiry actually applies to his case, since he was discussing the same religion he is affiliated with.
El-Beheiry was prosecuted according to Article 160 of the Penal Code, which penalises acts of vandalism on religious buildings and symbols by imprisonment of up to five years and a fine of EGP 500. He was also charged with Article 161, which sets the same penalty for acts of mocking or distorting religious books or rites.
Al-Assiuty said “contempt of religion laws have been misused” to oppress freedom of expression, citing the prosecution of Egyptian intellectuals, writers, professors, and even actors.
Recently, a campaign led by the Egyptian Secular Party, still under foundation, called for abolishing Article 98 (f).