Our erstwhile ally Egypt has again violated the most basic civil liberties in a criminal case involving blasphemy. An Egyptian court has sentenced student Karim al-Banna, 21, to three years in jail for announcing on Facebook that he is an atheist and for insulting Islam. His own father testified against him and denounced his son for “was embracing extremist ideas against Islam.” Of course, neither Egypt nor the father view criminalizing someone’s mere speech about religion to be an “extremist idea.”
Al-Banna’s name appeared on a public listing of “known atheists” in a local newspaper and he was hounded by Muslim neighbors who called for his arrest. He went to his local police to complain and they promptly arrested him and charged him with being an atheist and insulting Islam. He is only the latest person charged with such an offense as Egypt continues to enforce its medieval blasphemy law.
As discussed in column yesterday in the Washington Post, we continue to flirt with the concept of speech crimes related to religion. For many years, I have been writing about the threat of an international blasphemy standard and the continuing rollback on free speech in the West. For recent columns, click here and here and here.
Much of this writing has focused on the effort of the Obama Administration to reach an accommodation with allies like Egypt and Pakistan to develop a standard for criminalizing anti-religious speech. We have been following the rise of anti-blasphemy laws around the world, including the increase in prosecutions in the West and the support of the Obama Administration for the prosecution of some anti-religious speech under the controversial Brandenburg standard.
These cases reflect the true purpose of blasphemy laws: to silence minority sects and religious critics in the name of a “true faith.” Fortunately the effort of Hillary Clinton and others in the Administration to reach a compromise on blasphemy failed, though there continue to be efforts to create an international standard.
This case reflects the continued commitment of allies like Egypt to deny basic rights of free speech and freedom of religion to its citizens. It is a disgraceful sentence and another embarrassment for the United States in its massive financial support of the country while condemning other nations like Iran for their extremism.