Blasphemy is a punishable offense in Egypt. According to the penal code, “Any use of religion to promote or advocate extremist ideologies… with a view toward stirring up sedition, disparaging or showing contempt” toward one of the monotheistic religions might be considered profane. It’s a red line that has gotten cartoonists into trouble.
Since the 2011 uprising, blasphemy charges have escalated across Egypt. The definition of the crime is murky, and anyone can file a claim against an individual who ‘defames’ religion. The New York Times recounted a litany of cases against “poor teachers in villages, a deputy prime minister, Egypt’s richest man, and some of its most prominent writers and journalists.” It all points to anxiety over religion’s role in society and its relationship to the state.
In December 2012, the National Center for the Defense of Personal Freedoms, an advocacy group on the religious right, brought a blasphemy charge against Egypt’s most prominent female political cartoonist, Doaa Eladl. Her wrongdoing: portraying the biblical figure Adam. (“They don’t have a problem with me drawing Eve,” she told me in May).
The law suit faltered, and there has been no chilling effect on free speech. Earlier this month, in fact, the biblical duo were the cover of Akhbar Al-Adb, a weekly literary review.
In contrast to Eladl’s cartoon, the late Gouda Khalifa’s painting of Adam and Eve lacks an overtly political message. But all art is political, and all religious symbols cross into contentious legal terrain. (Khaled El-Masry, the attorney who sued Eladl, declined to comment on the Akhbar Al-Adb cover).
Egyptian artists have long engaged with religious themes and biblical characters. In the influential Sabah El-Khir magazine, radical cartoonist Ahmed Hegazi (1936-2011) frequently drew Adam and Eve with a surrealist tinge.
The godfather of the modern Egyptian cartoon, Salah Jahin (1930-1986), “would criticize a lying sheikh that abused religion and did his ablutions with alcohol,” said Eladl, situating her art in a long tradition of irreverence toward religion. “And Egyptians accepted that. There was no problem.”
Many disagree. “You cannot draw the prophets or the companions [of the prophet] or likings of them,” Khaled El-Masry, secretary general of the National Center for the Defense of Personal Freedoms, told me in May. “Even Jesus—Jesus is one of the sacred [taboos].” He likened insulting the Abrahamic faiths to “spitting at the sky, it will come back and fall on you.” El-Masry, who is also a spokesman for the Salafi Bloc, explained the importance of defending people from liberty. “Before the  revolution nobody insulted religion,” he said. “After the revolution freedoms opened up to a scary point, because absolute freedom corrupts absolutely.”
As we sat in the sparse office of Human Rights Committee of the Lawyer’s syndicate, El-Masry boasted of his ‘successes.’ One colleague filed blasphemy cases against celebrity comedian Bassem Youssef. Another had filed claims in response to “The Innocence of Muslims,” the hastily produced film that triggered protests across the Muslim world in September 2012. As a result, a Cairo court sentenced in absentia eight Egyptians to death.
As for Eladl’s cartoon, the joke was lost on El-Masry. “Maybe if I just removed the apple, they wouldn’t understand the reference,” Eladl said of her controversial cartoon. “But readers would.”
In solidarity with his colleague, cartoonist Mostafa Salem also drew a cartoon of the biblical couple that skewered Morsi’s mixing of religion and politics in Al-Masry Al-Youm, the country’s largest circulation independent newspaper. Salam did not face legal action.
In the deadly political conflict that has followed the July coup, issues surrounding blasphemy are an afterthought. Rights are being denied as the government detains and harasses journalists; a new bill gives authorities carte blanche to eradicate public protests. But amid these tragic developments, ending the archaic blasphemy law is still important. Author Karam Sabar, for instance, could face five years in prison for publishing a book, Where’s God?, which allegedly defames religion.
It’s only a matter of time before another case is filed against an artist or satirist, no matter how flimsy its basis might be. The forty-five men and five women tasked with drafting Egypt’s new constitution must address this issue. Any and every limitation to free speech demands scrutiny.
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