An Egyptian reads a Quran before breaking his fast at the Al-Azhar mosque on May 12, 2019. (MAHMOUD KHALED/AFP via Getty Images)
Analysis

Contempt of Religion in North Africa: Repression of Minorities and Monopoly on Interpretation of Religion

Since 2011, many countries in North Africa have witnessed major political changes following widespread protests and revolutions. As a result, new constitutions were created across the region that asserted the protection of citizens’ rights, especially the freedom of belief, opinion and expression. However, blasphemy and contempt of religion laws are still widely used as tools to prosecute religious minorities and Muslims who hold different views from those supported by the ruling political systems or official religious institutions.

There have been both official and popular demands for harsh penalties against contempt of religion and for the enactment of international legislation that would criminalize attempts to criticize religions, religious symbols, and religious values. These calls increased following the beheading this past year of French teacher Samuel Paty, who showed controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad to students. The statements denouncing this incident included international demands for criminalization of contempt of religions.

There have been numerous trials held in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria for those accused of contempt of Islam, resulting in prison sentences following trials lacking any fair guarantees. During 2020, for example, courts in Egypt sentenced a total of seven defendants to imprisonment—two belonging to the Shia sect. In addition, the Public Prosecution investigated 14 lawsuits in which the defendants were sentenced to pretrial detention—these included Christians, Shiites, Quranists and Muslims of the dominant Sunni sect. A number of the defendants were subjected to administrative penalties from their employers, including suspension from work or deduction from their financial dues. A number of lawsuits have also been filed before administrative courts to ban some religious minorities—such as Shiites and atheists—from appearing on satellite channels.

In spite of positive developments in Tunisia since the ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, many religious groups are still struggling against the legacy of many years of discrimination. For example, Baha’i groups still face many restrictions. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief Ahmed Shaheed, who visited Tunisia in April 2018, highlighted incidents of harassment or coercion for converts from Islam, threats against atheists, and restrictions on Baha’is.

In July 2020, a Tunisian court of first instance sentenced blogger Emna Charqui to six months in prison and a fine of 2,000 Tunisian dinars ($700) for sharing a poem entitled “Corona,” which mimics a Quranic verse—she was found guilty of “inciting hate between religions and races.” 

Two young Tunisians in 2012 were sentenced to seven and a half years in prison for sharing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad on Facebook. They were sentenced based on Article 121 (3) of the Criminal Code related to publishing materials that would cause harm to public order or morals.

In recent years, Tunisian authorities have targeted converts to Christianity on several occasions. In 2016, counterterrorism forces interrogated a group of Christians of various origins, including Algerians, Egyptians and Tunisians, for having engaged in religious issues in a café. In February 2020, a group of foreign missionaries was arrested. 

In Morocco in July 2020, the Appeals Court in Safi sentenced Mohamed Awatif Kashkash to six months in prison and a fine of 3,000 dirhams ($330) for insulting Islam. The Moroccan Association for Human Rights stated that the same court in Safi had sentenced another activist to three months in prison, with the same charge related to insulting Islam. The General Directorate of National Security has responded to press releases by arresting those who launched the so-called “Surah Corona” under the pretext that the Quran had been distorted. In May 2020, actor Rafik Boubaker was arrested for blasphemy against Islam, according to a statement of the General Directorate of National Security. He paid a fine of 5,000 dirhams ($550).

In Algeria, in October 2020, the court of Khenchela sentenced Yacine Mebarki, an activist in the Hirak anti-government movement and a fighter in the defense of Amazigh rights, to 10 years in prison and a fine of one million Algerian dinars for inciting atheism, denigrating the dogma and precepts of Islam, and undermining national unity. Meanwhile, more than 315 members from Ahmadi community in Algeria were brought to trial during June 2016 and March 2018, accused of insulting Islam and collecting donations without a license. 

In August 2016, a Christian called Suleiman Bouhafs was sentenced to five years in prison and a fine of 100,000 dinars (about $900) for insulting Islam and the Prophet. After submitting his appeal, Bouhafs’ sentence was reduced to three years in prison and the fine was dropped.

Previous to the revolution in Sudan, people had been officially executed for apostasy. In 1985, Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, a moderate Muslim political leader was executed as an apostate. Taha had opposed the application of Sharia by President Jaafar Nimeiry’s government. 

Between 1968 and 2017, about 155 Sudanese citizens were charged with apostasy in 15 cases, in which the motives and political reasons for deprivation of rights were identical, with accusations linked to imposing a specific pattern of Islam in line with the authority’s approach. In May 2014, Mariam Yahya Ibrahim—the daughter of a Muslim who grew up as a Christian—was sentenced to death on charges of apostasy after she refused to give up her Christian faith. The Sudanese appeals court overturned the ruling against her in June 2014.

Legal Criminalization of Contempt of Religion

Criminal laws across different North African countries include similar legal articles as it relates to insulting and criticizing religions. Though the law in Tunisia does not explicitly criminalize insulting religions, other legal articles are leveraged to the same end. The penalties vary between a fine and imprisonment, which may reach five years.

It becomes crystal clear that Sudan is the only country that witnessed a significant improvement in the climate of religious freedom during 2019 and 2020—though there have been serious challenges in this regard—following the ouster of President Omar al-Bashir from power in April 2019 and the establishment of a transitional government. The Public Order Law, which imposed restrictions on public freedom and subjected it to Islamic law, was abolished. In July 2020, the Penal Code article that criminalized apostasy was abolished. This article stipulated that any Muslim who publicly declares that he embraces any religion other than Islam commits apostasy and shall be punished with death. In this past, this article had been used against those taking positions contrary to the state’s official interpretation of Islam.

Despite this progress, contempt of religion still exists as a criminal offense under Sudanese law. The criminal code states, “whoever by any means publicly abuses or insults any religion, their rights or beliefs or sanctifications or seeks to excite feelings of contempt and disrespect against the believers thereof, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or with a fine or with whipping, which may not exceed 40 lashes.” However, the penalty of flogging has been abolished from the Sudanese legal system.

In Egypt, those accused of contempt of religion are judged on the basis of three articles in the Penal Code. Article 160 deals with the criminalization of acts against whoever perturbs the holding of rituals of a creed or a related religious ceremony. It criminalizes ravaging, breaking, destroying, or violating the sanctity of buildings provided for holding religious ceremonies, symbols or other objects having their profound reverence and sanctity in relation to the members of a creed or a group of people. Meanwhile, Article 161 deals with the criminalization of printing and publishing a book viewed as holy by members of a religion whose rituals are publicly held, if a text of this book is perverted in a way that changes its meaning. It also criminalizes imitating a religious celebration in a public place or public community, with the aim of ridicule, or for the attendants to watch.

It is worth mentioning that the public prosecution and judges in Egypt mostly use article 98 F, known as “blasphemy article.” It stipulates detention between six months and five years, or a fine between 500 pounds ($32) and 1,000 pounds ($64) for whomever “exploits and uses the religion in advocating and propagating by talk or in writing, or by any other method, extremist thoughts with the aim of instigating sedition and division or disdaining and insulting any of the heavenly religions or the sects belonging thereto, or prejudicing national unity or social peace.”

There are no laws condemning blasphemy and defamation of religions or sanctities in Tunisia. However, since its revolution in 2010, Articles 121 (3), 226, and 226 bis of the Criminal Code concerning offenses against public order, morals and good morals have been cited in some cases to condemn behaviors perceived as inconsistent with Islamic beliefs or speech deemed offensive to religious feelings. The protection of sanctities and incitement to hatred are among the topics in which the law is applied to protect the Islamic religion only.

Article 267(5) of the Moroccan Criminal Code mandates that anyone “who offends the Islamic religion or the monarchy, or incites territorial integrity” shall face a sentence of imprisonment from six months to two years and/or a fine from 20,000 up to 200,000 dirhams ($2,176 to $21,769). The penalty is increased from two to five years’ imprisonment and a fine of 50,000 to 500,000 dirhams ($5442 to $54,424) if the aforementioned acts are committed by delivering speeches in public places and gatherings, by posting posters, by practicing sale or distribution, or by any means of publicity, including electronic, paper, and audio-visual media. The second paragraph of Article 220 of the Criminal Code also stipulates that anyone who uses the means of enticement to undermine the belief of a Muslim or convert him to another religion shall be punished with imprisonment from six months to three years and a fine of 100 to 500 dirhams.

In Algeria, the legal system does not include any references to the crime of apostasy. However, article 144 bis (2) of the Penal Code, which related to religious crimes,  stipulates that anyone who insults the Prophet and the Messengers of God, or violates the faith or the prophets of Islam, through writing, drawing, advertising, or any other means, shall be punished with imprisonment from three to five years, and/or a fine between 50,000 and 100,000 Algerian dinars ($386 to $772).

Traits of Blasphemy Laws and Trials

The legal articles used to criminalize contempt of religion in North African countries share the following features:

  • Contempt of religion laws lack clear and specific definitions and are subject to manipulation and faulty application. These articles entail vague terminology that gives judges a great deal of space for interpretation, expanding their discretionary authority. As a result, different sentences are issued in similar cases and defendants are accused on the basis of values, rather than on criminal acts.
  • Islam is preferred over other religions and beliefs, meaning that in some countries, it is obvious that the purpose of these laws is to safeguard Islam itself. In some countries including Egypt, criminalization has been used to protect the three “heavenly religions”: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. However, when it comes to practical application, these laws are rarely used against those accused of contempt of Christianity or Judaism, which are often the targets of defamatory rhetoric by local media and religious institutions. 
  • The selective application of religious contempt laws has led to the targeting of religious minorities such as Shiites, Quranists, Christians in Egypt, Baha’is in Tunisia, converts to Christianity, Shiites, and Ahmadi community in Algeria and Morocco.
  • Contempt of religion laws are misused to justify attacks on religious minorities,  nurturing environments that foster fanaticism religious discrimination. 
  • Contempt of religion laws bolster religious fundamentalism; criminalization is used to fight progressive opinions and to threaten writers, thinkers and researchers, who hold contrary views to prevailing religious traditional teachings.
  • The issued sentences reflect a disregard for international human rights charters and treaties, and legitimacy as a legal reference, violating basic rights, including freedom of religion, belief, opinion and expression, and fair trial guarantees. 

International Religious Freedom 

Freedom of religious expression is a controversial issue at the international level. Islamic countries have exerted tremendous efforts to criminalize the so-called defamation of religions, and their governments and religious institutions have repeatedly called on the United Nations to enact an international law to criminalize contempt of religions.

Recently, these calls were renewed following the incidents that took place in France. The Muslim Council of Elders, headed by the Sheikh of Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb called for prosecuting those who offend Islam, condemning any attempts to insult insult religion under the slogan of freedom of expression. He also called on the international community to pass an international resolution that would criminalize hate and discrimination against Muslims. Such calls for criminalizing contempt of religions are based on calls to protect religious minorities from racist practices and incitement to hatred. It also involved the international need to address the effects of Islamophobia, the conflict between freedom to criticize religions and to observe social cohesion and harmony among religious sects. 

Between 2001 and 2011, international forums witnessed a fierce battle between two trends—one trend advocating for a ban on insulting and defaming religions, and a second trend defending an individual’s absolute right to freedom of belief and expression. The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), representing the former trend, urged the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) to pass a binding law that criminalizes defamation of religions.

On March 21, 2011, the Human Rights Council (HRC) issued a unanimous resolution entitled “Combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against, persons based on religion or belief.” This resolution reduced the intensity of the ongoing debate on ways to combat hate speech and its separation from defamation of religions. The resolution called on states to implement positive measures to combat religious intolerance rather than to take legal measures that limit debate. It did not, however, give international legal cover to Islamic states with domestic punitive articles of contempt of religions. 

Moreover, the Human Rights Committee emphasized in Comment No. 34 that contempt laws violate human rights because they are applied in ways that demonstrate discrimination against minorities and dissidents. They fuel discrimination and incitement to violence, rather than fostering mutual understanding. In addition, violent acts are committed based on these laws.

Contempt of religion laws should be tackled in the light of other social issues, such as monitoring citizens on social media. There is a tendency across governments in the region to uphold conservative social practices that provoke reactionary religious and moral panic among their populations. Arab countries use contempt of religion articles to politically suppress opposing voices, and their official religious institutions monopolize the interpretation of religious matters. These lawsuits show that the political systems—whether Islamic, military, or civilian—tolerate these violations such laws to achieve political gains among religious institutions and conservative popular segments of society.