The relationship between blasphemy laws and religious extremism in the Middle East and North Africa

While an estimated 69 countries across the globe possess blasphemy laws of some kind, no geographical region has as many countries with such laws as the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Furthermore, in many of these countries the penalties for committing the ‘crime’ of blasphemy are among the most severe.

In Iran, for example, anyone who insults the ‘Great Prophet … or any of the Great Prophets’ of Islam can be sentenced to death under Article 262 of the Penal Code. In Egypt, the crime of “inciting strife, ridiculing or insulting a heavenly religion or a sect following it, or damaging national unity” is punishable by up to five years imprisonment under Article 98(f) of the Penal Code.

What are blasphemy laws?

Blasphemy laws criminalise actions, often emitted in speech, writing or art deemed defamatory to a certain religion, offensive against religious figures or harmful to religious feelings. They also criminalise actions such as the disruption of religious services and the desecration of religious sites.

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FoRB on the Frontlines: “We were ready for one of the family to be killed”

Dabrina Bet-Tamraz is an Iranian Christian human rights defender who currently resides in exile in Europe. In her home country, her entire family faces intense pressure from the Iranian government; her father, mother and brother have been charged with national security-related crimes for participating in everyday religious activities.

Dabrina has dedicated her life to advocating for her family and others like them facing persecution in Iran. She has raised their cases at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, as well as with President Donald Trump when she attended the second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in the USA. In this interview she sheds light on her experiences as a young Christian in Iran, and on the current situation for her family and other Christians in the country.

“Growing up as a Christian in Iran, it was always obvious we were treated differently. Until I was about ten, the church experienced a decade of severe persecution. Pastors were being killed, churches were under massive pressure, and my parents were regularly taken in for interrogation.

When I was a teenager we were constantly under surveillance; we were bugged and there were spies in the church. It began to make us question everything everyone says. We didn’t know who we could trust.

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Turkey under Erdogan: Caught between secular and Islamic identities

Although Turkey’s constitution defines the country as a secular state, it is caught between its secular and Islamic identities. The current government has publicly endorsed a move towards a Sunni Muslim identity for the country, conflating religious and national identities, by combining the religious nationalism propagated by the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, or AKP) with the secular Nationalist Movement Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi, or MHP)’s ideology of ‘ultra-nationalism,’ which is defined as “extreme nationalism that promotes the interests of one state or people above all others.”  

The promotion of religious ultra-nationalism in Turkey has contributed to a rise in discrimination, and in hate speech that incites violence against those who do not adhere to Sunni Islam.

Such incitement is visible in a variety of areas ranging from education and employment, to religious practices and day-to-day administrative procedures. There has also been a surge in the expression of anti-Semitism and anti-Christian sentiments in pro-government media.

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Long read: The history of religious persecution in Egypt

In November 2018, seven Coptic Christians were killed and 18 injured when terrorists attacked the bus they were travelling in to visit the Monastery of Anba Samuel the Confessor in Minya, Upper Egypt. The attack took place in the same location where 28 Coptic Christians were killed and 23 injured less than 18 months previously by masked gunmen who opened fire on the vehicles they were travelling in.

These violent attacks are part of a wider, longer term pattern of religious discrimination and persecution faced by Egypt’s Coptic community. The term ‘persecution’ is not used lightly; according to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, persecution is ‘the intentional and severe deprivation of fundamental rights contrary to international law by reason of the identity of the group or collectivity.’

In order to understand the root causes of religious persecution in contemporary Egypt, it is important to examine the ideological, socio-political and cultural factors that have historically underpinned the persecution of religious minorities in the country.

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Religious Identity and Conflict in the Middle East

The Arab Spring reignited a debate within the Middle East and in academic circles about the universality of human rights and their compatibility, or incompatibility, with culture and religion. Although the Arab Spring was marked by the rise of Political Islam movements, it also opened the door  to discussions on topics that had long been taboo, such as sectarianism, racism and gender equality in the Arab world.

Religion has dominated politics in the Middle East for centuries, and plays a significant role in the lives of individuals: their rights, opportunities and social status are all impacted by it.

Constitutions, laws, education systems and even art and sport are viewed through the lens of religion, and every effort is made to ensure that these elements of society comply with religious norms and symbolism.

Sectarianism remains a powerful political, social and cultural force, and the source of most conflicts in the Middle East. Many of the current conflicts in the region have deep historical roots – most notably the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict and the Sunni-Shi’a division.

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