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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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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Remembering Egypt’s Revolution

In Egypt 25 January has historically been National ‘Police Day’, commemorating the day in 1952 when 50 policemen were killed and others were injured by the British for refusing  to hand over their weapons to and evacuate Ismaïlia Police Station. However, owing to the events of 25 January 2011, the day is now known to many as the “Day of Rage”, when unprecedented anti-government protests broke out across the country. Three days later, on the “Friday of Anger” a huge demonstration convened in Tahrir Square in Cairo, with protesters demanding the removal of President Hosni Mubarak. On 11 February, 18 days after the demonstrations began, the President stepped down 2011.

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Turkey: Growing Religious Intolerance is Undermining Constitutional Commitments

American Pastor Andrew Brunson and his wife have been living in Turkey for 23 years running a church in Izmir with the full knowledge of the Turkish authorities.

However, on the 7 October 2016, they were summoned by the local police and accused for being a “threat to the national security”, with no further details supplied. While his wife was eventually released, Pastor Brunson was held in an immigration detention facility, where he was denied family visits and access to a bible. After two months in solitary confinement he was transferred to a high security prison in Izmir, before being brought before a court on 9 December, where he was informed he would be imprisoned due to his alleged links to the Gulen movement, the organisation deemed responsible for the attempted military coup in July 2016. The court did not reveal the source of this accusation. An appeal against the pastor’s imprisonment was turned down on 29 December, and a fresh appeal is expected to be launched at a higher court.

Deterioration in Human Rights and Rise in Ultra-nationalism

Pastor Brunson’s case is illustrative of the significant deterioration in human rights situation that occurred in the aftermath of the foiled military coup. Thousands of journalists, academics, activists, writers, teachers, judges and thinkers have been arrested since July 2016, accused of being “traitors and collaborators against national interests”, while others have been forced to adopt lower profiles and live in anticipation of being arrested.

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