Shari’a family values

It’s just over 6 months since Abdul Kareem got sentenced to 4 years in jail for blogging. There’s a website in support of him. You can also read a wikipedia entry although there is a caveat at the head of the page saying

This article has been nominated to be checked for its neutrality.

.. He was arrested by Egyptian authorities for posts on his blog that were considered to be anti-religious and insulting to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. On February 22nd, 2007 in his native city Alexandria. Kareem Amer was sentenced to three years for insulting Islam and inciting sedition and one year for insulting the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Not neutral? Maybe the very mention of the sentence contravenes “neutrality”. Presumably because no sane person would think this was OK?

(If only he had just been the officer in charge of a military unit charged with war crimes, he’d be free today.)

It’s one thing – and a very pleasurable thing it can be, too – to insult Baptist evangelists from the comfort of the Atheist Blogroll. However, if you live in the Middle East, challenging Islam in your blog posts is definitely hazardous to health .

The campaign website is maintained by Kareem’s friends who disagree with what he said about Islam but still uphold his right to express his views. Unlike his family apparently.

From the Kareem FAQs:

What did his family say about all this?
Days before the jail sentence, his family publicly disowned him, and his father called for applying the Sharia on his son by giving three days to repent, followed by having him killed if he did not announce his repentance.

Give them a bit of leeway for trying to protect themselves, as I imagine they are under a fair bit of pressure to distance themselves from their wayward freethinking offspring. But still. A father who thinks his son deserves a death sentence for publishing a few challenging words is definitely so far off the scale of harsh that you would need to invent a new scale. And he’d still fall of the edge.

Disappointingly, the only UK politician mentioned as having spoken out about Kareem is from the UK Independence Party*. Euro-MP Derek Clark, raised the case in the European Parliament.

If you live in the sort of country where you might get arrested or your dad might call for your execution, Reporters sans frontieres have a page about how to blog anonymously without putting yourself in the firing line of your state’s repression.
(You can’t say this blog doesn’t give out any useful information.)

* If you’re not from the UK, there is/was (?) a joke political party called the Monster Raving Loony Party (It’s alternative comedy- it’s not funny, to steal an old Ben Elton quote.) UK Independence Party are generally considered less serious and even less funny than the MRLP. UKIP tends to substitute comical zenophobia for the MRLP’s standard slapstick approach. Luckily, they are completely unelectable and spend their time in internal squabbles. It is enough of a shock that they must have a Euro-MP, let alone that he seems to have actually spoken sense in the European Union.

5 thoughts on “Shari’a family values

  1. Very interesting analysis here. I always have a bit of trouble with cases like this though, because it strikes me that its not QUITE as clear-cut as you make it out. First, let me say that as a blogger and a comedian, I value my “free speech” very highly … while I still make my living as a geek, my free speech is what keeps me sane in an insane world.

    But having said that, I have to remind myself that I don’t really have free speech. Both Canada, and the UK as well as all other countries in the world, make internal judgments about how far free speech is allowed to go. We make “legitimate” limits to speech when national security issues are at play, and we can be pretty severely punished crossing that line. I think Canada has long since abandoned execution for treason, but especially in today’s “war on terror” world, its quite possible to find yourself on the wrong end of the law if you happen to deal in sensitive security information.

    Beyond national security, Canada further limits speech to outlaw hate speech. We have both jailed and deported people whose only crime was saying something judged to promote hatred of an identifiable group. While such statements are no doubt vile and dangerous, that they are still speech is undeniable … if Canada truly had “free speech” they would not be criminally liable.

    I am not trying to defend the Egyptian government’s jailing of Kareem … like you, I find this sort of criminal sanction of speech based purely on religious grounds to be repugnant. But at the same time, I can’t help but recognize the fact that my own government makes internal decisions on the kinds of speech it will protect, and the kinds of speech it will criminally punish, and my government, and Canadians in general, get rightly upset at being dictated to by outsiders. We reserve the right to determine for ourselves what limits are placed on free speech, and how they will be applied, and we are offended, rightfully so, if someone from outside Canada tries to dictate what our policy should be on that.

    Yet, that seems exactly what we are doing in these cases with Egypt. We not agree with Egypt’s decision that negative speech regarding Islam, or the President, is criminal, but that really isn’t our call to make. We don’t listen much to Egypt, or anyone else, if they criticize our hate speech laws … we merely say that its our business, and no one else’s. Why should Egypt not be allowed to set its own rules on what it considers dangerous speech, when both Canada and the UK demand that very privilege. And ultimately, what makes the Egyptian position “wrong?” We limit speech specifically when we see a threat to public order, both in terms of national security, and in terms of Canada’s hate laws. From the Egyptian perspective, that is all they are doing by outlawing criticism of Islam … limiting speech that they think threatens the public order. If Canada and the UK can make our own decisions about what constitutes that threat to public order, why can’t Egypt? We seem to expect other countries to arrive at the same place we do when they evaluate what constitutes the “public good” when it comes to things like free speech … I wonder why we feel we have the right to criticize others when we reserve the right to evaluate what constitutes “public good” for ourselves.

  2. Lyle
    Thanks for the comment. Obviously i have to disagree…

    You’d feel free to criticise Christianity or the President, in person or in your blog. Are you implying that Kareem shouldn’t have that same freedom, just because he lives in Egypt rather than Canada? He doesn’t have the “free speech” advantage of living in a liberal democracy, so whatever happens to him is OK?

    Every atheist blog in the US runs the risk of inflaming rabid pro-religionists. Would you have a problem if they were banned as likely to lead to violence? After all, it would be the US’s right to arrest bloggers, if they so chose.

    What if the Canadian government decided YOUR words were a threat. Wouldn’t you welcome every bit of international pressure that people could apply? Sometimes international pressure is all there is to defend someone.

    Bloggers have been arrested or at best silenced in several countries. Luckily, there are some movements to support them that cross national boundaries.

    Wouldn’t Mandela still be in jail if the rest of the world didn’t put lots of pressure on South Africa to end apartheid? Did the rest of the world feel they had “a right to criticise others when they reserved the right right to evaluate what constitutes ‘public good'” for themselves. Very fortunately, yes.

    Where do you draw the line anyway? Do you think that people shouldn’t speak out about genocide and torture, if they are OK with the governments of the countries they take place in?

  3. I’m not sure where to draw the line, and you are right, I am free to criticize almost anyone on my and discuss almost any subject. But not ANY subject … are you arguing that no government has a right to censor speech for any reason? My point isn’t the I agree with the reasons Kareem was censored and jailed … its rather to ask how we decide that certain kinds of censorship are “for the public good” while others are clearly a “public danger” and subject to criminal sanction? Who is the correct person to make that call, for Canada, for the UK, for Egypt?

    Further, I am trying to find objective reasons why the censorship we engage in here in Canada, and the criminal sanction we apply, is somehow more legitimate than that applied by Egypt. I DO see where the Egyptian example is more extreme than Canada, but again, by what criteria can I say Canada makes the right choice, and Egypt makes the wrong choice.

    So I don’t know where to draw the line, but I’d like to turn the question back on you … how do you determine what a valid use of censorship is? By what objective measure can we say Canada’s decision to prosecute “hate speech” is more or less a matter of national security than Egypt’s decision to prosecute “hate speech against the President?” Is there a limit to what Kareem can say about the President of Egypt before he IS criminally liable … I know there is in Canada. Do we know what he wrote in his blog that authorities considered “insulting” to the President? I know there are lots of insults that would get me prosecuted in Canada, especially against a public figure … all that has to happen is to convince the right person that there is a “threat” involved, and you can bet I’ll be in some trouble over it.

    I am not trying to defend Egypt, or censorship. As I said, I value mine very highly. What I am curious about is how we can objectively set the limits to government censorship such its clear what protecting the social good actually means. Clearly, every country censors to protect their version of the public good … what I am trying to establish is some rules about how that can be done independently by everyone, and what the limits to that definition of harm can be. I’m not trying to defend Egypt’s treatment of Kareem … I am trying to find an objective way to argue against it, using criteria that amount to more than “we don’t like their definition of censorship.”

  4. Lyle, while I partly agree with what you are saying and that trying to find the line in the sand where a government can censor it’s people is not easy, there are parts I disagree with (as the saying goes, it would be boring if we all agreed…).

    Criticism of state organisations (government, church, police, military) etc is a sign of a “healthy” nation and oppression or removal of this ability is a sign of oppression and subjugation of the populace (IMHO obviously). There is a marked difference between standing in Hyde Park, shouting that all black people should be killed and writing a blog saying that the government’s handling of the NHS IT contracts was shockingly mismanaged. This is an area where religious groups seem to get away with more (preaching that homosexuals are “bad” is not considered a hate crime).

    With regard to “public figures,” the very title implies they have sacrificed a certain amount of privacy and, as such, need to be subjected (or at least subject-able) to public scrutiny. There are laws in place to restrict or prevent lies (libel and slander) but people should never be punished for saying things like “I think the Prime Minister is crap at his job.” I think it is terrible for a democracy to have in place mechanisms for people to be punished for insulting public figures. There is a difference between saying “The PM is crap” and “I am going to kill the PM” though.

    You write:

    what I am trying to establish is some rules about how that can be done independently by everyone, and what the limits to that definition of harm can be

    I am not sure it is possible in anything but the most theoretical sense.

    One last point, from my perspective, the fact that the UK “freedom of speech” is not perfect does not mean I (or anyone else) can not criticise other nations for their interpretation of it…

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