Monday, 29 October 2012

Atheists fear for their safety in Egypt as Alber Saber trial continues

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Alber Saber is on trial in Egypt for insulting religion
It's worth taking a look at this troubling piece from English language Egypt Independent site, which reports on the concerns of the country's atheists in light of the recent controversy over the anti-Islamic Innocence of Muslims film and the arrest of Alber Saber, a 27-year-old Cairo resident accused of posting sections of the film on Facebook.

Saber, an atheist from a Coptic Christian family, was arrested after neighbours reported him during the international controversy over Innocence of Muslims, and is currently on trial after being charged under Article 98(w) of the Egyptian Penal Code, which outlaws the use of religion to “promote extremist thoughts with the intention of creating dissent or insulting a Abrahamic religion” or “undermining national unity”. Human rights groups have complained about the conditions in which Saber is being held, pointing to both the food he is being provided with and the threat to his safety from other prisoners, and Amnesty International have urged people to write to the Egyptian authorities appealing for his release. There is also a petition calling for his release.

The Egypt Independent piece on the country's atheists reports on a group who had taken to holding weekly meetings in Cairo, but who have begun to think twice following the charges against Saber. While the emergence of such meetings suggests that atheists in Egypt have been tentatively growing more confident about discussing their beliefs (we reported on one group in New Humanist last year), Egypt Independent points out that there are still many obstacles in the way of the free expression of atheism in the country, both in terms of social taboos (which carry the danger of reprisals from religious believers) and the country's penal code, which features three articles criminalising blasphemy.

It's a reminder that, while the events of the Arab Spring have brought new and hard-won freedoms to the region, freedom of belief is far from secure, and may in fact be under greater threat following the election of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt.

It's also a reminder of the abhorrence of blasphemy laws – as I report in the current issue of New Humanist, in the aftermath of Innocence of Muslims some have suggested that there ought to be restrictions on the criticism or mockery of religion, but before compromising on free speech they would do well to observe how blasphemy legislation is used in many Muslim-majority states to oppress those who would diverge from mainstream religious positions.
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