by the stormy present
Fri Feb 23rd, 2007 at 06:54:02 AM EST
Yesterday, a court in Alexandria sentenced 23-year-old Egyptian blogger Abdulkareem Nabil Suleiman to four years in prison. His crimes? Insulting Islam got him three years. Insulting the Egyptian president got him one.
This is really not as simple as it looks. Yes, it's a free speech issue. Yes, it's a freedom of religion issue. Yes, it's more evidence that Egypt is not as "moderate" as our ("Western") governments (who give Egypt vast amounts of money) like to pretend it is.
But yes, there are thousands of other people in Egyptian prisons, held indefinitely on spurious charges and mysterious, scant or non-existant evience. The fact that Kareem's case has garnered so much attention also says something about the double standards that so many in the so-called "West" apply to the Arab and Muslim worlds.
To wit: when we talk about freedom of speech in the Middle East, a lot of people here could be forgiven for thinking we don't really mean it.
It's the first time anybody's been sentenced to prison in Egypt for blogging. A number of bloggers were jailed last year, but they were arrested for taking part in protests and other offline activity; Kareem's the first one to go to jail purely for what he wrote online.
The case has sparked statements of outrage from the usual suspects. The director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (HRinfo) called it "a gloomy day for all the advocators of freedom of expression not only in Egypt but also in the whole world," and he's right.
Kareem (who blogged in Arabic under the name Kareem Amer) is a secularist, raised in a conservative Muslim family, who was apparently forced to become a law student at Al-Azhar, the high seat of Sunni Muslim learning and the oldest Islamic university in the world. Al-Azhar does not get a lot of secular students, and it seems that his experience there radicalized him somewhat.
He wrote a lot of things that shocked people, especially his criticisms of Al-Azhar, Egypt's religious authorities, religious extremism, and Islam in general. This story gets at some of that. Honestly, I know people, secular Egyptians who proudly (in private) call themselves atheists, whose response to some of his posts went something like, "Holy crap, this guy is nuts."
But when he was arrested, the Egyptian blogosphere has really united behind Kareem, as have their compatriots in much of the rest of the Arab world. Some of his most vocal supporters have been devout Muslims who disagree with what he wrote. (Take that, all you people who say belief in Islam is incompatible with freedom of speech and self-criticism....) There are "Free Kareem" banners on many Middle Eastern blogs, and 12 Cairo bloggers actually traveled up to Alex to attend his sentencing yesterday.
As a sign of how irrelevant our "Western" political categorizations have become in the Middle East, Kareem's case is just one of many issues that unite a Socialist like Hossam el-Hamalawy with a neocon like Sandmonkey. (Both of whom might object to my categorizations of them, but whatever... I'm right.)
When you Google "free Kareem," the first site you get is freekareem.org, set up by a blogger in Bahrain.
But here's the thing. The second site is Michelle Malkin's. Which I won't link to.
Kareem, you see, has become a cause celebre in certain circles. Those circles include Arab bloggers of all stripes, who have largely united in defense of Kareem even if they disagree with what he wrote or find it personally offensive. (The woman who established freekareem.org is one of them.)
But those circles also include rabid (often but not always American) neocon Islam-haters. These folks are not interested in Kareem so much because he's a jailed Egyptian blogger; they don't give a toss about who the Egyptian regime chooses to imprison when the security sweeps are targeting Bedouins or Muslim Brothers. But throw a secularist critic of Islam in prison and they have a field day.
Look, I think Abu Aardvark (aka Marc Lynch, an American academic) said it a lot better than me:
Free the Egyptian blogger! But...
It's nice to see everyone raising their voices to protest the sentencing of Egyptian blogger Abdel Karim Nabeel to four years in prison. International criticism of escalating Egyptian repression can only be good, whether the criticism is official or NGO or public. I add my voice to those who call for a revisiting of the verdict and for his release from prison.
At the same time, I can't help but note that Nabeel is far from the only political activist in Egyptian jails right now. The Egyptian regime is engaging in an unprecedented crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. Hundreds of its members have been arrested and referred to the notorious state security courts, their businesses closed down and their bank accounts frozen, without even a trace of due process. Some Muslim Brothers are even bloggers, if that's what it takes to get people to care. Because not many people seem to.
This selective outrage, where Westerners care about one anti-Islamist blogger but can't be bothered about equally arbitrary and illiberal repression of hundreds of Islamists, only reinforces general skepticism that this isn't really about freedom, human rights, or democracy. It's just like the American focus on the release of jailed liberal politician Ayman Nour as a litmus test for the Egyptian regime (one which it continues to fail, by the way, without seeming to suffer the slightest penalty). I can not exaggerate how many times I hear from Arabs and Muslims that America's campaign against Hamas after it won fair elections and its blind eye to Mubarak's campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood proves once and for all the fundamental hypocrisy of its democracy talk. I am not criticizing anyone for rallying to Nabeel's or Nour's defense. They should. But they should also see this as part of a comprehensive regime crackdown on Egyptian political opposition, with the attack on the Muslim Brotherhood the leading edge of the regime's anti-democratic backlash. People who claim to care about Egyptian reform, democratization, and human rights should take a slightly wider view of the problem than the travails of one anti-Islamist blogger or one liberal politician.
Yeah. What he said.