A court in Egypt sentenced blogger Kareem Sulaiman to four years in prison for “inciting hatred of Islam” and insulting President Hosni Mubarak. Kareem isn’t the first Egyptian blogger to go to prison, but unlike my friend Alaa Adb El Fateh who was held for participating in a political protest, Kareem is being jailed for writing on his blog.
The response from press freedom organizations like Reporters Without Borders has been swift and unequivocal – this is an absurd sentence for a young man who’s simply exercising his basic rights of free speech. But the reaction from the blogosphere in Egypt and throughout the Middle East is a bit more complicated. Kareem’s blog posts have upset many Egyptian bloggers, who were upset with his comments criticizing Islam. As Amira Al Hussaini reports on Global Voices:
When Kareem was first detained in early November for this writings, many bloggers in the Middle East tried to distance themselves from the case because they did they did not want to be associated with blasphemy against Islam. Today, while some condemn the sentence as an attack on freedom of expression, others believe the blogger got what he deserved for swimming against the tide.
Even his very own family disowned him a few days before his trial.
Dalia Ziada, who has been agitating for Kareem’s release has an excellent FAQ on why she believes Muslims should support Kareem:
Above all, it is Kareem’s absolute choice to be a Muslim, a Christian, a Jewish or even an atheist. Freedom of belief is one of the basic rights given to all humans. Prophet Mohammed himself never treated some one upon his/her religion. As an anti-extremism moderate Muslim I believe in human rights. Thereupon, I support Kareem’s right to express his own views the way he likes and to believe in whatever he wants.
The heavy sentence handed down has a dangerous effect on online speech in Egypt – knowing that the consequences for offending authorities can be a long prison sentence is guaranteed to have an effect on what many Egyptian bloggers do and don’t say online. A good deal of attention is paid to the technical measures some countries use to control the flow of information in and out of their nations; we need to pay as much attention to situations like Kareem’s where the chilling effects come from the threats to blogger’s freedom and not through technical means.
My friend Marc Lynch, a leading scholar of the Arab media, has another important point to make: Kareem is one of many political prisoners being held in Egypt in contravention of international human right law. Yes, our goal has to be to Free Kareem, but we also need to care about everyone detained by the Mubarak government, whether they’re liberal bloggers or members of the Muslim Brotherhood:
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.