Thursday, February 22, 2007

Free Kareem

In December 2006, the Committee to Protect Journalists produced their annual report on the imprisonment of journalists worldwide. The number had risen from 125 in 2005 to 134 on Dec 1st last year. They also broke down their figures by medium, as is shown by this pie chart:

The report states:

Print reporters, editors, and photographers continue to make up the largest professional category, with 67 cases in 2006, but Internet journalists are a growing segment of the census and now constitute the second largest category, with 49 cases. The number of imprisoned journalists whose work appeared primarily on the Web, via e-mail, or in another electronic form has increased each year since CPJ recorded the first jailed Internet writer in its 1997 census. The 2006 figure is the highest number of Internet journalists CPJ has ever tallied in its annual survey. The roster of jailed Internet journalists includes China’s “citizen” reporters, the independent Cuban writers who file reports for overseas Web sites, and the U.S. video blogger Joshua Wolf who refused to hand over footage to a grand jury.

“We’re at a crucial juncture in the fight for press freedom because authoritarian states have made the Internet a major front in their effort to control information,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said.
I have been posting about the Egyptian blogger Abdul Kareem since last November, hoping that increased international exposure might help his case. It hasn't; today he was sentenced to four years imprisonment.

Kareem was charged with:

  • Spreading data and malicious rumors that disrupt public security

  • Defaming the President of Egypt

  • Incitement to overthrow the regime upon hatred and contempt

  • Incitement to hate "Islam" and breach of the public peace standards

  • Highlighting inappropriate aspects that harm the reputation of Egypt and spreading them to the public
I wrote last year to the Egyptian Ministry of Justice last year, pleading Kareem's case but received no reply. It is no doubt worth mailing the following to register protest:
Egyptian Ambassador to the UK: HE Mr Gehad Refaat Madi:

UK Government: Dr Kim Howells, FCO:

Egyptian Government:

The main problem, though, seems to be the fact that Egypts legal code permits, as the BBC reports, convictions for "insulting Islam" and "insulting Mr Mubarek".

In September 2005 Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Secretary-General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference addressed a Plenary Meeting of the United Nations General Assembly and said:
the Muslim World finds itself still exposed to numerous injustices, violation of rights and campaigns of defamation. Many people in the Muslim World are still deprived of their rights to self-determination or living under foreign occupation as is the cases in Palestine and Kashmir.

At the same time, we are fully aware of the fact that the OIC Member states should do more in the process of implementation of the Millennium Development Goals. I would like to emphasize that campaigns of defamation are still waged – and have even intensified – against Muslims and Islam itself; the growing phenomenon of Islamophobia is the best example of this trend. Human rights of Muslims, particularly in the long established democracies, have become subject to violation. Worse still, the rule has in many instances become that the Muslim is guilty until proved innocent.

We hope that the idea of transforming the present office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to a Human Rights Council will help upholding these rights.

In the face of this situation, we in the OIC are making every effort to deal with this reality in the interest of global harmony, concord, and peace. The leaders of the Muslim World will hold an Extraordinary Summit in Makkah to examine the situation
The result of this meeting in Mecca (Makkah) was a call for the draft resolution establishing the Human Rights Council to include:
a reference to "actions against religions, prophets and beliefs" and to state that "defamation of religions and prophets is inconsistent with the right to freedom of expression."
In March 2006, while I was organising the March for Free Expression in London, I was informed by an intermediary that the OIC was trying hard to defuse the Danish Cartoons crisis. Their work behind the scenes, especially the pressure they put on a particular Pakistani cleric, was, I was told, one reason why there was no counter-demonstration that day in London - an important point if the March were to be allowed to go ahead at all because there would have been very real public order concerns had several thousand Muslim demonstrators turned up to confront a cartoon-waving crowd of free speech advocates. In the event, a handful of teenagers from Al Ghurabaa were gently ushered away by the police.

I formed the impression then that the OIC is less of a unamimous bloc than the uncompromising messages delivered to the UN suggests; it includes, after all, several countries that prohibit extreme Islamic dress that is lawful in Britain. But their messages in 2005 and 2006 were uncompromising. Palestine and Kashmir are simply places where Muslims are being wronged. The entire world must submit to Islamic sensitivities about the manner in which their religion is discussed. Many European politicians have paid lip service to these ideas, including the 2005/6 Foreign Secretary of the U.K. Jack "Last" Straw, who condemned the Danish cartoonists but not those threatening their lives.

Abdul Kareem deserves our support for several reasons. He is a young, opinionated human rights activist with a line in very forthright condemnation of religious excesses. He considers Islam to be fundamentally problematic, not just capable of being distorted by a "tiny minority of extremists", as the appeasing mantra has it. But, most selfishly for we who live in non-Islamic countries, his case is an indication of what we can expect here if the current trend continues.

Those who take it upon themselves to comment, not least in the New Media, about these issues must know that the threats and pressures on Western commentators, journalists and artists will continue. The above is one of the controversial Danish cartoons. So is this:

In the light of subsequent events, it is impossible to suggest reasonably that these were anything other than extremely pertinent and prescient political and social comment - satire of the very first order. They have been condemned as "bad" and "unfunny" so many times I can't be bothered to post links. On the Channel 4 Despatches programme last year, Jon Snow described them as ranging from Mohammed in an identity parade to Mohammed in a bomb-turban. The above two do not fall on that continuum. Nor does this one:

And this next is one of the best comments I have ever seen on the strict Saudi/Iranian attitude to women:

Jon Snow has undoubtedly seen these cartoons and must therefore be considered to be a liar. He heads up one of the flagship British news organisations. We cannot depend on him to alert the public to the problems that the legacy of the Enlightenment faces. As Oliver Kamm recently wrote:
The dominant conflict of the last century was not between left and right. It was between open societies and competing absolutisms. In its most enduring form—the cold war—the protagonists were not progressives and reactionaries but different legatees of the Enlightenment: those of Jefferson and Rousseau, respectively. What comes next is less convoluted, because one side in the conflict of our age is explicit in its aims. Critical inquiry, freedom of conscience and the separation of civil and religious authority are the target of a violent theocratic fanaticism born and sustained in the middle east.

That movement’s apocalyptic language is so far outside the conventions of western debate that many are tempted to rationalise its demands as rhetorical code for something else: a plea for the Palestinians; a cry for global justice. But the ideology is atavistic. It is part of modernity only in the sense that its adherents harness technology to millenarian ends. The most potent conflict in the international order—one that makes urgent the task of countering nuclear proliferation—is thus between the Enlightenment and those who seek its repeal.

Within the western democracies, heightened political disagreement is likely and desirable. But this is not about left vs right either. The strangest political phenomenon of our time is a convergence of isolationisms: nativism on the right, allied to identity politics and anti-Americanism on the left. Against such an adversary, liberalism will, I hope, become more militant in its own defence.
But militancy requires action. What can we do for Abdul Kareem, and thereby - it must be said - for ourselves? I have been asking this question privately of several Middle-Eastern bloggers recently, but have had no answers I have felt held the key.

There is a Free Kareem campaign, but I linked to it and signed its petition last year, before Kareem's conviction, and I don't hold out much hope. It would actually be improper for there to be political intervention in the Egyptian, or any other, legal process. What is needed is a change of Egypt's laws. So, far from the sort of bovine reception that the OIC's attempt to strangle free expression received a year ago, we need to take the fight to them - campaigning for the repeal of their apostasy and religious censorship laws. After all, it is they who have set the precedent for an export of values in this area.

In short, we should add to the truth of this next cartoon:

Islam has an image problem which is of its own making; this would be alleviated by a being-relegated-to-the-private-sphere-of-an-individual's-life problem. But we have to be intelligent in the way we approach this. Egypt is a large net recipient of foreign aid. It's easy to think that aid should be made conditional of legal reform, but the difficulties of this approach are obvious. Saudi aid money, anyone? Mubarek is one of the most pro-Western Middle Eastern leaders, and suffers some domestic problems as a result. Even the law prohibiting insulting the head of State needs to be seen in the context of his islamic problem - Egypt is the origin of the Muslim Brotherhood. Foreign intervention that sought to change Egypt's domestic laws would be unlikely to be productive.

We must start with ourselves. Firstly, by being "militant", as Oliver Kamm put it, in the cause of freedom of expression in this country. We need legal, consitiutional protection for the right everybody has to say what they think in the way they want to express it. The Mafia code of violent reaction to perceived insults needs to be suppressed by law and by speech and example from those in public life. This needs to become an issue that affects the way people vote.

This post is long enough as it is, and I'm going to truncate it now. But I was reading something about the Suffragettes recently, and realised that the right to speak freely is as fundamental, and as fundamental to democracy, as women's suffrage. It's worth bearing in mind that our contemporary paralysis has allowed venal professional politicians to undermine the principle of universal suffrage such that it did not last even a century; in the 2006 British General Election, thousands of postal votes were taken from women in traditional Muslim households and filled in by men.

But the initial campaign for women's suffrage worked and so we do have a precedent, an example of the kind of campaign that might succeed, and a vital current problem. And by succeeding at home, by giving a platform to the voices like Kareem's that have hitherto gone largely unheard, by setting an example and at the same time offering the hand of friendship and of solidarity to Middle Eastern reformers, democrats and sceptics, we can help them to bring about change in their own countries.

Only then, will Kareem be free not just of incarceration, but also to blog again.

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