A blessing in disguise

When the Cairo Court of Appeal passed its unprecedented judgment on 14 June, 1995 separating Islamic scholar Nasr Hamed Abu Zaid from his wife, I, like many Egyptians, suffered a shock which soon flared up into rage, anger and a sense of guilt for not having been involved in the case on his behalf. I soon initiated and became involved with a coalition of 16 prominent Egyptian lawyers who volunteered to challenge this verdict on behalf Abu Zaid and his wife before the Court of Cassation.

In retrospect, after years of continued struggle, I can safely say that we have unfairly lost the legal battle before the court, but are to a great extent winning the war. The suffering and agony of Abu Zaid and his wife, Ibtehal Younes, have not gone in vain. Although the litigation battle is still continuing until this day, the legal and cultural impact of the Abu Zaid case has been extremely positive.

Because of the case, the defense coalition advocated and the Egyptian government supported an amendment to Article 3 of the Code of Procedures which closed the loophole that enabled religious extremists who had no direct connection with Abu Zaid to file an action against him by using the concept of hisba (maintenance of public order in accordance with Islamic principles). Passed on 22 May, 1996, this amendment has saved more than 90 Egyptian intellectuals, artists and writers from similar actions, which have no longer become admissible before the courts. Thanks to Abu Zaid, religious extremists can no longer terrorize scholars, intellectuals or artists through such legal means.

The amendment had an immediate effect. The original verdict separating the Abu Zaids was stayed on 25 September, 1996 as the defense pleaded that under the newly-amended Code of Procedures nobody had legal standing to request enforcement of the divorce ruling. The stay represented a breakthrough as it stopped the execution of the separation verdict permanently.

In an important decision on 7 July, 2002, the Supreme Constitutional Court assigned exceptional status to the freedom of scientific research, among other constitutional rights and liberties in Egypt. This was a response to the debate, triggered by the Abu Zaid case, over the right of scholars to exercise their freedom of scientific research and whether there are any legal, cultural or religious limitations to this type of freedom. The decision read:

“Freedom of scientific research cannot exist or be separated from the researcher himself.  The essence of this freedom is that it is absolute and indefinite… Article 49 of the Constitution has not only guaranteed freedom of scientific research for all citizens without exception, in absolute terms, and without any limitations, but has also obliged the state to provide the necessary means to ensure and protect the freedom of scientific research…”

The above principle forcefully supporting absolute freedom for scientific research is binding on all branches of government–legislative, executive and judicial–in Egypt.

The Abu Zaid case has also confirmed an important lesson of history: In all cases where scholars are put on trial for their conscience or condemned for their scientific or intellectual findings, the names and works of such scholars not only survive, but also gain strength and prominence. Socrates, Galileo, Copernicus, Joan of Arc, Averroës, and El-Hallaj are but a few examples. Nobody remembers the names of the judges or the details of the claims or decisions passed against these scholars, but their contributions have made a significant difference in history.

Contrary to their intended objectives, such trials have consistently given new ideas and research more force and visibility and earned them broader public support.

Abu Zaid is no exception. The judgment condemning his scholarly work and separating him from his wife has gained him the sympathy of many ordinary Egyptians, who have rejected extremist attempts to abuse the concept of hisba in order to interfere in his private life. In an outpouring of support, many intellectuals, writers and NGOs responded to these attacks by holding meetings and publishing articles and books in solidarity with Abu Zaid.

Though several coalition members have passed away, I continued–against Abu Zaid’s pleas–the fight in court to nullify, directly or indirectly, the verdict against his scholarly work. The objective was not only to protect Abu Zaid from potential threats to his life but also to expunge this dark spot in Egypt’s judicial history.

Nobody remembers the names of the judges or plaintiffs in the Abu Zaid case, but the man’s research has gained more recognition and readership both domestically and internationally. His ideas are slowly acquiring more support in Egypt and other Arab and Islamic countries. The verdict shocked liberal intellectuals and the Egyptian government, making them recognize the need to address religious extremism through education, awareness raising and comprehensive reform, including of religious thought and institutions.

A slow but steady improvement in Egyptian attitudes towards religious extremism and attacks on freedom of conscience has been noticeable in recent years.

Over the past few years, President Hosni Mubarak has consistently called for the “innovation of religious discourse”. A 2007 constitutional amendment adopted “citizenship” as the basis for the relationship between the Egyptian state and its citizens, in an attempt to emphasize the principles of justice, equal opportunity and non-discrimination based on gender or religion. The General Egyptian Book Organization, the public body responsible for publication in Egypt, has resumed publishing Abu Zaid’s books, notably his late work on Ibn Arabi in 2003. Television stations, both national and satellite, began hosting Abu Zaid in recent years, especially on popular talk shows. Conferences, international and local, welcomed him to deliver lectures. Following Abu Zaid’s tragic death, the front-pages of state-owned and independent newspapers carried articles applauding his courage and scholarly achievements, something which had never happened during his life time.

The sad loss of Abu Zaid has inspired a deep interest in his work and brought him back to life through articles, translations of his recent English writings and interviews, and in-depth analyses of his academic writings.

Above all, students and friends of Abu Zaid have been and will continue to carry his mission. His memory will continue to enrich our lives and empower us to fight for freedom of expression and against censorship, not only in Egypt but the world over.

Mona Zulficar is a prominent international lawyer and a human rights activist, elected since 2008 as an expert member of the UN Human Rights Council Advisory Committee.

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