Political and religious populism threatens freedom of expression

Oslo 8. March 2012

To the board of PEN International

Political and religious populism threatens freedom of expression

Political use of religious symbols and play on religious feelings undermine freedom of speech and political debate in many parts of the world. Populist politicians exploit human insecurity and powerlessness by stirring demonstrations, public rage and violent actions against members for alleged blasphemy, unbelief and lack of respect for sacred symbols.

Religious based law and scripture interpretation restrict human freedom. Statutory or politically interpreted commands and prohibitions define shame, honor and punishment in violation of basic human rights for women, children, religious and sexual minorities and make political and artistic criticism impossible.

In the battle for the evangelical Christian conservative votes in the United States, the remaining candidates in the race to be nominated for the Republican presidential candidate become increasingly clear on religious affiliation and religiously motivated political views. Questions about abortion, homosexuality and so-called Christian family values become central, well-defined issues. Former President Jimmy Carter is one of many who is now warning against excessive use of religion and religious symbols in the political nomination battle.

In Nigeria, religion and religious identity is being exploited in order to strengthen regional and ethnic borders. Politicization of Islam through the introduction of sharia in several states in this declaredly secular republic has led to increased political tension and has triggered regional, violent conflicts between Muslim and Christian groups.

In Iran and Iraq there has been a shift from secular to Islamic constitutions. The Iranian Constitution, which states that all other legislation must be based on Islamic criteria, is the strictest. The Afghan Constitution of 2004, Article 2, states that «no law can be contrary to the teachings and laws of Islam.» This has weakened the position of human rights in the country´s legislation.  It has limited the number of religions that are approved as a recognized religion and weakened freedom of expression and equality.

Egypt’s first democratic elections has given the Muslim parties an overwhelming majority in Parliament. What consequences this will have on the design of the new Egyptian constitution, remains to be seen. The country’s Coptic Christian minority is experiencing various forms of sectarian harassment, and fears increased discrimination including greater influence from radical Islamist parties. Many women fear the introduction of sharia, which will severely restrict their rights and freedoms. Author Nawal El Saadavi is among the most outspoken critics of the fact that the commission, which has started to work on a proposed new constitution, was formed without the participation of women.

In Pakistan weak politicians allow themselves to be dictated by small religious populist parties, which exploit the strong anti-Western trends in the country in its struggle to preserve the country’s inhumane blasphemy laws. A law that involves the possibility of accusations, imprisonment and brutal punishment of women and children, ethnic, religious and sexual minorities and political critics.

Indian politicians like to describe the country as the world’s most populous democracy. Author Salman Rushdie was recently forced to withdraw from India’s largest literary festival in Jaipur in northwest India. Muslim extremists claimed that Rushdie’s expressions violate Islam and that criminals should be hired to eliminate the author. Again, Rushdie’s novel Satanic Verses from 1988 is being used to justify threats from Muslim activists and populist politicians. An Iranian fatwa from Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 involved a death sentence for the author and all his translators and publishers. The fatwa still formally exists. Satanic Verses was banned in India shortly after its release and is still blacklisted. The ban came after pressure from Muslim populist politicians. The novel became a symbol for the strengthening of support among Muslim voters and led to pressure against PM Ranjiv Gandhi and the Congress Party, which was dependent on Muslim votes. Roughly 23 years later the Congress Party is back in power, but chooses silently to let the threats from extremists set the agenda in the political power struggle.

Norwegian PEN warns against a trend in which religiously based politics, at both national and international levels, weakens freedom of expression and undermine basic human rights for individuals and groups. Norwegian PEN urges PEN International, the national PEN clubs, other human rights organizations and  institutions, and national and international authors´-, journalists´-  and publishers´ organizations to challenge a political development in which populist politicians abuse religious feelings and symbols in order to set groups up against each other, undermine the rights of individuals and groups and weaken freedom of expression.

On behalf of the board of Norwegian PEN

Ann-Magrit Austenå                   Carl Morten Iversen
boardmember                             secretary general

Egyptisk PEN støtter opprørerne og krever full ytringsfrihet

Statement by Egypt PEN

18 February 2011

Egypt PEN reiterates its support for the Egyptian Youths’ Revolution and their calls for free expression along with political and economic reform. The first stage of this revolution is over. Before we move on, this is the time to send our condolences to all those families whose children were sacrificed while struggling for the liberation of our country from a corrupted regime that had usurped power for 30 years. We, of Egypt PEN, associate ourselves with their demands.

The Youths’ Revolution unified the people of Egypt in Tahrir Square and throughout Egypt around the common goals of reconstructing our society and addressing the unacceptable levels of inequality and poverty in the country. This can only be accomplished through the restoration of full freedom of expression, which means freedom of the mass media – whether print, radio, television, or Internet. We call for the end of all forms of censorship of creativity, the end of book seizures, and an end to the censorship of dramatic works. We call for the abolishment of all penal laws that imprison people on grounds of their political or religious views. All of this can only be accomplished with the ending of the Emergency Laws.

The Youths’ Revolution has demonstrated that both free expression and ideas based on facts are powerful weapons when people are faced with oppression. What has been lost over three decades cannot be restored over night. However, we call upon the Council of the Armed Forces to uphold the promise of the Youths’ Revolution by adhering to the principles of free expression and transparent democracy.

Eqbal Baraka
Egyptian PEN President

PEN Egypt supports the demonstrators and demand full freedom of expression

Statement by Egypt PEN

18 February 2011

Egypt PEN reiterates its support for the Egyptian Youths’ Revolution and their calls for free expression along with political and economic reform. The first stage of this revolution is over. Before we move on, this is the time to send our condolences to all those families whose children were sacrificed while struggling for the liberation of our country from a corrupted regime that had usurped power for 30 years. We, of Egypt PEN, associate ourselves with their demands.

The Youths’ Revolution unified the people of Egypt in Tahrir Square and throughout Egypt around the common goals of reconstructing our society and addressing the unacceptable levels of inequality and poverty in the country. This can only be accomplished through the restoration of full freedom of expression, which means freedom of the mass media – whether print, radio, television, or Internet. We call for the end of all forms of censorship of creativity, the end of book seizures, and an end to the censorship of dramatic works. We call for the abolishment of all penal laws that imprison people on grounds of their political or religious views. All of this can only be accomplished with the ending of the Emergency Laws.

The Youths’ Revolution has demonstrated that both free expression and ideas based on facts are powerful weapons when people are faced with oppression. What has been lost over three decades cannot be restored over night. However, we call upon the Council of the Armed Forces to uphold the promise of the Youths’ Revolution by adhering to the principles of free expression and transparent democracy.

Eqbal Baraka
Egyptian PEN President

2007: Egypt: Abdel Kareem Nabil Suleiman – follow up

Oslo, 10. April 2007

His Excellency Mohammad Hosni Mubarak
President of the Republic of Egypt
Heliopolis, Egypt
Fax: +202 390 1998

Your Excellency,

As Chair Writers in Prison Committee of  Norwegian PEN, I remain seriously concerned about the numbers of writers and journalists sentenced or facing charges for their writings in Egypt. Writers, journalists and civil society activists remain at risk of detention, trial and imprisonment solely for peacefully expressing their views.

The renewal of the Emergency Law in April 2006 is widely regarded as a means to silence critics and maintain strong restrictions on freedom of expression and religion
Egypt’s press is one of the most influential and widely-read in the region but despite a pledge made by President Mubarak in February 2004 to decriminalise offences committed by journalists, laws which allow imprisonment for defaming the president, state institutions and foreign heads of state remain in place.

The Writers in Prison Committee Norwegian PEN protests the detention of Internet writer Abdel Kareem Nabil Suleiman (aka Kareem Amer), and all judicial proceedings against journalists and writers in Egypt solely for their writings. International PEN considers Kareem Amer to be detained in violation of Article 19 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a signatory, and calls for his immediate and unconditional release.

Trusting that you, Your Excellency, will take immediate action, I remain,

Yours sincerely,

Elisabet W. Middelthon/sign.                                             Carl Morten Iversen
Chair Writers in Prison Committee, Norwegian PEN             Secretary general

Copies to:
His Excellency Cr Mamdouh Muheiddin Marei
Minister of Justice
Magles El Shaab St, Justice Bldg
Cairo, Egypt, fax: +202 7958103
Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Norwegian Embassy in Cairo, Egypt
Egyptian Embassy in Oslo, Norway

2007: Egypt: Abdel Kareem Nabil Suleiman

Oslo, 15 March 2007

His Excellency Mohammad Hosni Mubarak
President of the Republic of Egypt
Heliopolis, Egypt

Fax: +202 390 1998

Your Excellency,

As Chair of Writers in Prison Committee of Norwegian PEN, I protest the four-year sentence given to Internet writer Abdel Kareem Nabil Suleiman, better known under the pseudonym of Kareem Amer. We are convinced that he has peacefully exercised his right to freedom of expression, and Norwegian PEN calls for the charges to be dismissed and Kareem Amer to be released immediately and unconditionally.

I also protest the decision of the Court of Appeal to allow a civil suit against Kareem Amer on charges of ‘insulting Islam’. I am serioously concerned about him, and I seek assurances that he is being treated humanely in detention.

This is not the first time that Kareem Amer has been detained for his critical writings. He was held for 12 days in October 2005 for his articles on Islam and his coverage of sectarian riots in Alexandria. These articles also led to his dismissal from al-Azhar University in March 2006 after its disciplinary board found him guilty of blasphemy against Islam.

I am reminding the Egyptian authorities of their obligations to protect freedom of expression as laid out by Article 19 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a signatory, as well as President Mubarak’s pledge in February 2004 to decriminalise defamation.
The Writers in Prison Committee of Norwegian PEN protests the Alexandria Appeal Court’s decision to uphold the four-year prison sentence handed down to Internet writer Abdel Kareem

Yours sincerely,

Elisabet W.Middelthon
Chair Writers in Prison Committee, Norwegian PEN

Copies to:
His Excellency Cr Mamdouh Muheiddin Marei
Minister of Justice
Magles El Shaab St, Justice Bldg
Cairo, Egypt

Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Norwegian Embassy in Cairo, Egypt
Egyptian Embassy in Oslo, Norway