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Writer Sentenced to Eight Years for Blasphemy

December 27, 1991

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ A security court has convicted a novelist of blasphemy and sentenced him to eight years in prison, the first time this century an Egyptian author has been jailed for his writing.

The court ordered similar terms Thursday for the publisher-distributor of Alaa Hamid’s ″The Distance in a Man’s Mind″ and the owner of the press where the book was printed.

Published in May 1990, ″The Distance in a Man’s Mind″ comprises dream sequences in which the main character meets prophets of the Koran, Islam’s holy book, in comic situations. Many of the prophets are revered by Christians, Jews and Muslims.

The blasphemy charges grew out of a report by the Islamic Research Group of Al-Azhar, Cairo’s Muslim educational complex considered the intellectual seat of Islam. The group banned the book and recommended that Hamid be tried on charges that his alleged ridicule of the prophets was heretical and blasphemous.

The case recalled the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1989 death sentence on British author Salman Rushdie, whose book ″The Satanic Verses″ is considered offensive to Islam.

″This is a shocking sentence,″ said lawyer Ali el-Shalakany, who was not directly involved in Hamid’s case. ″It’s based on a law that ... has never been used before.″

Hamid’s case has drawn the attention of International PEN, the London-based writers’ group that concerns itself with legal abuse of colleagues.

But Mursi Saad el-Din, PEN’s Egyptian representative, described the sentence as not so surprising, under Egyptian law.

″Religion is taboo,″ he said. ″According to our law, blasphemy against any religion is forbidden.″

Dr. Sayed Rizk, dean of the College of Islamic Studies in Cairo, told the newspaper El-Wafd that Hamid, a government bureaucrat fired because of the book, is an apostate. Apostasy, a person’s rejection of his religion, is punishable by death under Islamic law but not under the Egyptian penal code.

Although Egypt’s governing system is largely secular, officials contend that 90 percent of its code corresponds with Islamic law. Al-Azhar’s Research Group judges books published in Egypt for religious and moral uprightness.

The Hamid case marks the first time that government prosecutors accepted a recommendation from Al-Azhar to file criminal charges against an author.

Al-Azhar’s most famous literary prohibition was in 1959 against Nobel literature laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s ″Children of Gebelawi.″ Clerical attempts to have Mahfouz tried for apostasy were ignored.

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