FEATURE: Rights lawyers decry magazine's closure for "blasphemy"
Cairo - "God is not a policeman, grabbing perpetrators by their necks," Egyptian poet Helmi Salem wrote in his 2007 poem, On the Balcony of Leila Mourad.
"He is a simple villager, feeding the duck, checking the cow's udder with his fingers, crying: there is a plenty of milk."
When a lawyer brought a lawsuit against Salem and Ibdaa, the government-funded magazine that published the poem, charging them with "insulting the Divine Entity," Salem's defence attorney never expected it would go far.
But on Tuesday, an administrative court in Cairo canceled Ibdaa's publishing license for printing the "blasphemous" poem.
"We expected that the court would reject the case on the grounds it did not have jurisdiction," Hamdi al-Assiuti, Salem's lawyer from Cairo's Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), told dpa, the German press agency, on Wednesday.
"We are still in a shock since the verdict was issued last night," Gamal Eid, ANHRI's executive director, told dpa. "The verdict was an attack on freedom of expression and creativity in Egypt."
Said Sabri filed the lawsuit against Salem and the magazine on the grounds that it "insulted the Divine Entity," under "hesbah," a doctrine that entitles any Muslim to take legal action against anyone or anything he considers against Islamic teachings.
"The press has the freedom to pursue its enlightening mission, but this freedom is restricted by its responsibilities to society," the judge at the administrative court found. "If a publication did not observe these restrictions, then its license is not valid."
In a 2007 opinion, religious scholars at Cairo's centuries-old al- Azhar University, concluded that Salem's poem "included expressions that insult God" and accused him of being an apostate.
"These hesbah lawyers are hiding behind religious slogans," al- Assiuti said. "They are trying to climb over creativity and art."
Al-Assiuti said he expected the court's ruling would be overturned on appeal.
In a recent interview with the Dubai-based satellite network al- Arabiya, Salem defended his poem, saying his aim was not to insult God, but to criticize the "dependency and passivity of Muslims."
"Whoever imagines another meaning has bad intentions," he said.
While other Egyptian intellectuals - such as Nasr Hamad Abu Zeid, Nawal al-Saadawy and Ahmed al-Sahahawy - have been found guilty of blasphemy in similar hesbah lawsuits, Tuesday's ruling was the first that resulted in the cancellation of a magazine's license to publish, defence lawyers said.
This was also the first case in which a government-owned publication was implicated in a hesbah case, they said.
"The state has neglected the issue of hesbah lawsuits for years, thinking it didn't affect them," said ANHRI's Eid. "But the heat is now approaching the state itself."
Egypt's intellectuals and artists have rallied around Salem since the suit was filed. In 2007, after the lawsuit was first brought and al-Azhar scholars concluded he was an apostate, the Supreme Council for Culture awarded Salem its Award of Excellence for his life's work.
"We support Salem because it is not his battle alone. It is all of our battle," said Ali Abu Shadi, secretary general of the council.
In response to the suit, bloggers have reproduced the poem across the internet.
Not all of them have been sympathetic. One described Salem as "the dog of poets, barking at the clouds in the sky."
"A silly and foolish poet," another concluded. (dpa)