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Legal cases involving actor Adel Imam, who was recently accused of contempt of religion for the roles he played in several films, are triggering intense debate in Cairo.
The Agouza Misdemeanours Court in Cairo dismissed a lawsuit on April 26th that was filed against Imam, directors Sherif Arafa and Mohamed Fadel, and writers Wahid Hamed and Lenin el-Ramli, that accused them of contempt of religion in their artistic works, including films, television series and theatrical plays.
The ruling came less than a week after another court, the Pyramids Misdemeanours Court in Giza, convicted Imam on the same charge and sentenced him to three months in prison and a fine.
Activists and writers told Al-Shorfa that the Agouza Court ruling, which dismissed the charges against Imam, serves to protect art and artists from Islamist hardliners.
The court explained that its judgment was based upon the concept that "the freedoms of opinion and expression are among the most important elements of democratic systems, and any derogation from those rights is derogation from sound democratic governance."
"Criticism of any intellectual trend through art is not criminalised by law, and some hard-liners insist on installing themselves as guardians and defenders of the faith against threats," the court said.
"Assuming that those artistic works run contrary to their understanding of the faith, does that mean that religion was denigrated in their understanding and interpretation? Why do they portray what was presented in those works as being a threat to the faith when it was in fact a threat to their understanding and interpretation? Religion and faith in the hearts of Egyptians as a religious people is too strong to be threatened by an artistic work. But the weakness of the [accusers'] position, which stems from darkness and ignorance, is what portrays such to them," the court said in its ruling.
Responding to the claim that Imam's work demonstrated contempt of Islam and Muslims in general, and Islamist groups and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, the court said in its ruling that "a distinction must be made between religion and religious thought on the one hand and what is sacred and what is not sacred on the other".
As for Imam's characterisation of the late Sheikh Mohamed Metwalli al-Shaarawi in the movie "El-Wad Mahrous Betaa el-Wazir", the court said it would be a grave mistake to sanctify religious clerics or their thinking.
Hafez Abu Saada, a lawyer and secretary-general of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, said that according to Egyptian law, there are no real grounds for the lawsuit against Adel Imam.
It is a "hisbah" lawsuit, which is banned under Egyptian law, Abu Saada said. A hisbah lawsuit is a public lawsuit filed by one person against another individual accused of contempt of religion.
In another hisbah lawsuit this year, businessman Naguib Sawiris was charged with defaming religion after he posted cartoons on his Twitter account of Mickey and Minnie Mouse in conservative Muslim attire. The court acquitted him of the charges in March.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects freedom of expression in writing, in art or through any other media, Abu Saada said.
"Disputes over artistic works should not be resolved in the courts but through deep constructive collective dialogue," he said.
Mohammad al-Ghaity, a screenwriter, said, "An artistic work cannot be judged by a few scenes taken out of context."
The films cited in the lawsuit as offensive to religion were made several years ago "to defend the essence of Islam, denounce terrorism, and reject associating Muslims with it", he said.
The judgment of the lawyer, Asran Mansour, who filed the lawsuit against Imam "is a personal judgment and not based on art or film criticism", al-Ghaity said.
"Judging an artistic work based on political or religious criteria leads it into a dark tunnel," he said.
During a meeting of the Islamic Group, Dr. Safwat Abdel-Ghani, a member of the group's Shura Council, said Islamist movements did not sentence Imam to prison, but it was the judges who issued the court ruling against the actor.
He asked that Islamists not be accused of sentencing Imam.
Imam starred in many films that focused on combating extremism, renouncing violence and advocating tolerance, including the film "Terrorism and Kebab" in 1994. In the film, he played a terrorist belonging to an Islamist armed group who is forced to live with an Egyptian family that embraces moderate Islam. He also starred in "The Birds of Darkness", which addresses Islamist involvement in Egyptian politics and "Hassan and Morcos", which addresses the tension between Muslims and Coptic Christians.
Mohammad Zare, a human rights activist and chairman of the Arab Penal Reform Organisation, told Al-Shorfa Imam's work is marked by seriousness and discusses "corruption and authoritarianism under the former regime of Hosni Mubarak, the muzzling of freedoms and restriction of artistic creativity [under the regime]".
Freedom of opinion is guaranteed under the Egyptian constitution, and everyone must stand against personal disputes in the courts and the intimidation tactics used by some hardliners against artists to dissuade them from discussing contemporary controversial issues, he said.
Zare said the ruling coincides with demands raised by some Islamist groups that call for internet censorship and the exercise of tighter censorship over artistic works, such as cutting "inappropriate" scenes from films.