Hamed Abdel-Samad’s provocative statements about Islam cause discussions about freedom of speech

German-Egyptian secularist scholar, Hamed Abdel-Samad, is living in fear because he is being bombarded with death threats, after holding a speech about “Islamism” in Cairo.

Abdel-Samad became famous in the German-speaking parts of the European Union following his two publications, Mein Abschied vom Himmel (My Farewell from Heaven) and, Der Untergang der islamischen Welt (The Downfall of the Islamic World) in which he called for an “‘Islam light’ in Europe without shari’a, jihad, gender apartheid, proselytism and ‘entitlement mentality’”.[1. “Hamed Abdel-Samad,” Facebook, http://www.facebook.com/?ref=hp#!/pages/Hamed-Abdel-Samad/140472656003522?sk=info.]

The author was invited to speak at a forum of the Egyptian ‘Secularist Movement’ in Cairo.  In his speech he put “Islamism” on the same level with “fascism” and stated that “they had accepted religious pluralism in Medina… At this time, they said, ‘You have your religion and we have ours”. He added that “’Islamic fascism’” can trace back its origins to “the return of the Muslims to Mecca [some 1500 years ago], when they… destroyed all the pagan idols.”[2. “Egyptian Author Appeals for Protection following Islamist threats after making contentious remarks about ‘Islamic fascism” Ahram English, June 10, 2013, http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/73680/Egypt/Politics-/Egyptian-author-appeals-for-protection-following-I.aspx.]

Although Abdel-Samad criticizes Islam in a very provocative way, he still regards himself as a Muslim “who converted from belief to knowledge”.[3. “Hamad Abdel-Samad,” Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/hamed.abdelsamad?fref=ts.] His provocative speech on Islam led one of the heads of the conservative Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiya, Assem Abdel-Maged, and Mahmoud Shabaan, a professor of religious rhetoric at the Azhar University, to publicly call for his murder, after declaring Samad an “apostate” on the TV channel, Al-Hafez.  Immediately, an online campaign was launched, showing pictures of Samad with the caption: “Wanted dead”.[4. “Morddrohungen gegen Droemer Autor Hamed Abdel-Samad (Death threats against Droemer author Hamed Abdel-Samad),” Droemer Knaur, http://www.droemer-knaur.de/leselounge/7933574/morddrohungen-gegen-droemer-autor-hamed-abdel-samad-.]

On June 13, German Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, issued the following statement concerning the death threat: “I condemn the fatwa against author Hamed Abdel-Samad in the strongest terms. I am seriously concerned for his safety and expect the Egyptian Government to prevent any further calls to violence and to take firm action against the originators of this fatwa.”[5. “Außenminister Westerwelle verurteilt Mordaufruf gegen Hamad Abdel Samad (Foreign Minister Westerwelle condemns call to murder Hamad Abdel Samad),” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, June 13, 2013, http://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/DE/Infoservice/Presse/Meldungen/2013/130613-BM_AbdelSamad.html.] Samad demands Germany to put more pressure on the Egyptian government and President Morsi to morally condemn the death threat as well as to charge the perpetrators.

Samad not only has an academic and scientific interest in Islam and the Muslim World, but also has a personal relationship with Egypt, because he was born and raised there. Samad thus must have a deep knowledge of Egyptian current affairs. So the questions arises: Why he did not choose his words in a more sensitive way,  foreseeing that terms like “religious fascism” related to Islam will cause tremendous troubles for him?

Obviously he knew what he was doing since he began his lecture expressing that he was glad to have the possibility to lecture about “Islamo-fascism,” which would not have been possible in former times, and apologized to all he would hurt with his words.[6. Julia Gerlach, “Der Fatwa-Wahn des Scheichs (The Fatwa of Sheikh delusion)” Frankfurter Rundschau, June 12, 2013, http://www.fr-online.de/kultur/fatwa-gegen-hamed-abdel-samad-der-fatwa-wahn-des-scheichs,1472786,23278652.html.] Still, the question of whether he expected the feedback to include several death threats remains unanswered.

While similar threats were impossible during the era of President Mubarak, his ouster opened significant public space for Islamists and other political groups alike also due to the fact that the repressive tactics of the state of emergency were lifted.

Several TV channels serve as the “soft power of the Salafis,”[7. Matt Bradley, “Islamists Rely on TV Sheiks to Woo the Masses in Egypt,” Wall Street Journal, May 8, 2013, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324883604578396503320896678.html#.] because TV shaykhs in Egypt attract many viewers throughout the Arab world. Especially, after the downfall of Mubarak, a staggering number of Islamist TV stations emerged in Egypt and the ultraorthodox used those medial channels to spread their ideas about how the country should be run. It was none other than Salafī preacher, Mahmoud Shabaan, himself who called for death of Mohamed El-Baradei.[8. “Prosecutor-general orders arrest of ‘kill opposition leaders’ sheikh,” Ahram English, February 11, 2013, http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/64560/Egypt/Politics-/Prosecutorgeneral-orders-arrest-of–kill-oppositio.aspx.]

According to the U.S.-based non-governmental organization, Freedom House, which researches advocacy of democracy, censorship, both official and self-imposed, is widespread in Egypt, even though the country’s status of political freedom slipped from “not free” to “partly free” on the international press freedom ranking in 2013. Defamation still remains a criminal offense, which can be seen in the case of media owner and talk-show host, Tawfik Okasha, who was sentenced and also in other instances where media figures were charged with defamation, including Islam Afifi, Editor-in-chief of Al-Dustour, and Hanan Youssef.[9. “Freedom in the World 2013: Egypt,” Freedom House, http://www.freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2013/egypt.]

Samad, who was surely aware of all these cases, still chose not to express his opinion in a more nuanced fashion. Contrary to other German authors and critics of Islam, Samad also published a few of his works in Arabic knowing very well that the debate about Islam and its role in society has to take place in Muslim countries as well as in Europe.

Shortly after receiving the death threats he stated on his Facebook page that he has “no aspiration to change something or everything. [He] have no fear to lose something or everything. It is all about passion!“[10. “Hamad Abdel-Samad,” Facebook.] With this statement, Samad stresses his basic idea and the central theme he reiterates in all his interviews, articles and publications: the absolute freedom of speech – in the words of Voltaire to whom Samad always refers: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”  For Samad, this concept means that people should not be punished no matter how extreme their opinions are. Only when opinions turn into acts of violence should punishment be an option.  He even extends this right to those denying the Holocaust or painting the Prophet.[11. Ibid.]

According to the author, freedom of speech is the political right to communicate one’s opinions and ideas even when using “wrong” words or speaking out of turn. When people put forward an argument, no matter how provocative it is, the other person can react with a counterargument. But despite the fact that people are entitled to their opinion, this does not mean that their ideas may have any relevance for science, politics, and society in general, as it is not for the individual to determine his ideas’ relevance. Discussing how far (in his case) criticism of Islam may go, Samad argued that it is effective, when people use a radical way to gain the attention of the public, but that it is necessary to stop at a certain point and strike a balance in order to be able change something.[12. Personal Interview from Sanna Plieschnegger with Hamed Abdel-Samad, January 10th, 2011.]

If it was attention Samad was asking for, that he definitely got, as he and his thesis are on everybody’s lips now. In light of recent events, it cannot yet be answered clearly whether the reaction is more than he bargained for or even wished for. Getting attention sometimes means making sacrifices.  Regarding the question of whether Samad is afraid of how his life will change now, he answered that he doesn’t hope so, “because life makes no sense without freedom”.

Nevertheless, the death threat definitely had one positive side effect: Samad’s theses are now discussed by a much larger audience, not only in Europe, but also in Egypt. So was his speech just means to an end, which is the start of a discussion about Islam and the freedom of speech, or was it simply such an upsurge in the harshness of the reaction from some Egyptian religious figures that Samad just could not anticipate. Tactics or just a lot more of the usual for Islam critics – it remains to be seen whether Samad himself will answer this question.

This article has originally been published as Arab-West Report on 19. June 2013.
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