Why are we arresting kids for blasphemy in Egypt?

"The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities," John Dalberg-Acton wrote in 1877. Egypt now seems to be reveling in its failure to pass that test. (Though I should add that a certain degree of caution is advisable here.)

The (latest) cause of my outrage is the arrest this week -- yes, the arrest -- of two boys, ages nine and 10, for blasphemy. The two Coptic boys were held in a juvenile facility and released four days later, though they were not acquitted.

They are said to have ripped pages out of a Quran, and perhaps even urinated on it.

Frankly, even if it were true -- and we are relying on the account of one eyewitness - all I can say is "big effing deal." They're children. Kids are cruel and often do stupid things. The appropriate punishment would probably be to hand them to their parents for a spanking. Not to arrest them.

The charge is ridiculous from both a human and religious perspective. In Islam, people are only held responsible for their actions if they are adults -- more precisely, if they have reached puberty -- and if they qualify as sane. From a religious perspective, then, all children's innocence is beyond questioning.

But this isn't about religion. It's about discrimination. This isn't the first time Egypt's Christians have found themselves at the selective end of a very heavy-handed legal stick.

27-year old Alber Saber (shown in the image above) was arrested earlier for sharing the ridiculous Muslim-hating YouTube video that inflamed Muslims' emotions all over the globe last month. He is facing accusations of defaming Islam. Meanwhile, Muslim TV preacher Khaled Abdallah has been playing the video on a loop on his program without being the subject of comparable accusations, despite his deliberately incendiary stance.

It isn't just Christians. Egypt Independent columnist Amr Ezzat reports that since the revolution, such blasphemy charges have been wielded against journalists, actors, and businesspeople (any of them Muslim). But, in a ludicrous example of selective justice, actors and business tycoons are not arrested. This, of course, is ironic, because the publicity generated by sending a young man to prison for a comment he posted to an internet forum (hateful as it might be), and which was probably only read by a dozen or so people, means that thousands more will be "exposed" to whatever he might have said.

But punishment, as we know, is not the true objective. The purpose is to galvanize public opinion.

Does Egypt have a minorities problem? Yes. And it's growing. It is not a systematic policy; one cannot attribute it to the political dominance of a conservative Islamist president and parties. They are to blame, indisputably, for their passivity and their pandering to the electorate's basest instincts. It's a story as old as the history of nations: When the going gets tough, as is currently the case for many of Egypt's struggling majority, people retreat into sectarian identities and blame the "other." It's all too easy to stoke religious feelings to divert attention away from the real issues (such as the new constitution currently being drafted). But like many things that are easy, succumbing to this impulse can have destructive effects. Giving free reign to religious tensions and indulging the most intolerant and ignorant elements of our society is like a dying body shutting down its secondary functions to preserve the core organs: A desperate solution. It's easy, and it's cheap. It's repugnant.

So where is Egypt heading? Are our politicians really willing to let the country self-destruct, all the way down to the community level, to ensure they remain in office?

One thing is certain: As long as minorities are made to feel unsafe -- with every possible faux pas, real or imagined, threatening to land a nine-year-old in jail -- then we are all (Muslims and Christians alike) far from being free.

Shame on us. Shame on us.


Democracy Lab

Americans behaving badly in Uganda

It was in a piece for The East African newspaper by the distinguished Ugandan journalist Joachim Buwembo that first brought to my attention the details of an unfortunate incident that occurred three weeks ago in Kampala. The story goes like this: A U.S. Embassy car rammed into the car of Major General Pecos Kuteesa, a respected Ugandan army general. In real Hollywood gangster style, two U.S. security personnel emerged from their vehicle, beat up the general's driver, and slashed the car's tires.

The general's driver, also an army man, was armed, and could have used his gun in defense, but refrained. A group of onlookers quickly gathered at the scene. You see, the thing about Uganda is that mobs form quickly, especially when there's an accident. They come together like a sudden dust devil and whirl around. So it was only the driver's restraint that prevented the situation from deteriorating into something bloody.

I later watched a report about the incident on YouTube. It might have been funny if it were a Hollywood movie. But this isn't Hollywood. It happened on the streets of a sovereign country. Apart from a report on NTV Uganda, a private TV station, I didn't see any other news about the incident until I stumbled across Buwembo's op-ed last week.

The article clearly conveys the sense of Americans behaving badly overseas. Imagine such a scene happening in Washington, DC, with the tables turned: Ugandan diplomats ram into a U.S. army general's vehicle and then rough up his driver. I can't even imagine the diplomatic disaster that would ensue.

Let us imagine that perhaps the passengers in the U.S. vehicle who rammed the Ugandan general were exhausted at the end of a long day, and were rushing back to the confines of the U.S. Embassy. I really could only excuse the incident if they were the military advisors that President Obama sent last fall to assist in the hunt for Joseph Kony. If that were the case, I could excuse them as a tired lot that meant no harm in this unsavory incident. By the way -- the army they are meant to be assisting is most recently engaged in poaching elephants in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as reported in The New York Times; an allegation the Ugandan Army has profusely denied.

Buwembo says that he would protest against the incident -- if only he didn't need a U.S. visa. Come now, I am from Uganda, the land of ghosts. Here we have ghost teachers, ghost soldiers, ghost pensioners. And now it seems that the "offending" article was written by a ghostwriter.

Today, in response to my query, the U.S. Embassy in Kampala broke its three-week silence and issued its first official comment on the incident. Daniel Travis, U.S. Embassy spokesperson in Uganda, admitted that the accident, which he referred to as "minor," did indeed take place on September 10. He says the Ugandan authorities found the U.S. Embassy driver at fault and that the embassy has paid for repairs to the general's vehicle. Here's the main part of the statement:

As he states in the NTV report, after the collision, the Ugandan driver exited his vehicle and opened the door of the diplomatic vehicle. At that time the driver of the Ugandan vehicle tried to force his way into the diplomatic vehicle, grabbing the driver of the diplomatic vehicle. The U.S. personnel in the diplomatic vehicle exited the vehicle and rescued the driver before returning to the vehicle. The diplomatic driver was given orders to return to the U.S. Embassy for security reasons and was instructed by his superiors to give his report to police there. The Ugandan official attempted to impede the movement of the diplomatic vehicle, at which time the Ugandan official aggressively drove over a curb, damaging his vehicle's tire. This was reported by passengers of the diplomatic vehicle, who witnessed the incident, and further corroborated by technical analysis of the tire, the damage to which is consistent with an impact rupture and clearly not any sort of sharp instrument.

In my view, this response doesn't make the Americans look very good. Why did they need so long to issue a statement on an incident that had already inspired a considerable uproar among Ugandans? Why couldn't they have sorted things out at the scene of the accident? So they don't really trust the Ugandan military even though they are supposed to be collaborating with them? And if the Ugandan police were informed of the accident, why haven't we heard from them? None of this suggests that the U.S. feels especially accountable to the Ugandan public. And it certainly doesn't inspire confidence.

It is this sort of high-handed behavior, I suspect, that tends to blot America's image overseas -- not only in Uganda.

Jackee’s Twitter handle is @jackeebatanda

Photo still from NTV Uganda