Commentary

Getting Kareem Freed

This article appeared on National Review, March 29, 2007.
Four years in prison for blogging: three of them for inciting “hatred of Islam” and one for “insulting the president.” That’s the sentence handed down by an Egyptian judge to a young Egyptian blogger, Abdelkareem Nabil Soliman, generally known in the blogosphere as “Kareem.” On his website, he had criticized his university, Al Azhar, for being close minded and for suppressing thought — for which he was expelled. He called Egypt’s president Mubarak a dictator — for which he was arrested and imprisoned. As he noted, “I broke the widespread traditions in the Great Jail of the Arab Republic of Egypt!” For that he was sent to jail.

A more sensitive issue is that he openly criticized the practices of the founders of Islam and argued that they were not models for modern life. His remarks inflamed radical political Islamists. They even offended some who have defended him, although that has not dampened their resolve. His two staunchest defenders are Dalia Ziada and Esraa Al Shafei, two young Muslim women who have worked tirelessly in behalf of his freedom. Both are outspoken in defense both of their religion and of Kareem’s right to be critical of it.

Kareem’s problems with the authorities started in March of last year, when he wrote about riots against the Coptic minority in his home city of Alexandria. On his blog he wrote:

I have seen with my own eyes the thugs as they break into our Christian brothers’ stores after the whole area of Maharram Beh was completely out of control of the government authorities, and I saw them as they ransack the contents of the store right and left, amidst cheering and shouting extremist Islamic slogans, and I saw them stealing the money from inside the drawers of the cash registers and splitting it among themselves as if it is justified by being owned by what they call the infidels and the worshippers of the cross.

He went on to blame the riots on the spread of Islamic extremism and went so far as to be directly critical of Islam itself. He called Al Azhar a “university of terrorism” and said that “Islam’s dirty finger will be found behind every catastrophic event to humanity.” Kareem did not blog anonymously, as many do to protect themselves. His blog contained his full profile, including his name and his photo. In the English “About Me” section he described himself as follows:

I am down to earth Law student; I look forward to help humanity against all form of discriminations. I am currently studying Law in Al Azhar University. I am looking forward to open up my own human rights activists Law firm, which will include other lawyers who share the same views. Our main goal is to defend the rights of Muslim and Arabic women against all form of discrimination and to stop violent crimes committed on a daily basis in these countries.

Prior to his expulsion and detention, Kareem was not widely known outside of a small circle (although the Coptic community did publicize his writings). His case is now known all over the world. That is mainly due to the efforts of a group of young bloggers who met Kareem at a conference co-sponsored by the Cato Institute and the Hands Across the Middle East Support Alliance (HAMSA).

After the conference, Abdelkareem kept in touch with me by means of Gmail chat. I would frequently log on in the morning to find a little window open up with the greeting, “Good morning, Dr. Tom! How are you?” Several times I admonished him to be careful, that it may be better to live to fight another day, and so on. His response was always a variation of the same theme: “No one can make me stop writing what I believe to be true.” He did once promise that he would think about my advice.

In October I was in Tbilisi for a Cato Institute conference and got my usual instant message of “Hello, Dr. Tom.” I asked how he was, and he told me that was worried, because he had been told to go the next day to the prosecutor’s office. I asked him if he had informed anyone else. “No. Just you.” I said that wouldn’t do and he had to send e-mails right now to all of the people from our conference, to other friends, and to anyone who should know. I immediately shot off text messages and e-mails. Several people immediately stepped up to defend Abdelkareem. Dalia arranged for him to have a lawyer go with him to the prosecutor’s office. He went with the lawyer, but the lawyer left the prosecutor’s office alone. Abdelkareem was detained, “pending investigation of his case,” a phrase that was repeated over and over. He was never let free.

As news of his detention came out, other people from the conference stepped up. Esraa, who is behind www.Mideastyouth.com, set up a website dedicated to Abdelkareem’s case: www.FreeKareem.org. She and a few friends began to gather information about the case and post it on the site. I blogged about the case and informed Andrew Sullivan, Johann Norberg, and others, who also posted on the case. HAMSA and PetitionOnline.com set up online petitions (now at over 8,000 signatures), and Jesse Sage of HAMSA and Dalia published an article in the International Herald Tribune. Esraa and some others in Bahrain organized a public protest in Abdelkareem’s behalf. A former Cato Institute intern, Constantino Diaz-Duran, wrote about it in the Columbia Spectator, and with another former Cato-ite, Chris Kilmer, he organized a rally in New York, as did Cato interns and other young libertarians in Washington. Another former Cato intern (Andrew Perraut) organized an event in London, and then libertarians in other cities followed suit (Paris, organized by Vincent Ginocchio of Liberte Cherie; Rome, organized by Alberto Mingardi of the Instituto Bruno Leoni; and Stockholm, organized by Jonas Virdalm and attended by Johan Norberg, who also spoke at the conference where we met Abdelkareem; and elsewhere). Jesse Sage arranged a letter from members of the U.S. Congress; Alberto arranged letters from members of the Italian parliament; and others mobilized diplomatic pressure from their governments. With Raja Kamal of the University of Chicago, I published op-eds on the case in the Washington Post and the Lebanon Daily Star. (The Post article has been distributed in Arabic through Cato’s Arabic Lamp of Liberty.) While the better known organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International issued much-appreciated statements, the agitation and publicity was mainly organized by a loose network of classical liberal/libertarian activists and writers.

Most important have been the Muslim Arabs who have stepped forward to defend Kareem, embracing his cause of freedom even as they reject his strong criticism of their religion. Dalia and Esraa and the people they have mobilized (including Mohammed and Lalith, the web administrators for the FreeKareem.org site) are pious and observant Muslims who are bravely standing up against extremists. They are standing up proudly for freedom of speech, and not because they agree with all of what Abdelkareem said, for they strongly disagree with much of it. As they wrote on the FreeKareem site,

The creators and main supporters of the Free Kareem campaign are Muslim, and we are doing this despite what Kareem said about our religion. Free speech doesn’t mean “speech that you approve of.” It includes criticism.

Kareem’s last post before his arrest announced that he had been ordered “to appear for an investigation next Monday at the Moharram Bek Prosecutor’s Office.” That last post was an impassioned plea for liberty, comparable to the writings of Richard Overton and John Lilburn, the great libertarian agitators of the 17th century to whom the British and American people owe their liberties. When ordered to accompany those sent to arrest him to prison, Overton informed them, “My legs were born as free as the rest of my body, and therefore I scorn that legs or arms or hands of mine should do any villain service, for as I am a free man by birth, so I am resolved to live and die, both in heart, word, and deed, in substance and in show.” He never recanted, never gave in, never submitted. Like Overton, Kareem boldly declared,

in all frankness and clarity, my rejection and repudiation of any law, any legislation, and any regime that does not respect the individual’s rights and personal freedom, and does not acknowledge the absolute freedom of the individual in doing anything – as long as he does not affect anyone around him in a physical way –, and does not acknowledge the individuals’ absolute freedom in expressing their opinions, whatever they may be and whatever they cover, as long as this opinion is merely an opinion or words coming from a person, and is not coupled with any physical action that harms others. At the same time, I declare, in all clarity, that such laws do not obligate me in any way, and I do not acknowledge them or their existence. I detest, from the depths of my soul, whoever works on implementing them, whoever uses them as a guide, and whoever is satisfied with their existence or benefits from them. And if these laws are forced upon us, and we have no power or strength in changing them because that is in the hands of those in power with agendas, who are more than satisfied for the existence of such laws and are making use of it: Nevertheless, all of this will not push me into submission, or into waiting for relief and appeasement.

Abdelkareem Nabil Soliman, in his last published writing, promised: “I shall not recant, not even by an inch, from any word I have written. These restrictions will not preclude my dream of obtaining my freedom, for that has been my wish ever since I was a child, and it will continue to run in my imagination in endlessness.”

Tom G. Palmer is senior fellow and director of Cato University.