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Fatwas against journalists on the rise.

Fatwas, rulings on articles of Islamic law given by recognized authorities, have always been a reality in modern Yemen, but since the 2011 uprising, there has been an increase of fatwas issued against writers and journalists.

In late 2011, 69 religious scholars in Yemen issued a fatwa against four journalists, accusing them of blasphemy.

In a conservative society such as Yemen, these accusations carry a lot of weight, but have also had unintended consequences.

The four journalists, Fikri Qasim, Bushra Al-Maqtri, Mohsen Ayid and Sami Shamsan, have gained not just notoriety but fame and a following since the issuance of the fatwa, for what the religious scholars said was "insulting God and Islam." Mohsen Ayid, one of the accused journalists, wrote an article in 2011 titled, "The Angels Want to Overthrow the Most Merciful." "After the fatwa, we received death threats via phone, texts and email. However, the number of freedom of speech advocates increases by the day," Ayid said. Though these threats may turn into action, he pays them no attention.

"I do not care about the threats--if I were afraid I would have kept my mouth shut," he said.

Immediately following the ruling, the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate issued a statement condemning the fatwa. The syndicate accused the religious scholars of trying to stifle free speech.

Adel Al-Sharjabi, a sociology professor at Sana'a University, said the issuing of the fatwa in this case only magnified the voices of the accused and gave them a wider audience.

"The journalists and writers who were accused of blasphemy have become cultural icons and opinion makers in the country." Rather than discredit the four individuals, the fatwa significantly increased their Twitter and Facebook followers, he said.

"These followers want to know more about the cultural background of these writers. Some are influenced by their opinions." Many leading journalists are accused of blasphemy at one point or another, Al-Sharjabi said. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

Sameer Sultan follows Ayid and Al-Maqtri on Facebook.

"Prior to 2011, I did not follow Ayid or Al-Maqtri. After the fatwa, I was curious. I wanted to know more about them, their thoughts and their ideologies." There has also been an exchange of ideas between proponents and opponents of the journalists' writings.

Khalid Abdulnasser also follows Ayid, but disagrees with his opinions. In fact, Ayid thinks Abulnasser's writings are unethical, but he disagrees with the issuing of fatwas against writers and intellectuals.

"The fatwa was politically motivated. It was issued by individuals who were aligned with the former regime. Look, I am a Muslim--[these] writers are not going to persuade me to change my religion. But the religious scholars would be better off issuing fatwas against those who attack electricity facilities--not journalists." At the very least, Abdulnasser wishes the scholars would have met with the journalists before issuing the fatwa.

The consequences for the journalists has gone beyond anonymous threats.

Ayid told the Yemen Times that his wife asked for a divorce following the fatwa.

The fatwa also served as a warning for other journalists.

But, the fatwa is not the only tool with which to challenge certain writings. Lawsuits are being utilized more and more to legally accuse writers of blasphemy.

Samia Al-Aghbari is a journalist and a member of the Yemeni Socialist Party. She was accused of blasphemy and was sued in court after delivering a speech in Al-Dhale governorate in December 2012.

Al-Aghabari was marking the 10th anniversary of the assassination of Jar Alla Omar, a leading figure in the Yemeni Socialist Party. In her speech, she labelled the alliance of tribalism, religion and policing "vile".

The lawsuit was brought in Al-Damt district of Al-Dhale. The court determined the suit was incomplete, and dismissed it on those grounds.

Al-Aghbari said extremists attempted to defame her by accusing her of being an atheist. But, the support she received following the "slanderous campaign" is evidence of the tolerance and consciousness of Yemenis, she said.

Sheikh Murad Al-Qadasi is one of the religious scholars who signed the fatwa issued against the four journalists.

"We issued a fatwa against the four writers because their writing vilified God. It was clearly blasphemy. As part of our job to forbid evil, we issued the fatwa." He urged families and friends of the accused to advise them against speaking ill of God or Islam. Al-Qadasi said the writers must stop defaming Islam or be subject to legal punishments including the death sentence.

"The government does not care about freedom and democracy. It has become easy for one group to accuse an opposing group of blasphemy," said Ali Al-Sirari, a lawyer who has defended individuals accused of blasphemy.

Al-Sirari believes the increase of fatwas is because they are being used more and more for political purposes since the 2011 uprising.

Freedom of religion and speech will be codified in the constitution, which is being drafted and is due in January 2015.

"The political situation has not settled yet. There are many obstacles ahead in the effort to build a civil state that guarantees rights and freedom," Al-Sirari said.

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Publication:Yemen Times (Sana'a, Yemen)
Geographic Code:7YEME
Date:Apr 8, 2014
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