On Freedom of Speech: A Response to an Egyptian Author’s Arrest

When E.L. James released the provocative BDSM novel Fifty Shades of Grey in 2012, the British government didn’t slap her with a long-term prison sentence for writing “sexually explicit” material, nor did they stop it from selling millions of copies worldwide. Four years later, Ahmed Naji has been sentenced to two years in prison by the Egyptian government for producing the same content in his novel Using Life, an excerpt of which was published in a magazine. The prosecutors believed that Ahmed’s writings violated public modesty, saying that a man experienced heart palpitations, an illness of some form, and plummeting blood pressure after reading an excerpt of the book.

I normally don’t write about things like this due to the sexual content involved, but because I am a proponent of universal free speech, I’m making Naji’s case an exception.

The United Nations stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that every human being “shall enjoy freedom of speech.” Unfortunately, there are courts in some countries, like Egypt, that are depriving their citizens of that basic human right in the name of modesty, and those who dare to write and/or create products they deem to have intellectual and substantial value are facing prosecution for exercising that right. Ahmed Naji is one of those creative people. I don’t agree with the fact that he threw some steamy sex scenes in his book–then again, I haven’t read Using Life because it hasn’t been shipped to the U.S.–but according to Article 19 of Egypt’s constitution, Naji does have the right to express his views in that manner as long as he exercises some responsibility. The least he could’ve done was have his publisher place disclaimers before the first page or on the back of the book that warn readers that certain material contained therein–i.e. obscenities–may not be suitable for some, especially children and those with weak constitutions. But the Egyptian court decided to call Naji’s novel a legal offense to morality regardless; therefore they are violating the right to free speech granted by their own constitution.

You don’t have to like certain material that people write, paint or sing, but don’t imprison writers and artists for providing such content in their creations. I don’t read Fifty Shades of Grey because of the explicit content and a lack of substance, yet other people have been reading the trilogy. Yes, I’m discontent with the existence of the series, but I don’t call the author nor her readers out on it legally, especially the author. If James wants to continue writing steamy novels for her fans across the pond and beyond, I won’t judge her because she is within her rights to produce such content as long as she’s conscious about the impact her work might leave on the world. Fifty Shades of Grey surely left a mark on the pop culture industry, as it was adapted into a feature film, with two more films–or three, if Fifty Shades Freed will be released in two parts–in production. I detested Family Guy for the exact same reason when I was younger despite the TV-14 rating, so I shielded my eyes from it as much as possible. It was only during my high school years did I slowly understand the reason behind the show’s popularity: Just as with The Simpsons, the producers of Family Guy, especially series creator Seth MacFarlane, offer their satirical view of every aspect of society as we know it by way of cutaway gags, from pop culture to politics to religion to the education system. Did I call the producers out on some of the mature content they placed in the show? No. But some conservative groups, including the infamous Parents Television Council (PTC) have written to Fox, imploring the network to cancel the series since the very first episode aired in 1999 despite the fact that they place a “VIEWER DISCRETION ADVISORY” disclaimer at the beginning of each episode. Family Guy initially got cancelled in 2003 due to low ratings, but a boost in DVD sales and rerun viewings on Adult Swim prompted the production and airing of new episodes, thus proving an animated show of its kind is too popular to be silenced by the demands of über conservatism.

Sure, Fifty Shades and Family Guy had their controversial moments, but at least nobody directly involved in these creative endeavors got arrested for “destroying social values.” Why should both Ahmed Naji and his novel be any different?