Thousands of members of Islamic groups are rounded up each year in Egypt and Syria and put in jail. Most of them are never brought to trial but, instead, held incomunicado and tortured. They are ignored by the outside world, even most human-rights groups and journalists, both in the West and in Muslim countries. Even when they are tried by military tribunals and unjustly sentenced to long prison terms, their ordeals are barely mentioned, let alone condemned.
And yet most of them are not ‘Islamic extremists’, ‘fundamentalists’ or ‘terrorists’ committed to violence as an instrument of change in society; many of them are members of the ‘moderate’ Muslim Brotherhoods that work within the systems in force in their countries. Yet, when the odd liberal or leftist is detained or convicted there is an outcry within the very circles that ignore the ‘Islamists’. This is not, of course, to say that they are not victims of the brutal exercise of dictatorial power by Cairo and Damascus: indeed they are, but ignoring the worse plight of members of the Islamic groups is not only cynical but also helpful to the very authorities that also target secular opponents.
The cases of Saaduddin Ibrahim and Riad Turk — the elderly Egyptian and Syrian ‘liberals’ recently sentenced to prison terms in Egypt and Syria respectively— illustrate the point. Ibrahim was sentenced by a security court to seven years in prison after a retrial, on an old charge amounting to little more than being accused of criticising president Husni Mubarak’s regime; Turk was jailed for two and a half years by a state security court for referring to the late president Hafez al-Asad, father of Bashar, the current ruler of Syria, as "the tyrant".
Before his arrest in 2000, Ibrahim served as the head of a sociological research institute, which received generous funding from western donors, although this hardly worried the Egyptian authorities before his engagement in political issues, such as the improvement of the election process by the registration of voters, to take one example. At one time even cabinet ministers sat on the Institute’s board, and Ibrahim was able to have a chat show on state television.
The Egyptian authorities’ reaction to his activities was to arrest him at gunpoint in the middle of the night. He and a number of the Institute’s employees were then charged with accepting foreign funds without permission and bringing Egypt into disrepute; they were convicted almost automatically by the State Security Court, which imposed prison terms ranging from one to seven years on them. After an appeal and a retrial, Ibrahim was again sentenced to seven years in jail. The western media reported both the retrial and the conviction, pointing out their condemnation by Western governments and humanrights organisations.
The 72- year-old Riad Turk had worse treatment at the hands of the Syrian authorities. In 1998 he had completed a seventeen-year sentence imposed on him during Hafez al-Asad’s presidency. Last year he was arrested again after commenting on television that "the tyrant is dead". It is forbidden in Syria to criticise the late ruler, or even to refer to him disparagingly.
Both Ibrahim and Turk have been badly treated by the authorities of their countries, and it is right and proper for others to condemn their treatment. But when those who deplore their fate ignore the ordeals of the far more numerous victims of the same systems simply because they are not secular, the result can only be a triumph for the oppressors. While Ibrahim and Turk are almost household names because of the coverage of their cases by the foreign and Arab media, the names of the hundreds of Muslim Brothers tried by security courts in Egypt in Syria are barely known, as their arrests and trials are rarely reported. Even when reported —seldom in more than a paragraph or two — their names are left out. Only if he or she is a citizen of a western country will a defendant’s name and other details of the case be given.
When, for instance, Egypt charged 26 men on August 4 with trying to overthrow the Egyptian government to establish a new Islamic order, only the names of the three British citizens among them were given in the Reuters report the following day. "The accused are all Egyptian except for the three Britons, Reza Pankhurst, Ian Malcolm Nisbett and Maajid Nawaz," the report said. To take another example, when an Egyptian security court sentenced 16 Muslim Brothers — the majority of them academics and professionals, like Ibrahim and Turk — to prison terms of three to five years each, the event was hardly reported. Arabic newspapers referred to it as "the case of the Muslim Brothers doctors".
One report in the western media to note the difference between the coverage of secular prisoners and ‘Islamist’ victims of oppression appeared the London-based Economist magazine, which covered the cases of Ibrahim and Turk in some detail but only observed that they were lucky compared to "Islamists". In its last paragraph, the Economist commented: "The only consolation for Ibrahim and other liberalists may be that they get off lightly compared with Islamists, who make up three-quarters or more of the Arab world’s prisoners." It added that, unlike Saaduddin Ibrahim, "they have no right to appeal, and since September 11, will not win much sympathy overseas."