Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 June 2006
Issue No. 800
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Black and white and Brown

The announcement that The Da Vinci Code -- both book and film -- are to be banned in Egypt once again raises questions over the limits of freedom of expression, reports Gihan Shahine

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"We [at the ministry] ban any book that insults any religion," Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni told parliament last week. That the list now includes Dan Brown's international bestseller The Da Vinci Code, translated into Arabic in 2003 and widely available since then, drew a round of applause from parliamentary members. The blockbuster film based on the book is likewise to be banned.

"The book is based on Zionist myths, and it contains insults towards Christ, insulting the Christian religion," Coptic MP Georgette Sobhi told the People's Assembly last week.

"Creativity is good, but not when the writer seeks to shake religious beliefs and contradict basic religious tenets," said Bishop Piscenti of Helwan Church.

The People's Assembly debated the book and film at the request of several Coptic MPs, who were joined by Muslim Brotherhood members.

"The Brotherhood had opposed the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed and will oppose any insult to Jesus Christ," said Hussein Ibrahim, a Brotherhood MP.

The applause did not extend to cultural and human right circles, which saw the decision to ban the book and the film as politically motivated, and dealing a blow to freedom of expression and creativity.

The plot of The Da Vinci Code centres on the imaginary marriage of Jesus Christ to Mary Magdalene, whose descendants are alive, and the attempts of the Catholic Church to hide this. The film has already sparked protests in many countries.

Many cultural figures and human right activists have voiced concern that the ban further restricts freedom of thought.

Mohamed Badawi, professor of literary criticism at the American University in Cairo, told Al-Ahram Weekly that he "cannot see the decision in any context other than political".

"It's evident to everybody," Badawy said, "that the Coptic Church asked the authorities to ban the film and confiscate the book in return for some services and the state responded positively." Critics, Badawi added, have kept their voices down this time for fear that their "opposition to the ban be misinterpreted in a sectarian context".

Many analysts detect in the ban a change in the attitude of the Ministry of Culture which used to defend controversial books on the grounds that they were works of art. Prominent historian and writer Kamel Zoheiri sees the decision as an "attempt to calm the Coptic masses and avoid further sectarian strife".

Critic and writer Mohamed Salmawy reserves his ire for MPs who "are supposedly the guardians of freedom in this country".

"That opposition groups joined forces to call for the ban -- the majority of them just following the herd without having read the book or watched the film -- is alarming," said Salamawy, who is also head of the Writers' Union.

Parliament, he pointed out, had not even formed a committee to study the work before reaching a decision. "Many from the Muslim bloc knew next to nothing about the story, and misinterpreted the fiction as being slanderous to the Virgin Mary whom they had confused with Maria Magdelena."

The attitude of the Vatican, which opposed the book but which has not called for either it or the film to be banned, is cited by many as an example of an approach that the Egyptian authorities should emulate.

"The Pope realises that people are intelligent enough to decide for themselves," Salamawy said, adding that it seems ridiculous that the Egyptian people should be prohibited from reading a book, should they want to, already translated into 42 languages. "Do our MPs think that the people who nominated them are so backward and uneducated, that they are incapable of deciding for themselves... that they are in need of being told what to read or watch?" he asked.

Brotherhood MP Hamdi Hassan insists that "we [MPs] have not imposed our guardianship on the people but have expressed the opinions of most Christians who had watched the film and found it offensive.

"Freedom cannot be infinite," he added, "and creativity should be responsible enough not to be offensive or blasphemous."

Hafez Abu Seada, secretary-general of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR), worries that the ban violates the constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression and creative thinking, and that it is, in any case, a redundant measure in an age of satellite TV.

"Everyone is free to believe in whatever he/ she wants and no one -- including the religious authorities -- should play the role of guardian or act as superior," says Coptic novelist Edwar Al-Kharrat. "I have trust in the intelligence of the reader."

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