Lecture ends in censure
A paper delivered by an American rabbi at Ain Shams University signalled the beginning of open season at the Ministry of Higher Education, reports Mona El-Nahhas
A seminar organised by Ain Shams University's Centre for the Study of Contemporary Civilisations (CSCC) ended in uproar when several participating Egyptian professors discovered that Robin Firestone, the American professor delivering a paper on the "Problematic of the Chosen in Monotheistic Religions", was a rabbi.
"Although Firestone promised at the beginning of his speech to be neutral he failed to be objective while presenting his thesis," claimed Khaled Fahmi, a professor of Phonetics at Menoufiya University. Fahmi added that he had not been informed before the seminar that Firestone was a rabbi.
Firestone did not, says Fahmi, deal with the idea of chosenness in Islam on an equal footing with the same concept in Judaism, and described the passage in the Quran which talks about Muslims as the best nation brought forth for humanity as unclear. Firestone also adopted the Christian and Jewish view that it was Isaac, son of the Prophet Abraham, who God ordered to be sacrificed, and not, as Muslims believe, his stepbrother Ismail.
Mohamed El-Hawwari, head of the CSCC, defended the choice of Firestone as a lecturer. Interviewed by Al-Ahram Weekly El-Hawwari stressed that Firestone, while entitled to call himself a "rabbi", does not work in the religious field. "He is an American academic professor and it was in this capacity that he was invited to deliver his lecture."
In a statement issued once the row had become public, El-Hawwari described Firestone as a professor of Jewish history at Hebro Union College, California, and the author of many books on both Jewish and Islamic history.
"I have known the guy for more than 20 years. He has never attacked Islam, which he respects and appreciates," said El-Hawwari. "His lecture was based on texts derived from the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Talmud.
"When I invited Firestone to offer his lecture I did not expect him to utter the two testimonies of Islam and announce that he had become a Muslim. It's natural for him to adopt religious concepts different from our own," said El-Hawwari, commenting on Firestone's reference to Isaac.
"Our main problem is that we still cannot accept the other. Whoever differs with us becomes our enemy," El-Hawwari continued. Yet the aim of holding such lecture series is to help in understanding the views of the other "in the hope this will facilitate a rapprochement between cultures and civilisations".
El-Hawwari dismissed allegations that the lecture's real aim was to provide propaganda for normalising relations with Israel as nonsense, and an insult to the integrity of Egyptian academics.
The furore has caused ripples beyond academia, with 20 parliamentary members quick to jump on the bandwagon and demand that the speaker of the People's Assembly summon members of the parliament's Educational Committee for an urgent meeting to determine who is responsible for the convening of such seminars.
They have also demanded that Hani Helal, the minister of higher education, be sacked.
"We are not going to allow Jews to desecrate our universities, spread their Zionist views and brainwash our students," railed independent MP Gamal Zahran.
"I had no knowledge about the lecture. There are a great many lectures, seminars and conferences organised by Egyptian universities and I am not going to shoulder responsibility for each and every one," Helal was quoted as saying.
The vice-president of Ain Shams University Ahmed Zaki Badr defended the lecture's organisers, pointing out that the event took place within the framework of academic freedoms and adding that Firestone had written a book defending Islam before September 2001.
A video tape and Arabic translation of the lecture are currently being studied by a committee formed by the university to investigate whether there is any substance to claims that the lecture was offensive to Islam.
Two months ago a similar uproar followed a decision by the American University in Cairo's Department of Mass Communications to host seven Israeli professors during a conference. Teachers at Egyptian state universities and at AUC issued a statement condemning the decision of AUC administrators to allow the Israelis to attend.
Following the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979, Egyptian educational institutions have refused to deal with their Israeli counterparts and have steadfastly refused cultural normalisation.