Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
11 - 17 May 2000
Issue No. 481
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Intellectuals' dilemma

By Mona Anis

As the incendiary campaign against Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni, orchestrated by the bi-weekly newspaper Al-Shaab, voice of the Islamist movement in Egypt, enters its third week, many intellectuals find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. In normal circumstances they would not have been unhappy to see the minister go -- some have themselves been leading a fierce campaign to dislodge Hosni. But given the means Al-Shaab is employing in its battle to bring down the minister, the main casualty may well turn out to be freedom of literary and artistic expression.

Al-Shaab began its campaign by contriving to arouse popular discontent over the reissue, in one of the Ministry of Culture's popular fiction series, of Haydar Haydar's A Banquet for Seaweed, a Syrian novel first published in Beirut in 1983. The campaign subsequently snowballed, reaching beyond the novel in question to point an accusing finger at a host of other writers, including such well-respected figures as Tayeb Saleh and Edwar El-Kharrat. And as new issues of Al-Shaab appear, the list of what the paper denounces as books conspiring against Islam, grows ever longer.

Those who thought the license allowed to "art" exempted them from the heavy price paid by Nasr Hamid Abu Zeid -- the Cairo University professor whose scholarly interpretations of Islamic texts led to a court sentence in 1995 annulling his marriage after declaring him an apostate, and who was eventually forced to flee the country -- find themselves having to think again. A few months after the Abu Zeid incident, the stabbing of Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz had sent shock waves through the intellectual community, though the shock quickly abated as writers took refuge in the popular outrage that the criminal act against Mahfouz provoked. The denunciation of the attack by members of the mainstream Islamist movement, including the Muslim Brotherhood, further helped to appease artists' fears that their lives might be in danger because of their work. But Al-Shaab's successful mobilisation of thousands of people for whom art and literature hardly count as a major concern, combined with the appearance of hundreds of Al-Azhar students on the streets last Monday to protest against a novel they almost certainly have not read, a protest supported by almost all the Islamists in Egypt, has effectively ended this complacency.

The battle forcing itself on the Egyptian intellectual community today is in fact not at all new. It is the same old battle between those who adopt a rigid and impoverishing interpretation of Islam, reducing it to the inflexible observance of ritual and regulation, and those who perceive Arab-Islamic culture to be a complex phenomenon, encompassing different strands of thought and interpretations which together constitute a content of shared meanings formed over a long historical process and enriched by cross-fertilization from other world cultures. It is a battle between what Muslims should integrate into their cultures from other cultures, and more urgently perhaps, what can be tolerated as a result of this cross-fertilization, and what constitutes, in the opinion of religious zealots, a threat to Islam.

Sadly enough this campaign is taking place at a time when more and more secular intellectuals, in Egypt and the Arab world in general, in awareness of the limitations of earlier Arab attempts to base a modern renaissance on the wholesale adoption of European thought -- be it the secular and liberal notions that emerged from the 18th-century European Enlightenment or the Socialist heritage that emerged from 19th-century Marxism -- are now turning to the Arab-Islamic cultural heritage as a way of understanding and interacting more vigorously and more effectively with society.

But religious bigotry of the kind now rampant in Egypt does not stop at rejecting what it perceives as being harmful in foreign cultures. It also seeks to dispose of those indigenous intellectual traditions in philosophy and the arts that make of Islam the great civilizational phenomenon it is. These traditions include, for example, that established by Islamic thinkers such as the mystic, philosopher, poet and sage Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi (1165-1240 AD) who argued that each person has a unique path to truth, and that the truth, once found, is broad enough to unite all paths.

Ironically, the Syrian novel that caused the latest episode in the battle of interpretations to flare up contains among its main protagonists an intellectual who, disillusioned by his alienation from the masses under whose name he has led a failed armed struggle in the marshes of southern Iraq, seeks the path to truth through Islam. Those who know both Haydar's novel and the Iraqi community-in-exile well enough will immediately recognise the resemblance between the fictional character of Mahyar Al-Bahli and a distinguished Iraqi intellectual, who spent the last 15 years of his life, before he died in Damascus two years ago, developing an Islamic 'Liberation Theology' of sorts. Characteristically, rather than quoting what Al-Bahli argued in the novel, Al-Shaab chose to quote the response to his argument by the despairing Mahdi Jawad, the one character who commits suicide, offering his corpse as a banquet for seaweed.


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