Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
1 - 7 June 2000
Issue No. 484
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Intellectuals fight back

By Khaled Dawoud

Nearly 2,500 members of a federation of men-of-letters in the Nile Delta and Upper Egypt issued a statement on Monday criticising a report by the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, on the controversial Haydar Haydar novel, A Banquet for Seaweed . In the report, Sheikh Tantawi said the Ministry of Culture, which reprinted the novel, should have first referred the book to Al-Azhar's Islamic Research Academy for approval. The report also lashed out at the novel, accusing it of ridiculing religious teachings, using indecent language and calling for the overthrow of all Arab governments.

Al-Azhar's statement revived the debate over the role of the Islamic world's oldest institution for religious learning in public life. Sheikh Tantawi's report said his request for reviewing the ministry's publications was based on existing laws and a ruling by the country's highest administrative court. But intellectuals and the Ministry of Culture argued that Al-Azhar's supervisory role should be limited to books related to the Islamic religion.

In their statement, the writers and novelists said they "strongly reject what the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Dr Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, demanded, which is the necessity for imposing censorship on all books. This would be a major setback and retreat after the nation had already reached the required level of maturity." The sharply-worded statement added that if this censorship by Al-Azhar was imposed, "there would be no literature, no art, no freedom, no opinion, no progress and no decent life for any Egyptian."

They affirmed the same view expressed earlier by secular intellectuals that the task of judging novels and literature should be done by experts in the field, not religious scholars. After the Islamist-oriented opposition bi-weekly Al-Shaab launched its campaign against Haydar's novel in late April, Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni formed a committee of prominent critics and novelists to determine whether it was blasphemous. After reading the novel, the committee concluded it was a significant literary work which did not in any way aim at insulting religion.

The committee's report on the novel was released one week ahead of Al-Azhar's. It warned against misreading the 700-page book, taking sentences out of context and using them to pass judgement. The report explained that the novel told the story of two Iraqi communists who fled to Algeria after the failure of their anti-government revolt in the late 1960s. It said that some of the sentences viewed by Islamists as offensive were uttered by atheists. Al-Azhar's report, however, highlighted the same sections of the dialogue in the novel which Al-Shaab had used in its campaign.

The writers, in their statement, also expressed solidarity with two novelists charged by the state security prosecution of abusing their positions at the Ministry of Culture to reprint Haydar's novel. If referred to court and convicted Ibrahim Aslan and Hamdi Abu-Goleil. Both could face up to five years in prison.

Observers believe that the statement released on Monday was an attempt by intellectuals to drum up public opinion support for closing the case against Aslan and Abu-Goleil. State security prosecutors have already interrogated the two novelists, sought the views of members of the Ministry of Culture's committee and received a copy of Al-Azhar's report. The prosecution is expected to decide soon whether to refer the case to court or close it for lack of sufficient evidence.

"If there is a case against [Aslan and Abu-Goleil], the same accusations should be directed against all writers [who share their same position and] are ready to shoulder the responsibility and face the same charges," said the statement.

The prosecutor-general has received a petition from 350 intellectuals, asking him to include them as defendants in any case against the two novelists. The unprecedented request means that if the two were referred to trial, charges would have to be pressed against all those who signed the petition.

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