Saturday,16 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1265, (8 - 14 October 2015)
Saturday,16 December, 2017
Issue 1265, (8 - 14 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Secular surprise

Helmi Al-Namnam is to hold Egypt’s culture portfolio for a very short time but, as he told Nevine El-Aref, the historian has big plans

Secular surprise
Secular surprise
Al-Ahram Weekly

Following criticism of his policy, after only six months in office, former minister of culture Abdel-Wahed Al-Nabawi was dismissed from his post in the recent cabinet reshuffle. The third minister this year and the tenth since the 25 January Revolution of 2011, writer and historian Helmi Al-Namnam, assumed the post last week as part of the cabinet of Prime Minister Sherif Ismail, the former Minister of Petroleum.

The intellectual community had accused Al-Nabawi of having no vision and mismanaging resources as well as dismissing long-standing ministry officials, but as the media pointed out, intellectuals had been expecting either the Head of the Arts Academy Sameh Mahran or the former Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Culture Mohamed Afifi, and they greeted the choice of Al-Namnam with surprise. The media also pointed out the Al-Namnam was perceived as “a bulwark against fundamentalism” – specifically the Salafi Nour Party. Even those opposed to Al-Namnam say he is “not bad” for a three-month tenure.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, one writer close to ministry circles said that, though an unpredictable choice, Al-Namnam is a “troubleshooting minister” who bodes well for the period before the parliamentary elections, when representatives will form a new government three months hence. Having helped to draft the Azhar Document following the revolution in 2011, Al-Namnam is on perfect terms with both Al-Azhar and intellectual circles. With a strong managerial track record, he is also deeply familiar with ministry circles, having headed both the National Library and Archives and the General Egyptian Book Organisation – two important arms of the ministry – as well Dar Al-Hilal, the oldest state publisher in Egypt.

Al-Namnam earned a philosophy degree from Cairo University in 1982. He is a columnist and the author of many volumes, including books on the Muslim Brotherhood figures Sayed Qotb and Hassan Al-Banna as well as a defence of the Dean of Arabic Literature Taha Hussein against the accusation that he was close to Zionism. His primary interests include the relationship between religion and intellectual freedom and the history of Zionism.

At the spacious ministerial office in Zamalek, Al-Namnam is perfectly self-composed even when he talks about political Islam, which he has openly opposed and continues to dislike, or the criticism he might face.

“People are free to say all they want,” he says. “Their opinions and analyses, I cannot monopolise the discourse. I accept them all whether I agree or disagree with them. I have accepted a public office, so I am willing to accept criticism. To be Egypt’s Minister of Culture at such a critical juncture is my task. It is my national duty to help rebuild my country and establish the 30 June state. I had been a permanent critic of certain of the government’s activities and policies on several issues and now that they’ve asked for my help I could not refuse.”

He would be a bulwark against any breach of the law, he said. “The oath I swore before the president when I was appointed obliges me to uphold and defend the republican regime as well as respecting the constitution and the law,” he says, explaining that, should people be working towards an Islamic caliphate, he would do everything in his power to stop them. The same applies to any breach of the law or the constitution, which explicitly prohibit terrorism and takfir.  

“As for taking part in the drafting of the Azhar Document,” he added, “it was together with the writers Gamal Al-Ghitani, Bahaa Taher, Youssef Al-Qaeed and, from Al-Ahramnewspaper, Amr Abdel Samiaa and Nabil Abdel Fatah, as well as Egyptian lawyer and politician Yehia Al-Gamal and the Vice President of the National Egyptian Council for Human Rights Ahmed Kamal Abul-Magd, to mention but a few. The Grand Imam invited me to take part as the chairman of Dar Al-Hilal… Al-Azhar is a national institution that should be protected against terrorists and fundamentalists. This does not mean that it is the same institution as the ministry of culture.”

Al-Namnam does not feel that Al-Azhar is any position to accept or reject his appointment, which is up to the Prime Minister to decide by law. National institutions may disagree on issues – something Al-Namnam expressed in a 2012 book of his, The Sheikh and the Sheikhdom– and he intends to follow the administrative divisions set down by law. Banning films, for example, is not the job of Al-Azhar but that of the Censorship Authority – and that is how the ministry intends to see it. But it is not all about contention for Al-Namnam.

“My duty during this short period, until parliament is established, is to build on what has previously been achieved as well as adding my own touches.” This includes a revival of the theatre, which will indirectly generate a flow of thought and dialogue. “Theatre cannot be revived unless we have free dialogue which in its turn will generate innovation. And Egypt is in dire need of innovation in all fields…”

Al-Namnam goes on to list thinking, literature and the arts as well as religious discourse, which since falling under the influence of fundamentalism in the 1980s has had a negative effect on society and culture.

In the 1980s, iconic figures like singers Um Kalthoum and Abdel-Wahab, writers Taha Hussein, Mohamed Hussein Heikal, Qassem Amin and Lotfy Al-Sayed were insulted and attacked on mosque pulpits by Sheikh Abdel-Hamid Kishk and others populist fundamentalist preachers. They discredited these figures, Al-Namnam explained, in order to prohibit music, art and literature. And that is the main reason behind the present lack of icons like those of last century.

Renewing religious discourse, Al-Namnam went on to say, is not only the work of the ministries of culture and endowments and Al-Azhar but also the duty of every Egyptian, who should work towards it in collaboration with the ministries of education, higher education, scientific research, youth and sports. He pointed out that former minister of culture Gaber Asfour had signed a number of protocols to this end with government bodies, which will soon be implemented.

The ministry of culture, for example, is to feed juvenile detention centres and orphanages with books, giving them their own libraries. Folk art and theatre groups are to perform there periodically. The day before, Al-Namnam said, a theatre troupe had performed for the patients of the Abul-Rish Children’s Hospital and the Children’s Cancer Hospital.

On the political front, Al-Namnam feels that Egypt is enjoying an era of freedom, which has nonetheless not reached a peak because of terrorism. “Freedom does not mean the freedom of sabotage as some people seem to believe,” he pointed out, asserting that reaching the desired peak is not the responsibility of the regime alone but of all of society. It is terrorist groups and takfirthat are the greatest threats to freedom.

Since the assassination of the Egyptian communist Shohdi Atiya Al-Shafie in prison in 1960, the government has not killed a single writer for his views. Terrorists and fundamentalists, on the other hand, killed the prominent Egyptian professor Farag Foda in 1992 and tried to kill not only Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz but the great thinker Nasr Hamed Abu-Zeid. And they have not even apologised for their crimes. When the Islamist politician Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fetouh visited Mahfouz after the attempt on his life, he was dismissed from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Guidance Office, of which he had been a member.

“Egypt is a secular state by instinct, and political Islam only leads to chaos in the region,” Al-Namnam has always said. Most recently, the Salafi Nour Party asked him to apologise for describing Egypt as secular – which he hasn’t. “Egyptian Islam,” Al-Namnam says, “is an expression I have been always used in my newspaper columns and whenever I appear on television. I have been always attacked for using such an expression, but it is the bold truth. There is such a thing as Egyptian Islam and it is against intransigence.”

When the Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyah – in many ways the father of fundamentalism – tried to preach against the Sufis here in Egypt, Al-Namnam recounts, he was kicked out of the Ibn Al-Laith Mosque in Old Cairo. Egypt’s instinct for fundamentalist devotion is a myth of political Islam, whose deeper aim is the destruction of Egypt. When the Muslim Brotherhood managed to rule for a year, they proved a dismal failure. Not one Hanbali scholar – of the stricter doctrine – ever directed Al-Azhar in 1,000 years of history. Islamic states, whether Fatimid or Muslim Brotherhood, have always failed.

But recognising the true character of Egypt and opening up to foreign influences is not enough for a true cultural renaissance. Al-Namnam feels it is also necessary to confront and deal with bureaucratic weaknesses, to which end Civil Service Law 18 was drafted. “I think implementing this law will spare Egypt many problems,” he says, adding that we should work towards amending all administrative laws. “Egypt’s future is its cultural future,” he added. Luminous figures like Rifaa Al-Tahtawy and Hassan Al-Attar would never have existed with Muhammad Ali Pasha’s development project.

Al-Namnam says he is optimistic and excited about his ministerial tenure. He will only miss writing his columns and features.

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