Al Azhar Under Fire for Attacking Novel
CAIRO - Egyptian writers and novelists are up in arms over an attack by a religious leader on Haydar Haydar's controversial novel, A Banquet for Seaweed.
A statement by the Imam of Al-Azhar University lashed out at the novel for ridiculing religious teachings, using indecent language and calling for the overthrow of all Arab governments.
The Imam, Sheikh Mohammed Tantawi, said the Ministry of Culture, which reprinted the novel, should first have referred the book to Al-Azhar's Islamic Research Academy for approval.
Reviving the debate over the role of the Islamic world's oldest institution for religious studies, nearly 2,500 members of a federation of men-of-letters in the Nile Delta and Upper Egypt issued a statement criticizing Al-Azhar's position on the novel.
The controversial novel tells the story of two Iraqi communists who fled to Algeria after the failure of their anti-government revolt in the late 1960s.
Sheikh Tantawi's statement 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, namely - 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 strongly worded statement added that if this censorship by Al-Azhar were imposed, "there would be no literature, no art, no freedom, no opinion, no progress and no decent life for any Egyptian."
The statement emphasized that experts in the field, not religious scholars, should perform the task of judging novels and literature. 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 claimed that atheists uttered some of the sentences, seen by Muslim fundamentalists as offensive.
In their statement the writers 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, the two, Ibrahim Aslan and Hamdi Abu-Goleil could face up to five years in prison.
Political analysts in Cairo believe the statement is 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 and are 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 position and are ready to shoulder the responsibility and face the same charges," said the statement.
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)