Egypt’s religious authorities, Al-Azhar raided book stores and stands Saturday, confiscating hundreds of publications as well as audio and video tapes they claim do not conform to Islamic teachings. The raid came only three days after Justice Minister Faruq Seif al-Nasr granted Al-Azar, Sunni Islam’s most prestigious institution, wide-ranging powers to ban and confiscate material it deems violate religious principles.
Novels by secular writers and even unorthodox versions of the Islamic holy book, the Quran, were seized in the raids, raising concerns the religious establishment might use its new powers to suppress free thought. Human rights groups and the liberal intelligentsia condemned the move, spearheaded by Al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Center (IRC), as an attempt to stifle freedom of expression and warned that it could encourage violence against secular writers.
They mentioned two individuals in particular whose publications were targeted in the raids: Egyptian feminist writer Nawal Saadawi and researcher Ahmed Ismail.
According to the Egyptian Human Rights Center for Legal Aid, members of the extremist Salafist group, who denounced him as being an infidel, assaulted Ismail.T he IRC demanded the confiscation of Saadawi’s, “The Fall of the Imam”, published nearly 20 years ago, for allegedly violating Islamic precepts. The novel tells the story of a dictator surrounded by Islamic scholars, who use the Quran to justify the dictator’s actions, even if that means giving false interpretations of verses in the holy book.
Alaa Abd El-Zaher, head of the IRC’s videotape department, however, argued that the confiscations were only “limited to religious publications” and did not cover “literary works“.In the mid 1990s, the IRC recommended the suspension of renowned Egyptian film director Yussef Shahine’s “Al-Mohageer” (The Emigre) and the banning of author Alaa Hamed’s “Voyage into the Human Mind“, a philosophical reflection on faith and atheism.The author was later jailed for six months.
Islamists also filed a case in court against Cairo University professor Hamed Abu Zeid, demanding that he be divorced from his wife. They alleged that anti-Islamic writings had made him an apostate and therefore could not remain married to his Muslim wife, Ibtehal Yunis, a Spanish lecturer at Cairo University. The couple was later forced to flee the country and live in exile in the Netherlands.
The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights expressed fear Tuesday that the Justice Ministry’s decision would lead to violations of freedoms, including of thought and expression, which are enshrined in the constitution.
“The decision to grant Al-Azhar the right to confiscate publications comes in addition to a long series of legal and administrative restrictions impeding freedom of opinion and expression in Egypt,” the organization said. Nasr Amin, director of the Arac Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and Legal Profession (ACIJLP), agreed. “It is a step backwards and presents a great danger for free speech,” he said.
Others, including Mohammed Farid Zahran, head of the Al-Mahrussa Center for Political and Social Studies, said the minister’s decision was ill-conceived and that it would harm the country’s image.