By Khaled Diab
Following the lead of Islamists, Egyptian Christians are trying to ban an award-winning novel because it ‘insults' Christianity.
18 May 2010
I am no fan of fanaticism and I wish fundamentalists would just have some fun, or at the very least learn to live and let live. But, in Egypt, they have gone from being a nuisance to becoming a real threat, not only to freedom of speech and expression but also to the country's very cultural heritage.
This was demonstrated in recent weeks when a group calling itself (without a hint of irony) Lawyers Without Shackles tried to shackle the reading choices of Egyptians by calling for a ban of a newly released version of the classic One thousand and one nights saga, with its ensemble of popular and ageless characters, including Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sindbad. Their reason? The centuries-old collection is “obscene” and could lead people to “vice and sin”.
Luckily, Egyptian intellectuals have rallied to defend the classic tales, warning against the increasing “Bedouinisation” of Egyptian culture. This is, perhaps, the most ridiculous example of the recent trend towards, what I call, the retroactive condemnation of published works.
Not to be left out of the banning fad, Christians have also joined the fray. A group of Copts in Egypt and abroad have filed a complaint with the public prosecutor against the controversial novel Azazeel (Beelzebub) by Youssef Ziedan, which won the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, an award backed by the Booker Prize Foundation. As insulting any of the ‘heavenly faiths' is illegal in Egypt, Ziedan could face up to five years behind bars.
“He insulted priests and bishops and said many things with no proof or evidence from books or history,” said Mamdouh Ramzi, a Coptic lawyer involved in the action, adding that Ziedan was “not a Christian man, what does he know about the Church?”.
In his own defence, Ziedan told the Guardian: “Many Orthodox bishops and monks welcomed the novel, and some of them wrote positively of Azazeel, whether in Egypt, Syria or Lebanon.” He has previously described his novel as “not against Christianity but against violence, especially violence in the name of the sacred”.
But even if it were insulting to the Christian clergy, my natural reaction is: “So what?” Not only do we all have differing definitions of what constitutes an insult, everyone is free to express insulting views, if they so wish, and if you don't like it, then don't read it and, by all means, encourage others not to.
As to Ramzi's second assertion, is he seriously suggesting that, in order to write about a faith, you need to belong to it? This is nonsense on so many levels, not least because it stifles freedom of inquiry and speech, and also because most religions do not require their followers to be knowledgeable of the history and philosophy of their faith. Besides, Ziedan is a renowned professor of philosophy and the director of the manuscript centre at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
So, what in Ziedan's award-winning novel has specifically irked the Coptic establishment?
The events of Azazeel take place around the turbulent and troubled period of the Nestorian schism in the Orthodox church, and the book highlights, through the eyes of a fictional Egyptian monk, not only the tensions between different Christian factions, but also between the new official faith of the Roman empire and the “pagan” religions that preceded it.
The Coptic church has denounced the novel as offensive for its violent portrait of one of the church's founding fathers, St Cyril, the so-called ‘Pillar of Faith‘. The trouble for the Coptic church is that, its reverence for Cyril of Alexandria notwithstanding, the historical evidence does strongly suggest that he was violent.
Cyril was involved in the expulsion from Alexandria of Jews and of newly declared ‘heretical' Christian movements, such as the Novatians, not to mention the persecution of adherents of the old-world polytheistic faiths, and the murder of the Alexandrian philosopher and first notable female mathematician, Hypatia, one of my favourite Ancient Geeks.
With all this fuss about Ziedan's novel, I wondered what Ramzi and the other Copts involved in this legal action would make of Alejandro Amenábar's wonderfully evocative Agora – in which Rachel Weisz portrays Hypatia beautifully – and whether they'll also be calling for its banning.
Agora, which I had the pleasure of seeing last weekend, covers the same historical period as Azazeel and dramatises the clash of ideals and ideas between Cyril and Hypatia, as well as the power struggle between by the Patriarch of Alexandria and the city's Roman prefect.
Although Amenábar perhaps over-romanticises the rationality and tolerance of the Greek tradition and exaggerates Hypatia's achievements, we saw clearly the parallels he was drawing between that ancient clash between rationality and dogma, as well as tolerance and intolerance, and our own times. More specifically, the Egypt he portrays is eerily familiar – what with its huge socio-economic inequalities, an elite far removed from the populace, foreign meddling from a distant great power that often makes matters worse, and religious puritans and fundamentalists taking care of the neglected and hungry populace in return for their blind obedience.
Both Azazeel and Agora are timely works of art because, by contrasting past and present tragedies, they may help us understand our times better and realise the possible consequences of our actions. Egyptian Copts are justifiably nervous about their worsening status on the back of the rising wave of Islamic fundamentalism but dialogue, not stifling freedom of expression, is the answer.
As Brian Whitaker has observed, Egyptian law and how it is interpreted is giving fanatics increasingly free rein. In order to avoid the abuse of Egyptian law by the government and religious reactionaries to shutdown debate and silence dissent, Egyptians need to band together to change Egypt's antiquated laws and protect freedom of expression for all.
This article appeared in the Guardian newspaper's Comment is Free section on 12 May 2010. Read the full discussion here.