Coercion by the Nile

June 30, 1995

Muhammad Mahmoud reports on the ordeal of an academic who has fallen foul of Egypt's Islamic law.

Academic freedom and freedom of expression were dealt a severe blow two weeks ago in Egypt when an appeals court set a precedent that may have far-reaching consequences. The court ruled that Nasr Abu Zaid, who teaches in the Arabic department at Cairo university, and his wife, Ibtihal Younis, who teaches in the French department at the same university, should be separated on account of what was described as Abu Zaid's "apostasy".

The court's ruling came as the shocking culmination to months of protracted legal wrangling dating back to June 1993 when six Islamists (adherents of Islamism, an ideology that sees in Islam a final and comprehensive solution to all human problems) filed a lawsuit against Abu Zaid charging him with "apostasy" on the basis of his published works.

These works concentrate on a rereading of Islamic theology, thought and mysticism - an intellectual enterprise that has been made the more timely and pressing by the rapid rise of Islamism in Egypt and several other Muslim countries. Abu Zaid's studies of the Quran, the central text of Islam, place the writings within the historical context which produced and shaped the Quran's vision - a perspective immediately denounced by Egypt's influential religious establishment and its vociferous Islamist lobby. Besides his work on the Quran, he has written critically about medieval Islamic jurisprudence and the discourse of contemporary Islamism. The thrust of his arguments have made him a figure to be hated among Islamists, who project him as someone intent on undermining Islam by eventually demolishing the bases on which its understanding rests.

Matters came to a head as early as 1992 when Abu Zaid was considered for a professorial rank and a faculty committee turned him down on the grounds of being "an infidel who did not deserve to attain to professorship". The issue exploded into the public arena, serving to discredit the intellectual integrity of the University of Cairo. The committee's decision was reversed only two weeks before the court's ruling.

This recent ruling was passed by a family court of appeal and came hard on the heels of an earlier ruling in January by a lower court that had vetoed the plaintiffs' right to bring the case in the first place. Up to 1955, Egypt had religious courts under whose jurisdiction it was possible to bring suit against others on the grounds of protecting Islam without having direct interest in the case. By appealing to a family law court and shifting the basis of their suit to Abu Zaid's matrimonial bond, the Islamists gave their case a solid basis in the context of the prevalent Islamic law in Egypt which discriminates against non-Muslims.

As it turned out, the court's ruling was only a first step in the Islamists' plan. One of the plaintiffs, a member of parliament, moved swiftly to threaten legal action against Cairo university if Abu Zaid were not immediately dismissed. Though the court's ruling was about separation of husband and wife, it clearly was based on an implicit judgment of apostasy. In reaching its verdict, the court relied on the judgment of no less a prestigious institution than the Academy for Islamic Research, which submitted a statement saying that Abu Zaid's views were incompatible with the teachings of Islam. As such, the Islamists argue, Abu Zaid should not be allowed to teach as he is likely to influence the thinking of young people.

Abu Zaid himself is convinced that the Islamists' ultimate objective is to murder him - the killing of those judged "apostate" being, according to Islamist ideology, a commendable and meritorious act that can be executed by individuals if the state does not act. It was on the basis of such a rationale that Islamist gunmen shot and killed Faraj Fawda, a prominent and prolific secular intellectual in 1992, and an Islamist tried to kill Najib Mahfuz, the Nobel laureate, in 1994. The killing of Fawda was sanctioned by eminent religious authorities and the apostasy charge in Abu Zaid's and Mahfuz's cases is maintained and kept alive by religious and official bodies.

Like the murder of Fawda and the attack on Mahfuz, the Abu Zaid case is seen by liberal and secular academics and intellectuals as a direct attack on their intellectual freedom. In a statement issued by the Egyptian Human Rights Organisation, it was stressed that the court's ruling was in violation of the rights of the freedoms of thought and expression, enshrined in the international human rights conventions and instruments to which Egypt has acceded.

The unfolding of the Abu Zaid case is likely to reveal the extent to which Egypt will be willing to follow in the footsteps of Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Sudan and Pakistan, all of which have apostasy laws. In the Sudan, an outstanding reformer mystic, Mahmud Muhammad Taha, was executed in 1985 after he was convicted of apostasy under Islamic law. If the Islamists succeed in taking power in Algeria it is very likely that freedom of thought and expression will likewise suffer - witness the killings of secular intellectuals at the hands of Islamist militants.

The rise of Islamism in Egypt and other Muslim countries has been coupled with an extreme intellectual intolerance that has generated a pervasive atmosphere of intimidation and harassment. Islamist witch-hunting of secular academics and intellectuals is bound to lead to a marked impoverishment of the diversity of intellectual life and to have a cripplingly adverse impact on the future of Muslim nations. Muslim scholars have in the past made significant contributions to human civilisation thanks to their open-mindedness. This very open-mindedness is now at stake. Rejecting an attitude of open-mindedness and sticking to what amounts to an intransigent obscurantism will only deepen the isolation of Muslim nations and lead to epistemological extinction.

Muhammad Mahmoud formerly taught at the Faculty of Arts at the University of Khartoum and presently teaches at the Oriental Institute at the University of Oxford.

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