Friday, June 19, 2009

The Novelist, The Violent Censors, and The President

By Barry Rubin

Here is all you need to know about the state of the Arabic-speaking world and the illusions of those who pander to these problems rather than help resolve them.

Naguib Mahfouz, the late Egyptian writer, is the greatest novelist the Arabic-speaking world produced. His Nobel Prize in Literature, the only one so far received by writers in that language, symbolizes that fact but is unnecessary to demonstrate his achievement.

Arguably, his best work is Children of the Alley but there’s a problem. Due to certain subtle aspects of the book, it has been deemed sacrilegious by Islamists and many clerics. Mahfouz, in his elder years, was wounded in a failed assassination attempt incited by Islamists, including high-ranking clerics at al-Azhar, the mosque-university.

And so Mahfouz, old and frail, knowing his own society, promised the clerics at al-Azhar, in response to their demand, that he would not allow Children of the Alley to be published in Egypt without their permission. In exchange, they agreed implicitly not to have him murdered. The deal continued to his death by natural causes in his nineties a few years ago.

So let’s sum up. The greatest writer in the Arab world is threatened with murder—and an attempt is made to Implement that threat—and then intimidated by the threat of death into silencing his own book by Islamic clerics including those of al-Azhar in the twenty-first century.

And then the president of the United States comes to Cairo and praises al-Azhar as a center of moderation and Islam as eternally tolerant:

"For over a thousand years, Al-Azhar has stood as a beacon of Islamic learning; and...[represents along with Cairo university] the harmony between tradition and progress.... Places like Al-Azhar ...carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe's Renaissance and Enlightenment."

There’s something out of phase here.

In the Arabic-speaking world, there are the extremist totalitarian forces—mostly but not exclusively Islamist--ranging from al-Qaida, through the regimes of Iran and Syria, and the Muslim Brotherhoods, Hamas and Hizballah.

There are the dictatorial forces in power, in pretty much every country and also the Palestinian Authority.

Far weaker are liberal pro-democratic forces, mostly scattered intellectuals, with a few movements, most important of which is the March 14 group in Lebanon which won the elections there.

If one looks for an intersection between Western decency and interests, the task is to battle the extremists, make necessary deals with the more moderate dictators, and help the liberals.

Praising the persecutors of Mahfouz, emphasizing the similarity between the would-be genocidal regime in Iran and an imperfect but far less aggressive opposition candidate, or rushing to empower by recognition clerical-fascist movements is not the proper road to take.

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