Muslim intellectuals and their fight for freedom of speech

Image: UCCR

Orhan Pamuk, winner of the Literature Nobel Prize, describes the situation depressing, in which writers and advocates of freedom of expression find themselves today in many Muslim countries. Indeed, Pamuk’s assessment, which can be read in an article on the assassination of Salman Rushdie in the French magazine „Le Point“, is accurate. Counting the attacks on writers, artists and journalists leaves one speechless. Anyone who thought that there would be more space for free speech was wrong. The opposite is the case. Freedom of expression is shrinking. Taboo-breaking works that dealt critically with religion or despots and could be printed until two decades ago would hardly find a publisher or a platform today. And as long as fatwas and hate preachers linger around, the situation becomes more and more threatening, because there are always fanatics ready to turn death threats into action.

There is a war between spirit and faith. Religion and politics need conviction, but literature thrives on doubt. Unfortunately, many people do not want to leave room for doubt. If you look at the number of victims of fatwas, you realize how dangerous it is and was for those who defend freedom of speech and freedom of art. Many have paid for it with their lives.

At the top of that list is Egyptian publicist and political activist Farag Fouda. As early as March 23, 1988, after the publication of an article critical of religion in the liberal newspaper „al-Ahali“, he got into trouble with Islamic fundamentalists. The sheikh of the Azhar University in Cairo, the highest religious authority in Egypt, reported Fouda to the State Security Agency for insulting the Prophet and his companions.

On June 3, 1992, almost three years after Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the Egyptian Islamic newspaper „al-Nur“ published a statement calling on then-President Hosni Mubarak to ban the Mustaqbal Party founded by Fouda. The reason: Fouda is a kafir (apostate). This demand was signed by twelve scholars of the Azhar and another twelve lecturers from the University of Cairo. Four days later, on June 7, 1992, a few days before the Muslim Festival of Sacrifice, two young men, Ashraf Saeed Ibrahim and Abdel Shafi Ahmed Ramadan, from the Islamic group al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya, lurked European vacationers spotted Fouda on a motorcycle in front of the Egyptian “Association for Enlightenment” where his office was. At half past five in the evening, as he was leaving the office with his son and a friend, Abdel Shafi Ramadan fired at Fouda with a machine gun, injuring him so badly that the writer died in hospital that same evening.

During his interrogation, the assassin explained that he killed Fouda because of a 1986 fatwa issued by Omar Abdel-Rahman, the Grand Mufti of the Islamic group al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya. When asked which of Fouda’s books he knew, Ramadan replied that he only knew that the author was an apostate; he himself could neither read nor write. Asked why he committed the murder just before the Feast of Sacrifice, Ramadan replied that he wanted to see the hearts of Fouda’s family burn.

The Egyptian Nobel Prize winner for literature, Nagib Mahfuz, was not spared from allegations of blasphemy and blasphemy. On October 14, 1994, he was stabbed in the neck by two young men not far from his home in Cairo. Luckily the knife was blunt. Mahfouz survived, but as with Salman Rushdie, he was badly injured. In his case, too, the Azhar scholars and the Muslim Brotherhood had paved the way for the attack in advance. As early as 1959, they had managed to prevent chapters from Mahfuz’s novel „The Children of Our Quarter“ from being published in advance in the daily newspaper „al-Ahram“ and the book from being published in Egypt. The novel was then published in Beirut in 1962, but remained on the index in Egypt even after the assassination of Mahfouz until 2016. When the judge asked the two young assassins if they had read the novel, they said no. They could neither write nor read. They only implemented the Azhar fatwa.

Two other prominent Egyptian fatwas were for the critical publicists Nasr Abu Zayd and Sayyid al-Qemany. Abu Zayd was an Egyptian Quran and literary scholar who was publicly declared an apostate in Egypt in the mid-1990s because he called for a new Quranic hermeneutics in his books that were supposed to include the social and political conditions in the early days of Islam. Sayyid al-Qemany, a secular Egyptian publicist, devoted his scholarly studies to Islamic history. For this, he was reviled as an apostate or “mercenary of Islamophobic institutions in the Arab world” and as “the Trumpet of the United States”. While his call for changes to Islamic religious curricula was similar to the US government’s position, al-Qemany had called for it decades before the US, who only called for it after the events of September 11, 2001.

In his books, al-Qemany also tried to show the role of political conditions in religious decision-making in early Islamic history. His most famous book is „The God of Our Time“ (1997), which was confiscated by the Azhar at the time; al-Qemany was subjected to interrogation by the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office on the meaning of “apostasy”. Beginning in 2004, he received death threats from the Egyptian jihadist movement, and on June 17, 2005, al-Qaeda sent him a death-threatening letter from Iraq, which was published on the organization’s website. Al-Qemany responded with an open letter in which he stated that he was retiring from writing. He published nothing more until his death on February 6, 2022.

Blasphemy and apostasy are favorite threats to silence intellectuals, but in reality they are pursuing purely political goals. On August 20, 1988, after inhuman losses on both sides, the war between Iran and Iraq ended with a ceasefire – exactly where it had started eight years earlier, without a victor. The ceasefire was a bitter step for Khomeini. When the masses in Pakistan marched against Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses and publicly burned the book, Khomeini found a welcome distraction from the fact that Iran was on its knees and isolated from the world: the fatwa against Rushdie.

Amazingly, in all the years since then, no one had attempted to enforce the fatwa against Rushdie himself. Other people related to „The Satanic Verses“ died, but the writer was not assassinated. Rushdie last lived in New York and said he no longer felt threatened, everyone thought this fatwa was passé.

Was Rushdie naïve when he thought the fatwa was forgotten? 34 years have passed, the generation of Khomeini is in the grave. New generations were born. Who could have foreseen that someone from such a new generation, born in the United States five years after the fatwa and US citizen, that just such a young man, even if he comes from a Lebanese family who emigrated to the United States thirty years ago, wanted to kill Rushdie.

The assassins of Fouda and Mahfuz did not know a single page from a book of their victims; they had not read at all in their lives. Rushdie’s assassin attended school in the US and allegedly read two pages from „The Satanic Verses“.

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