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Naguib Mahfouz: Enlightenment Regresses to Myth

The celebrated Egyptian novelist and 1988 Nobel prize winner Naguib Mahfouz died on August 30 at the age of 94. Obituaries abound, and rightly so. Hosni Mubarak has praised Mahfouz as a “cultural light” whose work expressed the “values of enlightenment and tolerance.” George W. Bush called Mahfouz “an extraordinary artist who conveyed the richness of Egyptian history and society to the world.”

In this context of praise, it is crucial to remember how controversial Mahfouz in fact was (before he is recuperated and enshrined, like other great figures, revered and ignored). And the controversies around him encapsulate aspects of the contemporary cultural crisis, the vicissitudes of “enlightenment,” to use Mubarak’s term, and the resistance it faces.

For his outspoken support for Anwar Sadat and the Camp David Peace Accords of 1978, Mahfouz was vilified and his works were banned in many Arab countries. The bans were later lifted, opportunistically, after the Nobel Prize award. (So much for intellectual integrity.)

In 1981, Egyptian army members, who simultaneously belonged to the Egyptian Islamic Jihad Organization, assassinated Sadat. The attack was carried out on the basis of a fatwa that had been issued by Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was later convicted in the US for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Sadat’s assassination is pertinent here because Mahfouz too faced an assassination attempt by an Islamist extremist. His novel Children of Gebelawi (1959) attracted extensive criticism for blasphemy due to allegorical portrayals of the founders of the Abrahamic religions, including Mohammed. In 1989, after the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering the death of Salman Rushdie for his Satanic Verses (1988), Abdul-Rahman reportedly said that if Mahfouz had been punished for Gebelawi, Rushdie would not have published Satanic Verses. Mahfouz at first criticized Khomeini for “intellectual terrorism,” but later in fact denounced Rushdie who “did not have the right to insult anything, especially a prophet or anything considered holy.” (At that critical moment to defend free speech and the freedom of imaginative literature, there were very few heroes.)

Understanding Rahman’s remark as a fatwa, an Islamist extremist attacked Mahfouz in Cairo in 1994, stabbing the then 82-year old author in the neck. Mahfouz survived but lived subsequently under protection.

One way to honor Mahfouz is to consider the cultural clash between, on the one hand, himself, Rushdie, and Sadat—recall Sadat speaking at the Knesset, a distant moment of possible peace—and, on the other, Islamic extremism. (The relationship of that ideology to the politics of Islamic fascism has been a topic of previous discussion at this site.) Mubarak claims Mahfouz for “enlightenment and tolerance.” There is indeed a “clash of civilizations,” but it goes right through the heart of the Islamic world in a dialectic of progress and reaction. Some current examples:

Creeping Islamization in Malaysia

In an article in the International Herald Tribune, one finds that

“The idea of a secular state is dead in Malaysia,” says Farish Noor, a Malaysian scholar who specializes in politics and Islam. “An Islamic society is already on the cards. The question is what kind of Islamic society this will be.”

While Malaysia shows signs of economic modernization, it coexists with a resurgence of neo-traditionalist patterns, particularly in gender issues. This topic has also been raised here before: the fragmentation of modernity, the coexistence of economic, scientific and military-technological modernization with regressive social forms.

Muslim prayers are piped into the loudspeakers of government offices in the new administrative capital, Putrajaya. And Islamic police officers routinely arrest unmarried couples for ‘close proximity.’

‘I see the writing on the wall,’ said Ivy Josiah, the director of the Women’s Aid Organization, a group that lobbies the government on women’s issues. ‘It’s only a matter of time before Malaysia becomes another Taliban state.’

The article also discusses the case of Lina Joy, a Malaysian woman facing resistance for her conversion from Islam to Christianity. Exactly why states should regulate the right of citizens to choose their faith is unclear (remember Mubarak on “enlightenment and tolerance). But, as the IHT reports: “At the heart of the case is the fundamental question of which is supreme in Malaysia: Muslim law or the country’s secular Constitution.”

Pinocchio chooses Islam in Turkey

A controversy has erupted over the Islamicization of western classics by Turkish publishers. The good news, evidently, is that there is some significant resistance to this rewriting (sanitizing?) of literature: the Ministry of Education has attacked publishers for their forced conversions of world literature in an Islamist sense. Moreover the publishers had evidently used the Ministry’s logo to promote distribution. This is truly the anti-Mahfouz.

The scandal concerning translations of the books was uncovered when the daily newspaper Radikal recently published citations from the books included on the “100 Essential Readings” list, comprising children’s and world literature as well as Turkish classics recommended to school children.

Some publishers had inserted Islamist ideology into the translations, making alterations in such classics as Hugo’s Les Miserables, Spyri’s Heidi and Collodi’s Pinocchio.

[ . . . ]

In one translation, Geppetto’s little son Pinocchio says “Give me some bread for the sake of Allah,” and gives thanks to “Allah” when he becomes an animated marionette.

Getting Ready for Sharia in Indonesia: Abu Bakr Bashir

Indonesian cleric Bashir, who has faced charges for a 1985 bombing of a Buddhist monument in Borobudur, the Christmas Eve 2000 attacks on Christian Churches in Jakarta (18 dead), and the devastating 2002 Bali bombing, spoke with Australian reporter Geoff Thompson recently.

GEOFF THOMPSON: Under Sharia law, in some circumstances, would husbands be entitled to beat their wives?

ABU BAKAR BASHIR (translated): In Islam it is allowed for a husband to beat his wife, if the wife has already been corrected. So there are some steps. First, he should remind and advise his wife. If she still disobeys, then he should leave here, not asking her to sleep together. If she still behaves badly, then he can beat her. But not on her face, not to injure her physically.

However to return to the question of Mahfouz and the assassination attempt:

GEOFF THOMPSON: Abu Bakar Bashir, under Sharia law, how would you punish someone who criticised Islam or the Prophet?

ABU BAKAR BASHIR (translated): To the people who insult the Prophet, they should be first corrected. If the person is a Muslim, he or she should be given advice, so that they’ll ask forgiveness. Otherwise he will be considered an apostate, and in Islam he should be sentenced to death if he doesn’t ask forgiveness and insults the Prophet.

It could not be clearer than that—which recalls yesterday’s publication here of a report of another death threat to Salman Rushdie, which French television had on tape but chooses to cover up. In recognition of the dangers critical authors, like Mahfouz and Rushdie, must face, here, again is the core paragraph:

On October 22, 2005, the France 2 television talk show Tout le Monde en Parle aired an interview with writer Salman Rushdie and French actor and Islamist Sami Nacéri. Left on the cutting room floor was an ugly incident during taping when Nacéri accused Rushdie of debasing Islam. If an imam asked him to kill Rushdie, Nacéri went on, he would himself shoot the bullet into Rushdie’s head. He then pantomimed firing a gun at Rushdie.

In memory of Naguib Mahfouz, 1911-2006

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