UNLIKE many stories that cross the Atlantic, Salman Rushdie's speech at Columbia University last December not only reached Cairo undistorted but evoked a powerfully responsive chord in Egypt's intellectual community. In a special issue on "freedom and artistic expression" (March, 1992), Ibda, the most respected magazine in the Middle East, opened a lively debate on the role of the artist in the Arab Muslim world. The Columbia speech was translated into graceful Arabic presenting Mr. Rushdie as he is, an eloquent and complex writer. Perhaps for the first time, intellectuals discussed Rushdie not as an issue but as an artist.
The Ibda colloquium may have been precipitated by the controversial trial of a minor Egyptian novelist, Ala Hamid, who wrote the "blasphemous" novel "A Gap in a Man's Mind," but there was no mention of that case. Instead, the magazine addressed banned writing in general.
Nevertheless, the discussion has important political and cultural implications in Egypt. The fact that Ibda is published by a government-owned publishing house and is edited by Egypt's deputy minister of culture suggests that the Egyptian government intends to widen the space for dialogue. After the trial of Mr. Hamid, many believed that President Hosni Mubarak would limit the freedom of writers in order to appease the fundamentalists. Yet it seems that the Egyptian government has realized that open disc ussion is a far more effective weapon against fundamentalism than either appeasement or the previous policy of oppression.
In fact, the policy of repressing controversial ideas may have fueled the fundamentalist challenge, since the mosque became one of the few forums of discussion left. In any society, the best way to limit and modify radical ideas is to discuss them, not to put their adherents in prison. When, for instance, Egypt permitted intellectual freedom during the first half of the century, fundamentalism found very little support among Egyptians.
In the lead editorial, Ahmad Abdelmoti Higazi, a prominent Egyptian poet, stresses these themes. Mr. Higazi calls the fundamentalists "people who fear reality and fear themselves. Like ghosts," he says, "they are pulling us toward a dance of death," that is, the death of thought.
In addition, Higazi addresses the fundamentalist's fear of Western domination and the loss of Egypt's Islamic identity, asserting that "national identity is achieved through free thought, dialogue and high art, not by threatening authors and banning books."
"The banning of books," Higazi adds, "is against the current of history, and Egypt is where history began.... It is inconceivable that when the people of the world are freeing themselves from oppression we should add to our own."
Concerning "The Satanic Verses," Salah Qonsua, a leading Egyptian critic, agrees with Rushdie that literalism is a far greater danger to the true spirit of Islam than is religious questioning. No one, he says, should have a monopoly over the grand story of Islam. Dr. Qonsua accuses the fundamentalists of using religion to terrorize those who disagree with them: "This is because the fundamentalists fear the freedom of interpretation that threatens the static world in which they enjoy power and authority."
Other writers stress the function of pluralism in stimulating thought and correcting abuses. Knowledge and narrative can be no threat to Egyptian identity, they say, because they are part of a common human heritage, not merely that of the West.
Debates like this, unfortunately, seldom cross the Atlantic in the other direction. Ironically, Western discussion has developed a capacity for filtering out these intelligent voices in favor of sustaining the stereotype of Arabs as violent and intolerant.
Perhaps because of this stereotype, the American government has tried to strengthen Egypt as a military power by giving and selling Egypt weapons and has aided Egypt's security system in attempting to stifle radical ideologies such as Islamic fundamentalism. Apparently America hopes that Egypt's military power could defeat both states and ideologies hostile to American interests.
Yet throughout their history, the Egyptian people have seldom been seduced by militarism or appeals to overt nationalism. Egyptians have even accepted rule by foreign or despotic rulers as long as the basic social fabric remained undamaged. Egyptians allowed themselves to be ruled by Cleopatra, a Greek woman, and Egypt's last kings were Albanians. Egypt's power is in its culture, which has always turned the invaders into Egyptians, not the other way around.
Even when Islam came to Egypt, the Egyptian university of Al-Azhar became, and still is, the center of Islamic thought. Egypt's ability to adapt and survive derives from what the 14th-century historian Ibn Khaldoun called "Egypt's habit of civilization."
The Egyptian government may have finally realized that this habit of civilization is its greatest defense. If Egypt allows liberal thought to take its proper place in national debate, there not only would be little prospect for fundamentalism in Egypt, but Egypt's free thought and civilized debate could become a bulwark against fanaticism of all varieties throughout the Arab world.
This can only continue, however, if the West relinquishes its self-deluding stereotypes about Arab irrationality, converts its aid to Egypt from the sector of weapons and security to that of social and cultural improvement, and presses for greater democracy in Egypt so that more of these intelligent voices can be heard.