Egypt's Artists And Writers Face Growing Conservatism

THE works of Farag Foda, an outspoken writer and critic of Islamic extremists, were absent from Cairo's 25th international book fair.

Half a year after his assassination last June by Muslim militants, this event, which ended last week, would have seemed an appropriate place for a tribute to the prominent intellectual, known for voicing his ideas despite the risks.

Instead Cairo's Al-Azhar University, a pinnacle of moderate Islamic teachings, requested his books not be displayed. The decision was another indication of the growing Islamic conservatism in Egypt, where the most extreme Islamic groups are mounting violent campaigns to overthrow the government.

Egypt says it protects freedom of expression, but writers, human rights activists, and intellectuals say scholars at Al-Azhar are subjecting Egyptians to increasingly radical interpretations of Islam. "A good number of Al-Azhar sheikhs are inclined toward the Muslim Brotherhood [an extreme but nonviolent group], and some of the big Al-Azhar sheikhs seem more rigid and formalistically radical than the Islamists themselves," says Mohamed al-Sayed Said of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Stud ies.

Al-Azhar also has acted against other writers, including Said al-Ashmawy, the chief justice of Egypt's High Criminal Court, whose books criticize extremist interpretations of Islam; Alla Hamed, author of "The Distance in a Man's Mind," which Al-Azhar determined was blasphemous; and Edwar al-Karrat, whose "Creation of Soaring Passions" was removed from the book fair because of mildly sexual language.

In response to allegations of increased limitations on freedom of speech, Abdel Satah al-Sheikh, president of Al-Azhar University, says: "Al-Azhar does not oppose such freedom of expression as long as it is in conformity with [the teachings of Islam]. These writers against Islamic jurisprudence are destroying the values of society. Al-Azhar can't just stand silently by."

Some Al-Azhar scholars have voiced an extreme stance on legal, social, and economic issues, and have requested that the government implement Sharia, or Islamic law. All this has upset some officials in the government, which has been taking an increasingly hard line against extremism.

Kamal al-Shazly, the parliamentary leader of the ruling National Democratic Party, asked Al-Azhar to be more supportive of the government's fight against Muslim extremists during parliamentary discussions on terrorism two months ago.

"I want more help and action from Al-Azhar," Mr. Al-Shazly says. "I want Al-Azhar to be a great foundation to stop any corruption in the name of Islam and to make clear the meaning of Islam."

The government has intensified its repression of extremism, detaining nearly 2,000 Islamic militants following a string of attacks against foreign tourists in December. The targeting of foreign travelers has severely damaged Egypt's tourism industry, which earns more than $3 billion in foreign currency a year.

But if government officials are displeased with Al-Azhar, they are not showing it overtly. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said of Al-Azhar's request not to display some books: "Al-Azhar's decisions are according to our religion, so we can't defy Al-Azhar. This is the Koran, the Sharia."

Political analysts suggest such statements are all part of the government's strategy to win over religious moderates while simultaneously excluding radicals.

While the government cracks down on extremists, it seeks to appease moderate Islamists, analysts say, by censoring books, films, plays, and other works of art that might be deemed offensive to Islam.

Meanwhile, Foda's assassination sent a frightening signal to artists. There are rumors that Islamic extremists have a list of artists, intellectuals, actors, and actresses they want to assassinate.

But some artists and intellectuals are confronting the increasingly repressive creative environment head on.

"I believe I have a mission," says Justice Ashmawy, whose books were banned temporarily from last year's fair. "I am not afraid [of the Islamic extremists] at all. I believe my murder could be part of my mission."

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