Assault on Muslim Writers

Attacks on Arab writers and teachers are eroding a centuries-old tradition of tolerance and intellectual vigor

THE era of open intellectual debate between progressive Muslims and Islamic clerics may be coming to a cruel end, as voices of Arab progressives across the Middle East are silenced. Attacks have occurred in Egypt, Turkey, and Algeria. Muslim intellectuals who challenge the new radical Islamic reformers are not met with the kind of arguments that had enriched their culture for more than a millenium. They are answered with bullets.

"These killings are a completely new development" notes Egyptian journalist, Mohammed El-Kholy. Progressives in the Middle East, greater in number and more active than Western media often portray "have a long, creative tradition of religious debate," he says. It was pursued in the mainstream press and public seminars. The liberals attack; the traditionalists counter. These liberals are generally Muslim. They consider themselves progressives, identifying with a tradition of liberal interpretation of Islam ic doctrine and history. They routinely question what the imams write. "This tradition goes back to early Islam and the science of theological dialogue which continued through the ages," El-Kholy explains.

Arab writers are not surprised by today's developments. "The object of Khomeini's threat is not Rushdie but ourselves," commented the late Arab novelist and critic Ghalib Halasa from Damascus soon after the Iranian leader pronounced a death sentence upon the author of "Satanic Verses." "If that Iranian can go after a British subject [Rushdie], imagine what he supposes he can do to writers here?" Halasa was referring to himself and other progressive Muslims.

International attention has continued to focus on Rushdie in the years since the threat on his life. Meanwhile, Muslim intellectuals from Pakistan to Morocco singlehandedly confront the same censorship by radical Islamists, now openly and viciously directed at them. In Algeria since March, six intellectuals have been murdered. Not long ago, several Turkish writers attending a literary conference in Ankara perished in a fire believed to have been set by Islamic opponents. Last year, Egyptian scientist Far ag Fouda, an outspoken critic of the new Islamists, was assassinated in Cairo. General opinion is that Islamic groups are responsible.

These attacks threaten a modern intellectual tradition. Arab intellectuals imbibe philosophies from Europe, China, and India and join the global intelligencia. But these women and men also give voice to national concerns. At home they became the newspaper editors, faculty at their secular universities, physicians, lawyers, and engineers while continuing contact with France, Russia, Czechoslovakia, Germany, England - places where they studied.

They are the cosmopolitan elite, thinkers who could be both Westernized and anti-Western; they found no difficulty being Muslim and Marxist at the same time. Locally identified as progressive Muslims, these women and men see themselves as an essential opposition element in their societies. Much of their discourse focuses on the search to redefine Islamic ideas of justice and governance, centered on the idea of social justice. Intellectual confrontations between mullahs and these progressive writers and t eachers were a tolerated fact of Arab intellectual life.

Witnessing the attacks on "Satanic Verses," more Arab writers moved into exile after 1989. Egyptians have been quietly leaving. So have Saudi, Palestinian, Libyan, Sudanese, and Syrian writers. Sudanese flee to Egypt, Iraqis to Syria, Palestinians to Jordan and Lebanon.

Those who remain find themselves accused of being " 'ilmani" (secular) or "westernized." This common charge from Islamists shocks writers who consider themselves highly nationalist, anti-Western, and Muslim as well. "After all, we were in the forefront of our independence movements," they remind critics.

The former Soviet Union once offered some protection; that is now gone. Muslim intellectuals are on their own. Politicians, fearing controversy from Islamic opposition, stop some publications from going to press.

Today's radical Islamist movement threatens the people whose work keeps the universities alive; whose writings feed the hungry youths; whose novels, however wrapped in allegory, give popular struggle its artistic expression. In the absence of honest journalism, these writings offer the only insights into the hidden depths of Arab experience and struggle - political, social, and religious.

These also are the articulate feminists, historians, jurists, and ecologists. However restricted they may be politically, these writers can and do articulate the issues of their time. Their students, many of whom excel in graduate schools abroad, are testimony of their commitment and pedagogy. Because they are barely acknowledged in the West, Muslim intellectuals stand almost alone. Western writers make no attempt to travel to the Middle East beyond Egypt to meet their Arab counterparts. Arab authors' nu merous meetings are not covered in the Western press. Although much of their work is translated into German and French, little finds its way into English.

For centuries, these intellectuals have been a bulwark against domination of Islamists. Without support, they can no longer survive. Needed are more academic and literary exchanges, undergraduate year-abroad programs, and English translations of their work. In France recently, with the support of Salman Rushdie, an International Committee To Support Algerian Intellectuals was founded. It is time Americans and British did the same. They will find among their Arab counterparts a rich diversity of thought, many fine books, and a shared concern for rigorous research and young talent.

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