“In a nuclear age, a space age, an age of expanding minds, they still rule us with the law of the Bedouins’ god and the Koran …Shit!”

—Haidar Haidar, A Banquet for Seaweed


Arabic is a uniquely concise language, so much so that it regularly dispenses with the verb “to be.” There is no need to say “The sky is blue.” It’s quite enough to say “The sky blue” and your meaning is clear. This is not just a bit of linguistic arcana. If it weren’t for this grammatical convention, the recent stormy controversy over a book banning in Egypt may never have taken place. The center of the controversy is a single blank typespace on the back page of the April 28 issue of a Cairo tabloid called al-Shaab. The name means “The People,” al-Shaab being the biweekly newspaper of Egypt’s Socialist Labor Party, a noisy but feeble opposition grouping that has drifted with prevailing fashions from vague leftism toward a particularly shrill, xenophobic brand of Islamism. The blank space is to be found in an article that purports to be a review of Syrian writer Haidar Haidar’s novel A Banquet for Seaweed.

What should have filled the space are the three little dots you see between the words “Koran” and “shit” in the passage quoted above. The passage is drawn from a conversation between two characters in Haidar’s book—a pair of jaded Iraqi communists living an unhappy provincial exile in 1970s Algeria. The word “shit” was meant to characterize the tendency of revolutionary Arab regimes to use cheap populism to legitimize their rule. In its review, however, al-Shaab made it appear that what the novelist had actually written was “The Koran is shit.”

Al-Shaab’s treatment did not stop there. Pulling other bits of dialogue out of context to prove his point, the article’s author, a hitherto obscure columnist named Muhammad Abbas, asserted that the book was nothing less than a viciously anti-Islamic tract. It did not matter that A Banquet For Seaweed is a work of fiction, that it was first published in 1983, or that it had received modest critical praise at the time. What mattered was that it had just been reissued in the modern Arabic classics series sponsored by Egypt’s Ministry of Culture. Thus, said Abbas, the government of a Muslim country was itself promoting rank atheism and blasphemy. Nothing in his life, he declared—neither Egypt’s crushing defeat in the Six-Day War of 1967, nor even the death of his own father—had ever shocked him so deeply as this. The columnist concluded by urging his government, and the Islamic world as a whole, to rise up in defense of Islam or forfeit their right to be called Muslims.

Abbas’s piece soon had dramatic results. Mosque sermons took up the cry against this insult to the faith, and soon after, the biggest riot Egypt had seen in a decade erupted at al-Azhar, Cairo’s one-thousand-year-old Islamic university. Crowds of Koran-waving students surged out of the university’s dusty suburban dormitories, demanding that the blasphemous author be punished and that the minister of culture resign. The police responded with tear gas, baton charges, and rubber bullets, injuring and arresting scores of protesters.

The culture minister tried to calm tempers by announcing that the book had been withdrawn from sale, pending an “investigation” of its contents by a committee of experts. This failed to satisfy the Egyptian parliament’s Religious Affairs Committee, which demanded that the offending text be burned in public. Nor did it satisfy the feared State Security Investigation Service, whose zealous officers hauled in the junior culture ministry officials responsible for the book’s publication. After an all-night grilling they were formally charged with “assaulting revealed religion”—a crime punishable under a 1937 law by up to five years’ imprisonment.

Soon after, the expert committee appointed by the minister of culture reported that the book should be seen as a valuable literary work that actually exalted the role of Islam. Their finding was ignored. So, too, were Haidar Haidar’s own protests. Interviewed at his home near the Syrian coastal town of Tartous, the fifty-six-year-old writer said he was startled by the sudden attention he was getting; he swore he had intended no insult to what was after all his own religion. He was simply, he insisted, the victim of an assault by “dark forces bent on stifling enlightenment and creation.” Egypt’s prime minister, Atef Ebeid, then decided to ask the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, the country’s foremost religious authority, to pass judgment. Given an excellent opportunity to expand the clergy’s worldly influence, the government-appointed Grand Sheikh announced that Haidar’s “filthy” novel did indeed deserve to be banned.1

Then, as if to show that the gov-ernment was not pandering solely to conservative sentiment, police began rounding up members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s oldest and largest Islamist organization. It is officially outlawed, although an informal alliance with the Labor Party has long provided the Brotherhood with both a cloak of legitimacy and an outlet in the press. This muddled status suits the government’s policy of pushing Islamist militants to the margins, while claiming for the government itself the guardianship of an ill-defined “orthodoxy.” Since the crushing of younger, more radical Islamist groups in the mid-1990s, however, the Brotherhood has inevitably come under increasing pressure. The student riots, which state-owned newspapers insinuated had been less than spontaneous, now offered a pretext for a harsher attack on the Brotherhood as subversive. The pretext came at a convenient moment. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for later this year, and the arrest of some two hundred of the Brotherhood’s organizers in the weeks following the riots appear to have doomed what small hopes it may have had to elect some of its members as candidates of other parties.


A more subtle fate awaited the Labor Party itself. Seemingly out of nowhere, two rival claimants suddenly appeared in May to contest the party leadership in the name of the socialist old guard. Police did nothing when the two men, backed by small armies of hired “supporters,” occupied separate branch offices belonging to the party. The authorities swiftly pronounced these actions to be violations of the laws that tightly restrict political activity in Egypt. With a simple edict, both the Labor Party and its inflammatory publication were shut down until further notice.

As these events unfolded, A Banquet for Seaweed, a book that had sold poorly and was scarcely noticed before, now became a burning issue. In Cairo’s cafés, in its many cheap tabloids and highbrow reviews, and on the growing number of Arab satellite stations, the usual talk of Israeli perfidy, or American hegemony, or the danger of globalization momentarily ceased. Commentators of every persuasion seemed to agree a central question had been raised, a question of greater urgency than foreign plots. Naturally, the question was framed differently, depending on who was speaking. Arab liberals asked whether their culture was really doomed forever to confinement within a space defined by holy writ. For conservatives, the question was whether the incident had finally opened the eyes of the public to the dangers threatening the Faith.

The answers were predictably different. Here, the conservatives said, was proof that the strength of popular religious feeling could frighten a government into defending Islam. No longer would the People allow the enemies of religion to hide behind claims of artistic license or free speech. The liberals said that the attack on Haidar’s novel showed that the Islamists’ rabble-rousing obscurantism was out of touch with the age. True, some students took to the streets, but their anger failed to inspire broader sympathies. The conflict, they hoped, had strengthened the will and cohesion of those calling for greater freedom of expression.

In reality, nobody in the controversy has won a clear victory. The charges against the officials of the cultural ministry are not being pursued; they have been left hanging in suspense. The silencing of the Labor Party violates the very freedom that Arab liberals advocate. It also deprives Egypt’s Islamists of their only legal outlet for political action. The government’s handling of the matter by administrative means, rather than through the courts, has undermined the rule of law and prevented the issues from being argued cogently in a public forum. The book remains banned.


Heated debates over the propriety of questioning revealed religion have broken out repeatedly in the Muslim world since the 1920s. They are mostly ignored in the Western press. Everyone knows about the death fatwa proclaimed against Salman Rushdie; few are aware that half a dozen writers, film directors, and academics have been put on trial in Egypt on charges of blasphemy, while scores of books have been banned.2 During this year alone, writers in six other Muslim countries have been tried for supposed insults to the faith. They include the Lebanese songwriter Marcel Khalifa, the Jordanian poet Mousa Hawamda, and Samir al-Yusufi, the editor of Yemen’s foremost cultural magazine. (Khalifa was eventually acquitted of slandering the Prophet Joseph in one of his songs. Hawamda and al-Yusufi were also acquitted, but their works continue to be banned.)

Taken together, these attempts to restrict the written word recall much older controversies, particularly the debate in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries over whether philosophers had a right to interpret the Koran metaphorically. The opinion that prevailed—most famously argued in the Sufi scholar al-Ghazali’s work The Absurdity of Philosophy—was that writers could not arrogate to themselves any such right; there could be no challenge to the literal understanding of the word of God.


Modern Muslim liberals have come to regard this rigid literalism as one of the underlying reasons for the Muslim world’s slow decline relative to the West. In their view, the first beginnings of an “Arab renaissance” at the end of the nineteenth century—a movement that gave rise to the modernist tendencies that have dominated Arab intellectual and literary life until recently—came precisely as a result of new opportunities for free inquiry, free interpretation, and free speech. It is understandable, therefore, that liberals should be enraged by what they see as the reflexive hostility of today’s religious conservatives to any form of skepticism.

“The perpetuation of this struggle means there can be no real development for our society.” Such is the view of Ibrahim Aslan, a popular Egyptian novelist who happens to be the editor of the series that published A Banquet for Seaweed—and so stands accused of abetting blasphemy. What he particularly laments is that Egypt has turned increasingly intolerant within his own lifetime. “The fact that we used to be able to deal quite rationally with controversial or alien ideas, and now can’t,” he says, “is painfully absurd. This latest affair has obviously affected writers, and publishers too. It has reawakened the watchman, reinforced the instinct for self-censorship.”

Modern Islamists argue differently. The so-called Arab renaissance, they say, was really just a bridgehead for Western penetration of Islamic culture. The naive but deeply entrenched piety of the masses may have blocked the assault, limiting its influence to city-dwelling sophisticates, yet vigilance must be maintained. The crass materialism of Western thinking and practice must be forcibly resisted, of course, but Muslims should also be especially alert to the danger of corruption from within.

In this militant vein, some Islamists reject any challenge to the fundamental tenets established during the first centuries of Islam. In 1996, for example, a Cairo University linguistics professor, Nasr Abu Zeid, was convicted for suggesting, among other things, that the Throne of God in the Koran should not be understood as an actual physical object. Instead, he argued, such methods of modern linguistics as contextual and metaphorical analysis should be used to reinterpret the holy book’s meaning. To the surprise of many, Egypt’s highest court sided with Abu Zeid’s accusers, declaring that the physical reality of jinns, angels, and heavenly thrones could not be challenged. If he had abided by the ruling, Abu Zeid would have been forced to divorce his wife on the grounds that he, as an apostate, could not legally remain married to a Muslim. Instead Abu Zeid fled to exile in Holland. Since he left, no other Egyptian scholar of his stature has dared to touch the subject of nonliteral interpretations of the Koran.

Other Islamists make a distinction between what they regard as objective inquiry about Islam and aggressive subversion of it. Al-Shaab’s editor, Adel Hussein, is a forceful proponent of this view. “There are plenty of books around that cast doubt on the pillars of Islam,” the bespectacled former Marxist told me. “We accept doubts—I personally think Dr. Abu Zeid was innocent. But insults are qualitatively different. Haidar’s novel is uniquely ugly, unprecedentedly terrible—and it was published with taxpayer money.”

Hussein argues that the boundaries Haidar transgressed have parallels in every society. When Britain’s high court ruled on The Satanic Verses, he notes, the judge did not reject the charge of blasphemy. He simply said that British statutes on the matter happened to extend only to Christian beliefs. Moreover, the judge concluded by remarking that there was a difference between exercising the right to free speech and injuring others’ right to hold certain beliefs sacred.

Hussein is proud that his newspaper’s expression of outrage won in the court of Egyptian public opinion, but he says there is nothing surprising about this: “Whoever did not feel deeply insulted by this incident is surely not a Muslim at all. Just look at the fact that mosque preachers across the country took up the issue spontaneously, even though they are appointed and salaried by the state.”

It is true that al-Shaab’s attacks on the enemies of Islam are a more potent force in today’s Egypt than any advocacy of free speech. This was a point made in Cairo’s most fashionable literary review by Muhammad Hassanein Heikal, Egypt’s best-known journalist. A former chief propagandist for Egypt’s first president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Heikal described the Haidar affair as history repeating itself as farce. The Salman Rushdie controversy, he wrote, had pitted a world-class writer against the formidable Ayatollah Khomeini. By contrast, said Heikal, the Haidar controversy was a conflict between unscrupulous, self-appointed guardians of Islam and hysterically self-righteous, self-appointed guardians of Egyptian culture over a dull, seven-hundred-page novel whose republication the government should never have sponsored in the first place.
The outcome, said Heikal, was foreordained:

The instant “intellectuals” get entangled in a struggle that appears to be over virtue and religion, the battle is lost before it starts. The call for freedom will fall on deaf ears, because it will seem to be a defense of backsliding and permissiveness. The call for extremism will be heard because it will appear to be a defense of honor and virtue.


To the extent that he is willing to admit any fault in his newspaper’s book-banning campaign, Adel Hussein accepts that al-Shaab’s language may have seemed overly strident. But excess is only natural, he told me, in a political climate which he describes as poisonous. In his bright, simply furnished living room overlooking one of Cairo’s few parks, Hussein listed for me the pressures that opposition parties like his endure. Intense scrutiny by the government gives them few means of raising money. Because of the Emergency Laws enforced for the past twenty years, they cannot hold public meetings. They are denied access to the state broadcasting monopoly, except for a single half-hour slot every five years during parliamentary elections which are, he says, completely rigged. He concludes: “If you are at a meeting where everyone but you has a microphone, what other option do you have than to shout?”

The irony, as far as Egyptian liberals are concerned, is that while their country’s monolithic regime has accumulated ever more stifling powers in the past decade, it has done so with the tacit excuse of protecting the so-called educated classes from the threat of Islamist domination. To ensure “security,” for example, the central government now appoints the mayors of all Egypt’s 4,000 villages, as well as the preachers in every one of the country’s 60,000 mosques. It also appoints provincial governors, the boards of major trade unions, the presidents of all fifteen state universities, and so on. In recent years the Mubarak regime has tried with some success to encourage private industry, but it has failed to dismantle the fascistic structures established by the 1952 revolution—fascistic in the classic sense of a society vertically divided into fasces, or groups, each linked to the state through its official union, whether for dentists, journalists, engineers, or musicians. The entire centralized system has deteriorated somewhat but it remains subject to periodic “mobilization” by the powerful Ministry of Information.

More stifling still is the government’s paternalist claim to monopolize the middle ground of public discourse. What this means in practice is that while the state bureaucracy tries to consolidate a single national voice that it can present on television, at international conferences, and the like, dissonant voices are constantly pushed to the margins. Excepting the occasional open uproar such as the one over A Banquet for Seaweed, whatever there is by way of serious debate in Cairo takes place offstage, in little-read journals, or in the many weekly private “salons” that have proliferated in the absence of public forums for discussion.

This sterility extends not only to the conflict between secularists and Islamists, but even to the discussions among the Islamists themselves. The government is paymaster to a religious bureaucracy that includes the faculty of al-Azhar as well as the sheikhs who preach on television. This economic power gives it the leverage to compel an “orthodoxy” that is both amorphous and restrictive, preventing Islamist thought from moving beyond denunciation of heresy and repetition of formulas from the Koran. The poverty of Egypt’s national discourse is such that even secular Egyptians now look wistfully at the relative intellectual liveliness of Iran. The Islamic Republic may be barely emerging from a dark age; its outspoken newspapers are being closed down and the editors are being jailed. But at least its people can assert themselves by voting for candidates committed to increased liberties.

The Cairo novelist Ibrahim Aslan complains that in spite of its vast, if rickety, public school system, republican Egypt has simply failed to educate its people to act as participating citizens. Instead of making a serious effort to encourage historical awareness or critical analysis, the state-run media and schools “think their role is to do our thinking for us.” Gamal al-Ghitani, a fellow novelist and editor of the (government-owned) literary weekly Akhbar al-Adab, is more outspoken. If the very word “culture” is becoming a term of abuse, he wrote in a recent editorial, it is because intellectuals are trapped between the opportunist extremism of the Islamists, the ignorance of the public, and the tyranny of the state.

The underlying, if seldom articulated, despair of Egyptian intellectuals, whether Islamist or secular, is that neither their artistic work nor their political views carry any serious weight in Egyptian life. In the eyes of most Egyptians they are just talented apparatchiks, the beneficiaries of the government’s handouts. In the eyes of the state, such people are little more than occasionally useful accessories. The best-known serious writers, such as Ibrahim Aslan and Gamal al-Ghitani—and even the Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz—seldom sell more than a few thousand of their books, but they serve to sustain the impression that Egypt is an enlightened and cultured place. Islamist polemicists such as Adel Hussein may be a nuisance, but they maintain the veneer of democratic practice. When such people get out of hand they can easily be silenced. And when public sympathies appear to move one way or the other, it is easy to find victims who can be sacrificed: the odd blasphemous writer to appease Islamists, the odd Muslim Brother to appease secularists, the odd traitor, spy, or Zionist agent to appease old-school nationalists.

A Banquet for Seaweed is a gloomy novel. Understandably so, since what its author attempts to capture is exactly this sense of despair—the despair of the enlightened few, the socially conscious and politically ambitious, who find themselves locked in a system of cynical manipulation. The book’s two chief characters are lucky to have survived the extermination of Communists by Iraq’s Baathist regime in the late 1960s. Yet in supposedly revolutionary Algeria—the “Land of a Million Martyrs” during the struggle against French colonialism—they find that the possibilities for influencing any kind of progressive change are equally dim. Finding no solace in either sex or the boring life of the cafés, one of the two main characters throws himself into the sea. The other simply vanishes, unmourned and forgotten.

Muhammad Abbas, the writer whose review of ABanquet for Seaweed ignited the controversy over the novel, has himself written works of literature. Strangely enough, one of his self-published books is also an allegory about the failure of “nationalist” Arab regimes. Even more strangely, it has two main characters. One of them, the secular nationalist, commits suicide in despair. The other finds salvation in Islam.

This Issue

November 16, 2000