A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, October 2, 2015

Just In Time for "Banned Books Week," Al-Azhar Yanks a Book from Bookstores

This week now ending happens to be the American Library Association's annual "Banned Books Week," when the ALA and numerous anti-censorship groups seek to call attention to efforts to ban books in American schools and public libraries. Of course, it's an American thing, and most Middle Eastern countries ban books not just from schools or libraries but from all distribution. Still, there is some irony that it is during Banned books Week (Hat Tip to M. Lynx Qualey of the Arabic Literature (in English blog, though it wasn't posted there) that Al-Azhar, Egypt's watchdog of Islamic Orthodoxy, and the State's Ministry of Awqaf (Religious Endowments) ordered one of Egypt's most prominent bookstore chains to remove the book from its flagship downtown store and elsewhere. The Book is called "Blasphemy in Egypt" (ازدراء الأديان في مصر).
From the statement by The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI):
Middle East Freedom Forum (the book’s publisher) has issued a statement concerning the incident, and it was posted by the forum’s executive director, Magdi Khalil, on his Facebook account. The statement reads: “Some individuals affiliated to religious institutions in Egypt represented in Al-Azhar Institution and Egyptian Endowment Ministry have visited Madbouly Bookstore in Talaat Harb Square, Downtown, and demanded the removal of “Blasphemy in Egypt”- by Hamdi El-Assuiti and Magdi Khalil- with no delay, as it abuses Islam, according to them. They posed threats to the bookstore in case of not removing the copies. Therefore, we had withdrawn the copies from the bookstore upon their request, and in order not to cause any problems for them.”
Hamdi El-Assuiti [Arabic title page suggests this should be Assiuti], a co-writer of the book, in his statements to Tahrir newspaper, said: “The book discloses, in its documentation and introduction, the trespasses are taking place in religious institutions, along with their restrictions on the freedom of thought and expression.” He added: “I was expecting the confiscation transpires immediately upon its publication, but they probably were late to read it.”
 “The incident is not based on the law, whereas Endowment Ministry and Al-Azhar Institution have no power over the book’s removal, or distribution ban. The Constitution, in its Article 67, determined one reason for that is to resort to the public prosecution, which is authorized to investigate the book content. Furthermore, what is consistent with the democratic form is to respond to the different opinion, without resorting to ways of threats and confiscation,” ANHRI said.
So strictly speaking, the move didn't follow the law. As an Editor and Publisher, I oppose censorship on principle and government attempts  to protect its institutions from criticism most of all. The late Lenny Bruce had a well-known aphorism on that subject. (Link Not Safe for Work of course; it's Lenny Bruce.)

Most of us probably can't get hold of a copy of this particular banned book, but it might be an appropriate response to go out and read something from the ALA's banned books list. And F**k censorship. [Asterisks to make the point, not for censorship. The word appears here when appropriate: see below.]

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