Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Assault on Muslim Writers Attacks on Arab Writers and Teachers Are Eroding a Centuries-Old Tradition of Tolerance and Intellectual Vigor

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Assault on Muslim Writers Attacks on Arab Writers and Teachers Are Eroding a Centuries-Old Tradition of Tolerance and Intellectual Vigor

Article excerpt

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 Islamic 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 Farag 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. …

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