The Great Silencing: Intolerance and Censorship in the Arab World

Nadia Oweidat and Cynthia P. Schneider
Cynthia P. Schneider Former Brookings Expert, Distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy - Georgetown University

October 13, 2009

“Where are the moderate voices from the Arab world?”

This common lament often leads to nostalgic evocations of the Golden Age of Islam, which stretched from the 7th to the 16th century. President Obama recently harked back to this period of Islamic enlightenment, innovation and tolerance in his Cairo speech, in which he attempted to redefine the relationship between Muslims and the United States.

Actually, there is no need to reach back 1,000 years to find Muslim advocates for tolerance and moderation. There is a need, however, to stop silencing the moderates alive today.

The Arab world is rich in literature – including a surge of new novels and non-fiction – that examines all aspects of Arab life and advocates a vision of a multi-cultural society that respects human rights. These works draw on the traditions of the medieval Golden Age, and of the Arab Renaissance of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when Cairo was to the Arab world what Paris was to the West.

Eight decades ago, the seminal scholar Rifa’i Al-Tahtawi, once head of Al Azhar (Obama’s host in Cairo and the equivalent of the Vatican for Sunni Muslims), advocated tolerance towards non-Muslims and engaged in vibrant debates with contemporary European intellectuals. In his 1830 book An Imam in Paris, he argued for an open, moderate version of Islam. At a time when Egypt offered only religious education, he also urged the state to make modern, secular education accessible to all citizens.

Such ideas were not restricted to Egypt. Writing at the turn of the 20th century, the pious Syrian scholar Abdul Rahman Al-Kawakibi urged the separation of mosque and state to protect the purity of Islam from political manipulation.

Today’s Arab authors also bravely delve into taboo subjects from the correct interpretation of Islam to women’s and minority rights, government corruption, extremism and political oppression. Some advocate a more tolerant version of Islam, one that has become increasingly marginalized. Why are these moderate voices not better known in the Middle East or the West? To begin with, they are banned in most of the Arab world. And it isn’t just governments censoring and persecuting them. Equally important are the self-appointed “thought police” who clamp down on ideas they deem too liberal.

In their quest for legitimacy, many other Arab governments have also institutionalized an interpretation of Islam that frowns upon critical thinking, enforces blind obedience to the ruler as an Islamic duty, and ruthlessly silences dissent. This has helped dictatorships across the region to last for decades with no hope for a genuine rotation of power.

The notorious case of Egyptian Islamic scholar Nasr Abu Zayd illustrates how governments collude with or ignore the intimidation of progressives by fundamentalists. Conservatives branded Abu Zayd a heretic for penning a moderate interpretation of the Koran and filed suit against him in a Cairo court. To the shock of Arabs who support a separation of church and state, the court supported the heresy charge and, in 1996, ordered Abu Zayd divorced from his wife. (Apostates are not allowed to be married to Muslim women.) The couple went into exile amid death threats.

In 2006, Egyptian police went from bookstore to bookstore confiscating copies of a book called The Modern Sheikhs and the Industry of Religious Extremism, which urges religious and government authorities to play a more positive role on such issues as the environment, corruption and women’s rights. They were acting at the behest of al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Center, which under Egyptian law, has the right to censor books and other cultural products.

Novels such as The Sacred Union, which exposes the lack of religious freedoms and women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, are banned in most of the Arab world. The author, a Saudi woman, wrote under a pseudonym to protect her safety.

Publishers as well are persecuted. Mummad Madbouli, the legendary owner of Madbouli Books in Cairo, has been one of the few who dared to publish and sell banned books. He has faced more than 25 lawsuits and was sentenced to eight years in prison. Due to Madbouli’s acclaim among the public and intellectuals alike, the prison sentence was never carried out.

Yet the popularity of books such as The Yacoubian Building by Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany, now in its eighth reprinting, attest to a growing demand for works that are authentically Arab and not doctrinaire. Like the Nobel Prize winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz, Al Aswany candidly exposes social and political problems plaguing Egypt through stories about the lives of ordinary people – a refreshing departure from the “blame the West and Israel” bombast that Arab publics are typically served.

Still, with few exceptions, the works of these new Arab writers, as well as their predecessors from the last century, are not found in bookstores in the Middle East today. And the contributions of the Arab Renaissance are unknown to all but a tiny intellectual elite.

What is accessible are religious tracts, both historic and contemporary, from authors such Sayid Qutob, who is cited by Osama Bin Laden, and Yousif al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric who has been banned from entering Britain due to his extremist views.

With a click of a mouse anyone can access entire libraries of jihadi texts available online for free. The banned books of moderates could find their way to Arab readers were they posted online, but they are nowhere to be found. Yet it is these writers, contemporary and renaissance, who offer Muslims a tolerant, open-minded alternative, anchored within their own traditions. And they offer the Obama administration the possibility of forging a genuine connection with Arab publics.

The administration aims to replace the advocacy of American values with a new focus on empowering local voices. Those policies, taking shape at the State Department under a new Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Judith A. McHale, former CEO of the Discovery Channel, represent a promising departure from the failed “spoon-fed democracy” approach that Admiral Mike Mullen rightly criticized recently.

If the U.S. government learns anything from the failure of the U.S.-funded al-Hurrah television station, it should be that foreign bureaucracies should not manufacture messages of democracy and tolerance to be broadcast at the Arab world. Such impulses need to come from within. They should be organic and authentic and free of government fingerprints.

What the United States and its allies can do, however, is help ensure that the voices of moderation are given a platform, equal to that given to fundamentalists such as al-Qaradawi. The Obama administration could start by condemning censorship and persecution of writers, and encouraging investments in education, literacy, libraries and broader Internet access. Non-governmental groups others could support the publication and dissemination of moderate Arab authors through universities and other institutions, such as the Library of Alexandria, which plans to re-issue the Arabic classics.

Westerners cannot and should not attempt to script Arab thought. But they can support a return to the standards of critical thinking and open inquiry that once characterized the Arab world.