Sunday, September 30, 2007

Banned Authors Week: Farag Foda

One name on the numerous list of authors murdered by radical Islamists is that of Egyptian intellectual Farag Foda. An outspoken critic of the Islamists' stealth subjugation of Egyptian society, Foda was killed in 1992 by members of the Islamic Group after being accused of blasphemy.

Ana Belen Soage has written a superb article about Foda and his heroic stand against Islamist totalitarianism. Published in the June 2007 Middle East Review of International Affairs, the article does a terrific job of laying out Foda's critique of the Islamist project. In particular, Foda pointed out that it was the Islamists who are the true enemies of Islam, not secular intellectuals like himself:

However, the growth of Islamism was not just the result of hankering after a glorified past, and Fawda acknowledged the role played by other factors. They included the crushing 1967 defeat at the hands of Israel, which had been interpreted as a punishment from God;[44] economic hardship, especially in some of Cairo's shantytowns, where people are in constant contact with more affluent areas through work or studies but struggle to meet their most basic needs;[45] generous financing of books, magazines, and newspapers by the affluent Islamists;[46] and the political ineffectiveness, when not collusion, alluded to above.

Fawda also stressed the responsibility of liberal intellectuals and urged them to challenge the Islamists.[47] He himself was not afraid of taking controversial stances, such as his denunciation of the fatwa against Rushdie, which, in his opinion, offered the world an image of Islam as a religion unable to confront its critics with anything other than the sword.[48] He personally believed Islam to be a tolerant religion that encouraged rationality and inquiry and felt that he was defending it against those trying to distort its message for their own purposes.[49] Furthermore, he did not think that Islam should be held responsible for the backwardness of the Muslim world any more than Japan's technological prowess should be attributed to Buddhism or Shinto.[50]


(Emphasis added-DD; Ms. Soage tranliterates Farag Foda's name as Faraj Fawda. I've stuck with the former as it is the more popular English transliteration.)


Foda's condemnation of the Rushdie fatwa as showing, in Ms. Soage's words "a religion unable to confront its critics with anything other than the sword" proved to be tragically prescient. His own status as a truth teller had made him a target of threats and slander:

Fawda admitted that he was an irritant even to non-Islamists because, he said, he had chosen the truth over pleasing people.[51] In his writings he occasionally alluded to confrontations with the Islamists. For example, during a conference in Berlin, a youth told him that his blood was halal (i.e. it could lawfully be shed).[52] The Islamist newspaper al-Nur accused him of showing pornographic films to young people at Nawal al-Sa'dawi's NGO, the Arab Women's Solidarity Association.[53] In another incident, following the publication of his book Zawaj al-Mut'a (in which he discussed the different arguments around the contentious issue of "temporary marriage," practiced by the Shi'a, but not accepted by Sunni Muslims), one of the members of Hizb al-Ahrar publicly asked for the hand of his young daughter for a pleasure marriage.[54]

Fawda's detractors orchestrated a vicious character assassination campaign, accusing him of being on the payroll of the Israelis.[55] They also spread rumors that he had married his daughter to the son of the Israeli ambassador to Egypt.[56] Fawda dismissed such attacks as a symptom of the Islamists' inability to respond to his arguments[57] and remained confident that the word was more powerful that the bullet.[58] He believed that, ultimately, those he called "the enemies of history" would be defeated by reason and progress.[59]



Ultimately, the Islamists had no answer for Foda's arguments except for murder:

In 1992, a group of teachers from al-Azhar University formed a council to confront the "helpers of evil," "the secularists known for their enmity towards Islam"[60]--with Faraj Fawda at the head of their list. On June 3, 1992, the council issued a communiqué accusing him of blasphemy. Fawda's supporters would later describe that document as "an incitement to murder."[61] Five days later, two members of the Islamist militant group al-Jama'at al-Islamiyya entered Fawda's office and shot him dead. Fawda's son was seriously injured in the attack, together with several bystanders.


The Islamic Group (al-Jama'at al-Islamiyya), the organization responsible for Foda's murder, committed numerous acts of terrorism in Egypt during the 1990s. Its most vile atrocity was the massacre of 58 foreign tourists and a number of Egyptians at Luxor in 1997, an incident so barbarous that popular revulsion forced the group to declare a ceasefire.

The group's founder, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, known as the "Blind Sheikh", is infamous for his 1989 reaction to Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses. Had someone only dealt with Egyptian Nobel Prize winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz, Rahman is reported to have said, Rushdie would never have dared write his book. In 1994, a follower of Rahman's stabbed and seriously wounded Mahfouz.

Today, Rahman is in prison here in the U.S. for his role in instigating a 1995 conspiracy to bomb various New York landmarks. Both Osama bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, regard Rahman as a mentor and regularly demand his release.


Returning to the article, Soage explains how the very Islamist scholars who provided the theological license for Foda's murder by declaring him an apostate reacted to the crime by saying that the victim had it coming:

The leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ma'mun al-Hudaybi, was among the first to welcome and justify the assassination[62] and, during the trial of the murderers, Azhari scholar and former Muslim Brother Muhammad al-Ghazali testified that when the state fails to punish apostates, somebody else has to do it.[63] In Secularists and Traitors, Muhammad Muru wrote that those who condemned Fawda's assassination should also condemn the execution of French collaborators in the hands of the resistance during the Second World War.[64] For his part, the head of the Azhari ulama council published Who Killed Faraj Fawda?. Its conclusion was that Fawda had brought about his own death.[65]


The most important thing that Soage does is to put the murder of Farag Foda into its broader context. It was far more than the act of a couple fanatics, and represented the culmination of a campaign designed to silence Islamism's critics. Having been permitted to Islamify Egyptian society (pdf) virtually unopposed during the 1980s, the Islamists now felt justified in imposing their version of Sharia law on apostates and blasphemers. Foda's killing was the first time the Islamists had actually carried out one of their threats, and as Mary Anne Weaver has argued in A Portrait of Egypt, it did indeed have a chilling effect on Egyptian intellectual life.

In addition, the Foda murder shows the direct relationship between Islamist censorship by murder and the broader phenomenon of jihadist terrorism. The goal of jihadist terror organizations such as al Qaeda is to create a totalitarian Islamist superstate, and the killing of apostate writers and intellectuals is an integral part of their efforts. Novelists and scholars who commit acts of "blasphemy" or otherwise oppose the Islamist project are just as much targets as Jews, "Crusaders" and officials of "apostate" Muslim regimes. Foda was murdered by just such a jihadist terror organization, one committed to the overthrow of the Egyptian state and led by a mentor of Osama bin Laden. Sadly, he is far from the only such victim.

Finally, there are those who now claim that institutions such as Al Azhar and the Muslim Brotherhood represent "moderate" Islamism, and are opposed to violence and radicalism. Of course, these very same "non-violent" Islamists not only declared Foda an apostate, thus making his murder licit, they actually defended his killers.

The truth is that so-called "moderate" or "non-violent" Islamists are every bit as committed to destroying free expression as are jihadists. It is just that they are willing to be somewhat more subtle or flexible in their methods of censorship. Having made their point by sanctioning the murder of Farag Foda, the Islamist scholars of Al-Azhar University settled for using the courts to deal with further "apostate" authors like Dr. Nasr Abu Zaid.


Farag Foda was a heroic freethinker who gave his life in defense of his ideals. His murder stands as yet more evidence of the central role that crushing intellectual freedom plays in the Islamist project.

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