June 30, 2015

Egypt seizes and burns books that promote “fundamentalism and extremism” from mosques


President Sisi (image via Wikipedia)

President Sisi (image via Wikipedia)

The last half decade has seen Egypt’s government overthrown twice, punctuated by mob violence and periodic mass killings of demonstrators. Since the June 2014 election of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former defense minister, Egypt has seen a period of relative stability combined with an increasingly authoritarian response to the former ruling party of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The latest development in this crackdown was covered by Daily News Egypt, which reports that the Sisi government has begun purging certain books and other literature from mosque libraries.

The Ministry of Religious Endowments announced Tuesday it will “purge and confiscate” the libraries of Egyptian mosques of any books or digital material that contradict “the leniency of Islam”.

Ashraf Fahmy, a preaching official in the ministry, told Daily News Egypt that the decision will include investigating small libraries in mosques “in order to purge them of books that call for fundamentalism and extremism, and call for the opposite of moderate Islam”.

Fahmy added that “a committee will examine the books in every city to evaluate and remove them”. Regarding whether the decision is directed against the literature of the Muslim Brotherhood, Fahmy said: “Any book, irrespective of its author or publishing house, that contradicts the teachings of Islam, will be confiscated.”

While the Ministry denies that it plans to target solely Muslim Brotherhood authored texts, it does intend to include these in its purge of non-“tolerant” texts. The Daily Sabah reports:

Ministry Undersecretary Gaber Tayee said ministry officials have been instructed to check all books in mosque libraries to make sure “they fit with Islam’s tolerance.” “Any book authored by an extremist or a member of the Muslim Brotherhood or al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya will be removed,” he said. The books of famous authors and leading Muslim Brotherhood figures like Sayyed Qutb, Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Hassan al-Banna will be purged and confiscated.

Since President Morsi’s ousting in 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood was declared a terrorist organization by the new government and has been a constant target by the Sisi administration. Since his election, the government has arrested and imprisoned thousands of members or suspected members of the Brotherhood, and sentenced dozens, including Morsi, to death. In early 2014, the Ministry of Religious Endowments began seizing control of mosques that had previously belonged to charitable organizations run by the Brotherhood, replacing imams and freezing assets of any NGOs they claimed were associated with the same organizations.

This latest attempt by the Sisi administration to quash dissent lines up with the party’s mission to promoting moderate Islam over fundamentalism, though it remains to be seen whether further government censorship is another step towards radicalizing the disenfranchised or the true price of moderation. The former certainly seems likely; the Egypt Independent details how the libraries in question consist of donated books, the offending titles from which will, after removal, be burned. Steve Negus speculated in Slate that ISIS plans to capitalize on Sisi’s increasingly anti-fundamentalist military policies to gain new allies in the region, and provoking further conflict.

However, an interesting alternate perspective on this latest round of book banning/burning comes from Paul Iddon, at the News Hub. Iddon recalls the exile of Ayatollah Khomeini in the early 1960s, which was followed by a wholesale ban of his books in his native Iran. Though Khomeini’s books were decidedly conservative and theocratic, the lack of access to these books facilitated Khomeini’s rise to power after the overthrow of the secular-leaning Shah—who, once exiled, fled to and eventually died in Egypt.

So in 1979 when Iranians revolted against the Shah Khomeini became a symbol of opposition, even though many young Iranians hadn’t heard of him before the revolution began. Many of those who took the street however had no idea about what he sought to bring about in Iran. Few had read his books since they were banned, so much so that he was able to remodel himself as a democrat to garner popular grassroots support among Iranians since the majority didn’t know what he was really about and what kind of order he sought to bring about in Iran. Most decisively the middle-class.

Stanford University’s Professor Abbas Milani had one of his students review every one of the interviews Khomeini gave in exile in Paris during Iran’s Revolution to the world’s press. Not once did he mention the form of governance he sought to establish and indeed did establish. And he was, in part, able to successfully promulgate this favourable image of himself as a moderate because his writings asserting the contrary were rigorously banned.

While I’m skeptical that one can compare the information gap and propaganda of pre-Internet Iran to modern-day Egypt, it’s clear that the seizing and burning of books that are categorized as “dangerous” is a symbolic act that shores up the dominant authority while almost certainly planting the seeds of blowback.

Sisi, who told Der Spiegel that he considers himself “simply the person who took over the responsibility of salvaging the country and implementing the popular will”, claims a mission to stamp out terrorism and the mandate to do so. It remains to be seen whether this act of book burning and other anti-fundamentalist actions will end up provoking a war of just ideas.


Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.