Egyptian Censors Ban Dozens of ‘Sacrilegious’ Books


A student at American University in Cairo complained to an Egyptian reporter about a book she was having to read for a course on Muslim political thought.

She thought the author was trying to prove the Koran, Islam’s holy book, is not the word of God, but rather the literary effort of the prophet Mohammed.

That’s a blasphemous idea for most Muslims, and the Ministry of Higher Education quickly forced the university to pull the book--”Mohammed” by French scholar Maxime Rodinson--from its curriculum.


The incident a year ago proved to be the start of a clash between liberal academics and conservative Egyptians over what books can be taught at the school.

Since the book was banned, Egyptian censors have asked to review about 500 books available at the university’s library and bookstore, and of those have banned 94, said Mark Linz, press director at the school. He said that was about twice the total banned over all of the preceding decade.

Linz said the reason for what he called a “bureaucratic onslaught” was not clear. He quoted university President John Gerhart as saying the school “is a high-profile institution in Egypt, and from time to time people will take a particularly critical look at us, and then it’s easy for the controllers to be out of control or get out of control.”

Egypt’s minister for higher education, Mufid Shihab, defended the bannings.

“Egypt allows free thinking but rejects violations of its values and traditions,” he told reporters after the school was ordered to drop another book, “For Bread Alone,” an autobiography by Moroccan writer Mohammed Choukri that includes a discussion of his homosexual experiences.

The American University in Cairo, chartered in Washington, D.C., was founded in 1919 to foster Western-style education in the Middle East. It is overseen by a private board of Americans and Egyptians--in contrast to most other Egyptian universities, which are controlled by the state.

More than half of its 3,500 undergraduate and graduate students are Egyptians, many of them middle-class students on scholarships who might otherwise be unable to afford the annual tuition of about $5,800.


Those students’ background in the Egyptian education system leaves them unprepared for a forum where everything is discussed openly, said Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a sociology professor at the university.

“The American University’s openness to the Egyptian society made it subject to things it did not experience in the past,” he said.

Anyone in Egypt can go to the Higher Council for Islamic Affairs or the Interior Ministry, which oversees police, and file a complaint against any book, a move that could lead to its confiscation.

For a foreign-language book to enter the country, it has to be approved by a censor’s office at the Information Ministry.

The head of the censor’s office, Lotfi Abdel-Qadir, did not return several calls by the Associated Press, but he was quoted in local media as denying nearly 100 books had been banned at the university over the last year.

“We only banned four or five books,” Abdel-Qadir told Al-Ahram Weekly, an English-language newspaper.


He said the censors watch for material that could offend Egyptian sensitivities about religion, sex or politics.

Linz said the list of banned books includes a growing number of scholarly works and internationally renowned literary works.

“Children of the Alley” by Egyptian Nobel literature laureate Naguib Mahfouz is on the list. So are Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” Ninian Smart’s “History of World Religions” and “The Prophet” by Lebanese-American writer Kahlil Gibran.

Linz added that most translations of the Koran, some of which are classics, have also been banned for purportedly having inaccuracies.

The issue has angered Egypt’s Writers Union, which issued a statement saying “banning or withdrawing any book from the market or public libraries is an attack on the law and first of all an attack on Egypt’s intelligence.”

Gamal al-Ghitani, a leading Egyptian novelist, criticized censorship. “I am against any confiscation [of books], and if it continues it will lead to more backwardness--cultural backwardness and intellectual backwardness,” he said.