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VI. Non-State Attacks on Academic Freedom: The Islamist Factor

Campus activist groups with religio-political beliefs are currently the primary targets of government repression at Egyptian universities. Members of such groups, however, also actively seek to restrict the rights of professors and students whose politics differ from their own. An AUC professor described the phenomenon as “privatized repression,” and some academics said they feel even more pressure from these parties than from the government.294 Islamist militants have intimidated academics in all four areas of university life: the classroom, research, student activities, and campus protests. According to Hilwan literature professor al-Sayyid al-Sirwi, “the atmosphere of terror [they have created] has aborted intellectual life.”295

Rise of Islamist Attacks

Conservative Islam gained a stronger foothold in Egyptian society in the early 1990s in part because the Egyptian government supported a religious agenda to counterbalance the secular, leftist groups then leading the opposition against the state. Radical Islamists attracted the world’s attention with terrorist attacks like the 1997 shootings of tourists in Luxor by al-Gama`a al-Islamiyya. The Egyptian government cracked down hard on this group, but in the meantime, a grassroots Islamic movement gained strength.296 Some Islamists have since sought to impose their beliefs on others and have successfully restricted academic freedom at the universities.

Over the past decade, Islamist militants have attacked the lives and livelihoods of academics. When one asks Egyptians about the state of academic freedom in their country, the first thing most mention is the case of Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid. In 1993, Cairo University denied Abu Zaid, an educator of twenty years, promotion to professor, following claims that his scholarship on the Quran was blasphemous. Islamists then initiated a nationwide campaign against him. Using hisba, a principle of Islamic law that allows “legal action against a fellow Muslim to defend the faith,” they charged he was an apostate and a non-Muslim and therefore could not be married to a Muslim woman. Several Islamist lawyers filed suit to force Abu Zaid to divorce his wife against the will of both.297 The lower court, following civil law, ruled the plaintiffs had no standing to bring a complaint, but the appellate court overturned the decision, finding for the Islamists and declaring his marriage dissolved. Abu Zaid and his wife fled to the Netherlands where they live today.298 Islamist militants thus used the state’s machinery to drive an academic away from his career and his country.

Outside the universities, intellectuals have faced physical violence. In 1994 Islamist attackers stabbed Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz in front of his home, claiming his novel Children of the Alley was offensive to Islam.299 In June 1992, Islamists murdered columnist and public intellectual Farag Foda in the streets of Cairo. Al-Azhar had condemned his writings as blasphemous; its Shaikh Muhammad al-Ghazali had declared Foda an apostate and said that Islamic law would condone his killing. Al-Gama`a al-Islamiyya accepted responsibility for the murder, saying “al-Azhar issued the sentence and we carried out the execution.”300

Recent attacks on academia have relied more on written and verbal harassment. “The private pressure is largely from Islamists,” an AUC professor said. “It’s at the society level not the university level. . . . If you are producing a book, particularly an interpretation of Islam, you get newspaper, especially Islamist, attacks.”301 In April 2000, for example, the Islamist newspaper al-Sh`ab initiated a campaign against the Ministry of Culture’s reprinting of Haidar Haidar’s A Banquet for Seaweed in a series of renowned Arab novels. The article, and later al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Council (IRC), claimed the book was blasphemous, had been published without the IRC’s approval as required by law, and should be banned. On May 8, thousands of students from al-Azhar rioted to protest the novel. The police suppressed the demonstration, but the cultural ministry eventually withdrew the book from print.302

Government complicity with intimidation by Islamist militants has increased their power. State statutes provide legal mechanisms that legitimize attacks by private individuals on academic freedom. Islamists used hisba, for example, to drive Abu Zaid out of the country. The law was later amended so that only the public prosecutor can bring charges in domestic cases, but it remains on the books and Islamists can be expected to pressure the prosecutor to use it.303 Censorship laws embolden Islamists to challenge course books, especially at AUC. In other cases, government-appointed deans and university professors have conceded to Islamists’ demands, either out of fear or sympathy. For example, university administrations regularly reject research topics considered potentially offensive. According to one journalist, “The university takes the side of extremist views at the cost of academic freedom because it doesn’t want political tension.”304 Whatever the reason, the state’s failure to protect academic freedom from non-state actors adds to the lengthy list of violations discussed in the previous chapter.


Pressure from Islamist militants supplements government censorship in the classrooms of national and private universities. “In the past the enemy was the state. . . . Our problem now is society itself and the mentality of people,” Hilwan University’s al-Sayyid al-Sirwi said.305 AUC academics described the same phenomenon. “Students themselves are the censoring body,” said Arabic literature professor Samia Mehrez.306 According to a theater professor at AUC, most of the students in his history of theater class favor censorship. His students have told him, “If you allow freedom of expression, the communists will take over, women will be raped in the streets, terrible things will happen. There will be no morality. Everything will be permitted.”307 Islamist and conservative students, along with their parents and the press, have publicly challenged the choice of course books and thus altered university curricula.

A pair of incidents at AUC in the late 1990s brought the student censorship issue to a head and attracted international attention. In May 1998, Didier Monciaud, an instructor from France, used Maxime Rodinson’s biography Muhammad in one of his classes. Parents of AUC students complained to an al-Ahram journalist that the book violated Muslim beliefs. The uproar led to an order from President Mubarak to remove the volume from the AUC library and to cease assigning it to classes. “The AUC president immediately exercised the order and publicly apologized on the front page of al-Ahram, [the national newspaper],” AUC professor Samia Mehrez said.308 She added that she rejects the parents’ interpretation of the book and notes that state libraries had included it in their collections since its publication in the 1960s. Nevertheless, pressure from religious militants pushed the university not to renew Monciaud’s contract despite support from his colleagues.309

Seven months later, Islamists directed their attacks at Mehrez in a separate censorship scandal. The secretary to the AUC president summoned her from a lecture she was giving to a meeting with the university president, the dean of the faculty, the university provost, and an AUC physician. On behalf of some Islamist and conservative parents, the doctor had lodged a complaint against her assignment of Mohamed Choukri’s autobiographical novel For Bread Alone in her Modern Arabic Literature class. The book includes some homoerotic scenes from the author’s adolescence. “[The doctor] told the other three that if they couldn’t subdue me, the parents threatened another scandal in the press. They had learned [from the Monciaud case],” Mehrez said in an interview with Human Rights Watch.310 The parents claimed the book’s references to sex were offensive to Islamic traditions. In an unsigned letter to the AUC administration, they wrote, “This story is far from the principles of Arabic literature, he is talking about his dirty life that is of no interest to any body [sic]. . . . [W]e believe that what has been written in some of the chapters is enough to corrupt a whole generation.”311 The letter threatened a lawsuit and asked AUC to “protect our children and the children of the Egyptian and Arab Societies from such persons who are attacking the innocence of our new generations. . . . [D]o not leave the teacher to control and destroy the minds of our children.”312 Mehrez refused to apologize or remove the book; others had taught it at AUC although they had used the English translation, which generates less controversy than a work in Arabic. She agreed not to require it for the final exam, but heard later the president had promised on her behalf that she would not teach it again.313

The internal debate that followed soon became a national and international one. Mehrez appealed to her colleagues at AUC for support. “I thought naively I was in the academy and that an academic issue would be resolved in the academy,” she said.314 The substance of the campus debate was leaked to the parents and the press. “It became a national affair. There were hundreds of articles and it went on for six months. Parliament asked for my dismissal for ruining the minds of Egyptian youth,” she said.315 As is often the case in Egypt, the government abetted efforts by Islamists to restrict academic freedom. When two colleagues from the United States publicized Mehrez’s story on the Internet, however, she received international support within forty-eight hours.316 The AUC president told Minister of Higher Education Shehab that he could not dismiss her because of this foreign support and the potential for a lawsuit against the university. Six months later, the commotion died down. Mehrez said she heard from a high government official that President Mubarak himself ordered an end to the incident.317 Mehrez first taught For Bread Alone again in May 2003 in a course on autobiography. She reported that it “went very well” and that she plans to teach it again some day. The Arabic version, however, remains banned.318

Islamist students have also challenged books in the AUC library. In 2002, a student complained she was offended by a book illustration of the Prophet Muhammad so the library covered it.319 El Sawy worries about publicizing the existence of a reserve list of books banned for circulation because Islamist students might start to challenge certain volumes; even though they do not represent the government, such action could trigger stricter government censorship.320 El Sawy’s concerns over AUC books demonstrate how state repression and non-state intimidation work together to restrict access to published material.

In 2004, Islamist militants received new support from both al-Azhar and the state for their efforts to ban books. In May 2004, al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Council recommended banning Nawal el-Saadawi’s novel The Fall of the Imam, which had been on sale in Egypt since 1987.321 On June 1, Minister of Justice Faruq Seif al-Nasr gave clerics from al-Azhar authority to confiscate books and audio and videotapes that they believe violate Islamic precepts.322 “The move violates the freedom of speech, belief and expression, all guaranteed in the Egyptian Constitution,” said a statement from the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.323 The minister’s order led to the confiscation of hundreds of publications from bookstores a few days later.324 While these raids were not on university grounds, they will likely affect the number of books available for use or sale on campus.

While Islamists have primarily targeted course books, professors at private and state universities said they also felt pressure from them in other areas of classroom life. The AUC theater professor said he no longer requires his students to see films for courses. “Students complained [I was] exposing them to pornography if there was a kiss or nudity,” he said.325 Islamists sometimes disrupt class discussion. In fall 2001, while describing the origins of literature to a class at Hilwan University, al-Sayyid al-Sirwi explained that the art form was born after humans formed society and created means of communication. “A human being is a social animal,” he said. “An Islamist student said I should not say this. ‘[A] human [is] not an animal. . . . [To say so] is a desecration of God.’”326 While the incident may seem like a small one, al-Sayyid al-Sirwi was visibly disturbed and seemed fearful that such interruptions could lead to professional repercussions.


Islamist objections also restrict the range of academic research.  The case against Abu Zaid began as a response to his interpretive scholarship about Quran. According to one journalist observer, it “resulted in a tacit decision in all Arab language and philosophy departments to ban registrations of M.A./Ph.D. theses involving an interpretation of the Quran that might lead to the same problem. Any academic researcher thinking of an M.A./Ph.D. on a religious subject no longer has complete freedom to decide the subject.”327 As representatives of the government, state university officials are legally bound to protect scholars’ academic freedom. In many cases, however, they have succumbed to Islamist pressure to impose limits on research.

Human Rights Watch learned of several examples of thesis topics that were discouraged or changed because they dealt with controversial religious or moral topics. A graduate student at `Ain Shams who wanted to do her doctorate on a study of Freud and religious views had “discussion of her work postponed several times . . . to the extent she couldn’t complete it.”328 About four years ago, a student at al-Fayum branch of Cairo University had her Ph.D. degree forcibly withdrawn after she had been granted it because her dissertation included a discussion of sex and Islam.329 Three years ago, Aida Seif El Dawla supervised a master’s thesis at `Ain Shams on wife battering. The senior supervisor forced the student to change her topic. When asked if the student did so, Seif El Dawla responded, “Of course. She [did] it in the first place to get her degree. . . . Talking in the language of rights is not welcomed in the university.”330 A Ph.D. candidate at Hilwan wanted to do a master’s thesis on the problems of interpreting the Quran, arguing one must place it in the context of the prophet’s life. “Most advised him to change the topic. The whole of public opinion was against him. He changed topics and did something else,” al-Sayyid al-Sirwi said.331 The student presumably feared Islamist opposition would prevent him from receiving a doctorate. Ironically, he was a Muslim Brother who is now in prison for belonging to an illegal organization. “He is supposed to be affiliated with the Islamists, but at the same time he had problems with the Islamists for choosing a liberal topic,” said al-Sayyid al-Sirwi.332 While the state uses CAPMAS research permit requirements to block scholarship on political topics, Islamists have foreclosed research on the two other main red line areas—religion and sex—through intimidation of university officials, professors, and students.

Student Activities and Campus Protests

The government, through appointed deans and security forces, causes the most harm to extracurricular life. It generally targets both leftists and Islamists. In certain faculties, however, professors and students complained that Islamists, with the administration’s approval, often put undue pressure on their colleagues.

Islamists have been accused of intolerance toward classmates and have, in some cases, interfered directly with peers’ freedom of expression. `Ain Shams freshman Mustafa said, for example, she went to a campus demonstration because “I just wanted to express myself.”333 The Islamists who organized the event, however, told her women were not allowed to speak at protests. This reception combined with government harassment has turned Mustafa away from political activity.334 Islamist students at the national universities often harass liberal female classmates for not wearing the niqab, a full veil. Non-Muslims are also victims of this discrimination. The Islamists imply that “all women who do not cover offend God, therefore all Christians offend God. The students feel intimidated,” said a Coptic professor from `Ain Shams, who has noticed increasing extremism on campus.335

The state exacerbates this situation by selectively censoring secular critiques while allowing Islamists to express their views. “I don’t mind giving the floor to the Islamists as long as we get our own space. If they discuss the Quran, I want to discuss the [Communist] Manifesto of Marx,” said an assistant professor in Cairo University’s Faculty of Arts.336 In the English department at Cairo University, several professors complained about Islamist posters.University rules require the administration to approve any posters or exhibitions. In this department, however, Islamists hang posters without approval, and the administration looks the other way. “The dean of the Faculty of Arts has almost given a green [light] to students who belong to Islamist groups to hang stickers, posters calling for jihad and the hijab. . . . If you allow Islamists to hang posters, you should allow leftists, Wafdists, Nasserites, communists. Why only the Islamist point of view?” the Cairo arts professor said.337 Leftists charge Islamist militants with collaborating with the government, a legacy of the 1970s when Sadat supported Islamists to counter the then-dominant leftists. Islamists deny that such an alliance exists today. As with book censorship and restriction of research topics, however, government-appointed officials accommodate Islamist views on campus, provided they relate to religion and morals instead of politics. Whether deliberately or not, state and non-state repression of academic freedom are again inextricably linked.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Though Islamist militants are often at odds with government authorities and the target of crackdowns themselves, they have come to exert restrictive influence on university campuses. They have consistently sought to restrict freedom of opinion, expression, and assembly. Rather than resisting Islamist pressure on behalf of academic freedom, Egyptian government authorities and university officials too often have tolerated or supported their efforts to suppress ideas other than their own. The Egyptian government must create an environment where academic freedom is respected, i.e., restore autonomy to the universities and cease violating the rights of individual members of the community. Such steps would make it harder for those who challenge academic freedom to achieve their goals. The state should also actively oppose intolerant individuals or groups who carry out attacks against academic freedom. For example, it should reject calls to censor books and allow students to choose their own thesis topics. Rather than combating Islamists’ attempts to limit academic freedom, Egypt has allowed them to deprive others of their rights.

Human Rights Watch recommends:

  • Al-Gihad, al-Gama`a al-Islamiyya, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other Islamic militants show respect for the academic freedom of others and help create an environment of tolerance and constructive dialogue on campus.
  • The state end its censorship regime to show that all forms of censorship are unacceptable.
  • The university administration ensure that students can pursue research topics of their choosing.
  • The university administration apply its rules without discrimination, giving members of all political or religious groups equal freedom to express their views.

[294] Human Rights Watch interview with AUC sociologist, Cairo, February 18, 2003.

[295] Human Rights Watch interview with Salah al-Sayyid al-Sirwi, assistant professor, Arab Language Department, Faculty of Arts, Hilwan University, Cairo, March 4, 2003.

[296] For more information on this development, see generally Geneive Abdo, No God but God.

[297] Ibid., p. 164.

[298] Ibid., pp. 163-71. For more information on the Abu Zaid case, see Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, “‘Silencing Is at the Heart of My Case,’” in Joel Beinin and Joe Stork, eds., Political Islam: Essays from Middle East Report (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1997), pp. 327-34.

[299] Geneive Abdo, No God but God, p. 67. The assailants said they followed an order from Shaikh `Omar `Abd al-Rahman, a hard-line cleric who was convicted of seditious conspiracy in the 1993 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. Ibid.; “Weekend Edition—Sunday,” National Public Radio transcript, October 1, 1995.

[300] Geneive Abdo, No God but God, p. 68.

[301] Human Rights Watch interview with AUC sociologist, Cairo, February 18, 2003.

[302] “Islam Leader Condemns Syrian Novel after Riot,” Reuters News, May 18, 2000; Nada Ibrahim, “With Arrests, Culture Minister Filing Complaint,” Associated Press, May 18, 2000; Nada Ibrahim, “Egyptian Creative Community Chilled by Attack on Novel,” Associated Press, July 6, 2000 (quoting several members of the artistic community saying they had censored themselves as a result of the incident).

[303] Geneive Abdo, No God but God, p. 171. For a discussion of the new law, Law on Ordering of Procedure for Initiating Hisba Cases in Matters of Personal Status, Law No. 3/1996, see George N. Sfeir, “Basic Freedoms in a Fractured Legal Culture: Egypt and the Case of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd,” Middle East Journal, vol. 52, no. 3, July 1, 1998.

[304] Human Rights Watch interview with al-Ahram journalist, Cairo, February 14, 2003.

[305] Human Rights Watch interview with Salah al-Sayyid al-Sirwi, assistant professor, Arab Language Department, Faculty of Arts, Hilwan University, Cairo, March 4, 2003.

[306] Human Rights Watch interview with Samia Mehrez, associate professor, Department of Arabic Studies, AUC, February 16, 2003.

[307] Human Rights Watch interview with AUC theater professor, Cairo, February 26, 2003.

[308] Human Rights Watch interview with Samia Mehrez, associate professor, Department of Arabic Studies, AUC, February 16, 2003. See also Letter to President Hosni Mubarak, from Middle East Studies Association’s Committee on Academic Freedom, June 16, 1998, (retrieved July 30, 2004); “American University Withdraws Book Accused of Being Blasphemous,” Associated Press Newswires, May 13, 1998.

[309] Human Rights Watch interview with Samia Mehrez, associate professor, Department of Arabic Studies, AUC, February 16, 2003.

[310] Ibid. See also Memorandum to All AUC Faculty from Samia Mehrez, Subject: Meeting with President Gerhart, Provost Sullivan, Dean Nelson and Dr. Ikram, December 27, 1998 (“Dr. Ikram added that the unidentified parents were certain that I was teaching a banned book, and were threatening to go to the press.”).

[311] Letter to the Affirmative Office, the American University in Cairo, around January 12, 1999.

[312] Ibid.

[313] Human Rights Watch interview with Samia Mehrez, associate professor, Department of Arabic Studies, AUC, February 16, 2003.

[314] Ibid.

[315] Ibid. According to one article, conservative deputy Alia al-Jaar sought to punish Mehrez, but Minister Shehab refused. Judith Gabriel, “Mohammed Shukri’s ‘The Plain Bread’ Is Target of Hostile Press, Academic Furor in Egypt: International Debate Flares over Book-Banning at AUC,” al-Jadid, winter 2002.

[316] Letter to Colleagues from Magda al-Nowaihi, Columbia University, and Muhammad Siddiq, University of California, Berkeley, January 20, 1999. According to this letter, “a public campaign was launched by some of the Egyptian newspapers to discredit Professor Mehrez and to embarrass the American University.” The incident also led to the removal from the bookstore of several volumes, including Ahdaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun, Sonallah Ibrahim’s The Smell of It, and Alifa Rifaat’s Distant View of a Minaret. Ibid.

[317] Human Rights Watch interview with Samia Mehrez, associate professor, Department of Arabic Studies, AUC, February 16, 2003. For more information on this case, see Letter to John Gerhart, president, AUC, from MESA, May 21, 1999, (retrieved July 30, 2004); Letter to President Hosni Mubarak, from MESA, May 21, 1999, (retrieved July 30, 2004).

[318] Email from Samia Mehrez, associate professor, Department of Arabic Studies, AUC, to Human Rights Watch, February 10, 2005.

[319] Human Rights Watch interview with Shahira el Sawy, dean of libraries and learning technologies, AUC, February 25, 2003.

[320] Ibid.

[321] “Islamic Institute Urges Egypt to Ban Novel by Feminist,” Dow Jones International News, May 31, 2004.

[322] “Egypt Grants Islamic Scholars Powers to Seize Materials: Rights Group,” Agence France-Presse, June 2, 2004.

[323] “Al-Azhar Mosque to Seize Anti-Islam Articles,” ANSA English Media Service, June 2, 2004.

[324] “Al-Azhar Confiscates Publications for Not Conforming to Islam,” Agence France-Presse, June 5, 2004.

[325] Human Rights Watch interview with AUC theater professor, Cairo, February 26, 2003.

[326] Human Rights Watch interview with Salah al-Sayyid al-Sirwi, assistant professor, Arab Language Department, Faculty of Arts, Hilwan University, Cairo, March 4, 2003. Another professor said, “Some Islamists react to what I say [in class].” Human Rights Watch interview with AUC sociologist, Cairo, February 18, 2003.

[327] Human Rights Watc h interview with al-Ahram journalist, Cairo, February 14, 2003.

[328] Human Rights Watch interview with Bahega Hussain, journalist, al-Ahali, Cairo, February 27, 2003.

[329] Human Rights Watch interview with al-Ahram journalist, Cairo, February 14, 2003.

[330] Human Rights Watch interview with Aida Seif El Dawla, professor of neuropsychiatry, Faculty of Medicine, `Ain Shams University, Cairo, February 26, 2003.

[331] Human Rights Watch interview with Salah al-Sayyid al-Sirwi, assistant professor, Arab Language Department, Faculty of Arts, Hilwan University, Cairo, March 4, 2003.

[332] Ibid.

[333] Human Rights Watch interview with Mai Magdi Mustafa, Cairo, March 2, 2003.

[334] Ibid.

[335] Human Rights Watch interview with `Ain Shams University professor, Cairo, March 1, 2003.

[336] Human Rights Watch interview with assistant professor, Faculty of Arts, Cairo University, Cairo, March 2, 2003.

[337] Ibid.

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