Religion & Fiction: The Problems of Self Censorship

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Egypt’s surging satiric literature has turned the “red line” of criticizing the president and his son into a pinkish one, and a blurry pink at that.

But, as scholar Rasheed al-Enany noted in a 2009 interview with Al Masry Al Youm:

… the present kind of censorship by say, religious conservatives, is much more damaging and much more frightening for the writer because you don’t know exactly who you are offending, where the threat is coming from or what the possible punishment might be. When the state was exercising censorship, you knew: the book would be banned and you’d be stopped from writing for a while–maybe even go to prison for a little while if it was really bad. All this is awful, of course, but at least it’s calculable.

This… leads to self-censorship. This means you try to anticipate all these horrible things and guard against it from the beginning. No Arabic writers can really write about religion, for instance. People can write about politics, in some Arab countries anyway, and they can write about sex. But the fundamental question of faith, of belief, of the role of religion in society—this remains a hugely taboo area, one that I’m sure countless authors are really wary about expressing their views on.

Instances of this religious-generated fear are many: Anis al-Degheidi’s novel, Trials of the Prophet Muhammad, was derailed by a 24-year-old hacker who accused him, and publisher Youm7, of denigrating religion. (Based solely, I believe, on the book’s title.)

Hesba lawsuits have been filed by both Muslim and Christian lawyers against Dr. Youssef Ziedan for talking about religion in Azazel and at a Youm7-sponsored forum; attorney Nabih El-Wahsh dragged prominent novelist Nawal El-Saadawi and her husband, Sherif Hetata, to court in 2001, seeking to divorce the couple—against their will—on the grounds that El-Saadawi expressed views that made her an apostate. El-Wahsh filed suit against El-Saadawi a second time in 2007, seeking to have her Egyptian citizenship annulled because of her views on religion.

Mohamed Mansi Qandil’s beautiful Moon over Samarqand, one of very few contemporary novels that portray religion, was apparently severely edited in an early edition. According to Qandil:

There are many constraints on the freedom of the writer. My Moon Over Samarkand was mutilated by the editor of Dar al Helal, who omitted more than one third of it for political reasons. Later on, I had Dar Merit publish it in full.

And if a nation is not allowed to speak about an issue—sectarianism, religion, belief—what then? Why wouldn’t we expect rumors, misunderstandings, conspiracies, counter-conspiracies?

There is a new book out discussing religion and sectarian tension,Astigmatism in the Brain: Ironic Tales of Sectarianism in Egypt, by Mostafa Elsayaad & Mena Shenoda. Also some writers, such as Bilal Fadl have made powerful statements.

But much more is needed.

Hani Shukhrallah writes, in “J’accuse,” : “I have heard you speak, in your offices, in your clubs, at your dinner parties…” This private, self-reinforcing discussion needs to leave the closed-in spaces and become public. Not the hate speech, sure, but the real questions, the real wonderings, the real explorations of religion in society.

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