I've been following with great interest the hot Egyptian controversy over a book by the well-known Islamist centrist intellectual Mohamed al-Amara: "Fitna al-Takfir." Fitna al-Takfir came out late last year, and immediately sparked a massive controversy. Amara, one of the most prominent Islamist intellectuals in Egypt, was banned from his weekly newspaper column, pilloried from all sides, targeted by a lawsuit from Coptic leaders accusing him of promoting sectarian strife, and forced to withdraw the book to remove several offending passages. What was all the fuss about?
Amara's book took aim at the practice of 'takfir' (declaring a Muslim an apostate) among Muslims, rejecting it categorically and thereby defending moderate Islamism against one of the nastiest and most dangerous forms of radical political practice today. Amara (who made part of his reputation after Sadat's assassination with a careful refutation of Mohammed Farag's The Neglected Duty) wrote that "Islam has no authority other than spiritual exhortation, and the invitation (dawa) to the good and the forbidding of the evil... [and] the right of advice and guidance, and therefore must preserve the faith from harmful takfir and must condemn the takfirin." Amara bemoans the division of the Islamic umma, and calls on all Muslims to strive to overcome their differences. This quest for unity means fighting the destructive trends which divide the Islamic umma, confronting the takfiris and preventing the fitna. He carefully notes that bringing the different schools of Islam closer does not mean uniting them by force, and he warns against any school denying the validity of another. What he wants is an agreement across all schools of Islam on banning the teaching of takfiri trends. He savages Abd al-Wahhab and "the abomination of takfir", and defends both Sufis and Shia against takfiri attack. He calls for a unanimous, collective Sunni - Shia - Sufi - Salafi fatwa forbidding the practice of takfir. In today's war of ideas against the takfiris, what could be better than such a forceful intervention against the takfiris by a presitigious moderate Islamist?
Well, Amara quoted from a 12th century book by Abu Hamed al-Ghazali which forbade declaring takfir on anyone who accepts the shahada (there is no god but god and Mohammed is the prophet of god) but said that Jews and Christians were kafirs because of their rejection of Mohammed's prophecy. This quoted paragraph, taken largely out of context, launched a firestorm from Copts who accused Amara of declaring takfir on Christians and inciting against them. I doubt Amara is entirely innocent in all this - evidently, he's got a bit of a history with the Copts, including a contentious book on the question a few years ago and some inflammatory newspaper columns a few years ago. But the uproar over the alleged anti-Christian incitement came to define the book in the hot public debate which ensued, more or less completely overshadowing the book's main point.
Typical tabloid treatment of the case: Amara saying Christians are kafirs and their blood is halal
After a story was published singling out the offending passage in the book, the Egyptian media and political class went a bit nuts. Coptic leaders filed charges against Amara on grounds of insulting the Christian community, inciting civil war, and harming the security of the country. Copts complain that his inclusion of the passage in the book reinforces serious anti-Copt agitation among Egyptian Muslims, offering an intellectual veneer of justification to the crude sectarianism that permeates the country's mosques. A lot of pundits piled on, sensing the chance to go after a leading Islamist figure, while tabloids like Roz al-Yusif (which often seem to pursue regime-sanctioned political vendettas) had a field day. In Lebanon's al-Akhbar, Wa'il Abd al-Fattah essentially called Amara a Nazi, taking the lines about the Christians to suggest (improbably) that Amara had written a book in support of takfir. One Egyptian blogger denounced Amara as one of the most extremist of all Islamists and the most hostile to Christians. In the end, the Ministry of Awqaf ordered the book withdrawn and the offending lines removed.
Amara angrily explained that this had been a quote, not his personal opinion, and apologized for the reaction it caused - but refused to apologize for something which he denied having said. Specifically, he denied ever having called for Coptic blood, and categorically rejected the claim that he had declared takfir on the Copts, who he described as obviously covered under the category of People of the Book. He described his critics as either ignorant or else hoping to encourage American hegemony and promote sectarian strife; anybody making such claims about his book either hadn't read it or hadn't understood it. In a fascinating two part interview on Magdi Mahanna's popular Dream TV program, Amara first defended himself against the Coptic attacks, and then went on in the second part to push his agenda against the takfiris and the Wahhabis (his take on the Shia question deserves another post). Once again, he argued that he most important thing in his book was his call for a Sunni-Shia-Sufi-Salafi joint fatwa saying "No to Takfir".
Amara on Magdi Mahana's Dream TV program
This isn't an easy case with obvious lessons (nor is it over); and I feel like I have only scratched its surface today. Here are a few preliminary thoughts, and I welcome comments from folks in Egypt with direct experience of the controversy.
Egypt's Copts have good reason to be sensitive to Islamist slights. Violence against the Copts is all too real, as is popular Islamist prejudice against them, and Coptic leaders have every right to be on the lookout for anti-Coptic rhetoric or actions.
Still, Amara's book seems like a poor vehicle for expressing their fears. Indeed, the way they've responded to Amara shows pretty clearly that whipping up manufactured outrage over perceived insults to a religion is not something limited to Muslims. (Maybe the fact that it's a Muslim intellectual under pressure from Christian activists explains why an English google news search turned up exactly zero references.) The Amara case is eerily reminiscent of the controversy over the Pope's remarks. In each case, the uproar was driven by a short quoted passage which may or may not have been central to the author's intent (given the respective context, Amara seems more innocent than Benedict, but that's clearly debatable). Amara's complaints about the pernicious role of the internet and satellite TV, which took his words out of context in order to generate a false controversy, could have been written in the Vatican (which would be ironic). In other words, a new-media-fueled StupidStorm.
It's worth noting that Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed, with whom I sometimes spar, was on the right side of this issue: he wrote last month that the campaign against Amara's book represented a triumph for extremist thinking, and that book burning should never be a liberal cause. The way the case has proceeded strikes me as yet another symptom of the general decay of Egyptian politics recently.
At any rate, it would be ironic indeed if Amara - who just wrote a potentially extremely important book denouncing the takfiris - somehow became known as a poster child for takfir. What the world needs right now is
another folk singer (ahem) is moderate Islamists coming out firmly against takfir. A Sunni-Shia-Sufi-Salafi consensus against takfir would be a remarkable achievement which could have a real impact in the real war of ideas in the Muslim world. But all of that seems to have been lost in the StupidStorm. Who benefits from drowning out his potential contribution - handicapping an influential Islamist writing against the takfiris and against Sunni-Shia sectarian strife, and for a centrist, moderate and inclusive Islam - might be an interesting question to pursue.