Valentina Colombo / Jun 12, 2009

“I’d burn Israeli books myself if I found any in libraries in Egypt.” These words were pronounced inside the Egyptian parliament on May 10, 2008. What is amazing is that they were said neither by a Muslim Brother nor by a radical MP, but by the Egyptian Minister of Culture, Farouk Hosny. What is more amazing is that Hosny is considered to be a moderate and is even threatened by Islamists. But what is even more amazing is that he is a candidate to replace Koichiro Matsura as Director-General of UNESCO.

Last May 21st Bernard Henry-Levy, Elie Wiesel and Claude Lanzmann signed a letter, published by the French newspaper “Le Monde”, blaming and opposing Hosny’s candidacy. “Mr. Farouk Hosny is not worthy of this role,” they wrote. “Mr. Farouk Hosny is the opposite of a man of peace, dialogue, and culture. Mr. Farouk Hosny is a dangerous man, an inciter of hearts and minds.” For evidence, the writers quoted some comments of his against Israel and Jews such as: “Israel has never contributed to civilization in any era, for it has only ever appropriated the contributions of others. The Israeli culture is an inhumane culture; it is an aggressive, racist, pretentious culture based on one simple principle: steals what does not belong to in order to then claim its appropriation.”

After this attack, the Egyptian Minister of Culture tried to apologize on May 27th, in an Op-Ed published in French in “Le Monde”, and in Arabic in the Egyptian daily, “Masri al-yom”: “The sufferings endured by the Palestinian people, the injustice they have to put up with every day  have to be taken into account by the universal conscience and have been stirring for almost half a century among Arab countries, even the most moderate ones, a deep emotion. I have expressed my indignation in front of the destiny of a people deprived of its land and rights. […] if my words have been strong they have to be placed in the context of this tragedy.” Unfortunately, Hosny’s apology is weak. Why should a Minister of culture order to burn books coming from another country just because it is its “enemy”? This misleading reasoning could lead to the conclusion, for instance, that we should forget and burn all German literature because of Hitler, and all Persian literature because of Ahmadinejad? The Egyptian Minister added that he is a representative of a “country that has signed a peace treaty with Israel”. This is true. But at the same time Egypt banishes from social, cultural and political life any citizen who visits Israel. In Egypt, the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” are sold next to newspapers. In Egypt, Israel does not appear in school textbooks. In “moderate” Egypt, a “moderate” Minister like Hosny can publicly say that Israeli books should be burnt. 

When Mr Hosny declared in his Op-Ed that he firmly believed that “culture is a vital element of the new international order”, he seems to have forgotten that whereas in Israel you can find Hebrew translations of Arabic literature and most of Naguib Mahfuz’ novels, in Egypt is quite impossible to find Israeli authors translated into Arabic. The Egyptian Ministry of Culture has a department dedicated to translation from other languages into Arabic, but no Israeli book has yet been translated. Even if we want to leave aside Israel and Jewish books while judging Mr Hosny, we cannot forget that in January 2001 Hosny’s Ministry of Culture ordered the burning of some 6000 books by the 8th century Arab poet Abu Nuwas, one of the pillars of Arabic literature.

Moreover, at the beginning of his article the Egyptian Minister of culture pointed out that his candidacy had already received full support from the Arab League, the African Union and the Organization of the Islamic conference. This is another ambiguous and worrying part of his self-defence. He cannot deny that The Arab League, founded in 1945, suspended Egypt in 1979 after it signed its peace treaty with Israel, and that Egypt was readmitted only ten years later. On the Arab League website, you can find the following statements which date back to 2002: “As the Arab League Council affirms the Arab character of Al-Quds [ Jerusalem] since ancient times and affirms its political, spiritual, historical and geographical values and being the capital of the independent Palestinian State, the City represents a red-circle that should be not trifled or squandered with under any condition.” The Organization of the Islamic Conference, founded in 1969, in a meeting in Malaysia in April 2002, discussed the definition of terrorism without any success. As far as defining Palestinian suicide attacks, they declared: “We reject any attempt to link terrorism to the struggle of the Palestinian people in the exercise of their inalienable right to establish their independent state with al-Quds al-Sharif as its capital”. That is to say: in Palestine there is no terrorism but only resistance -- as they defined it: “blessed intifada”. However the word terrorism, “state terrorism”, was used to describe Israeli attacks against the Territories.

The Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference would probably easily agree with Hosny’s  proposal to burn Israeli books. So they would define him as a perfect moderate politician. This is why it is important to be careful with the use of the word “moderate”. Too often we tend to describe as moderate people who are not moderate at all. A person who says he is against terrorism, but does not consider suicide attacks against Israeli terrorism, could be defined as a moderate. There are too many people in the Arab world - intellectuals, writers, politicians, theologians - like this. Farouk Hosny is one of them. Even though I did appreciate his fight against the veil, I cannot imagine as the future Director-general of UNESCO somebody whose Ministry ordered the burning of books of one of the most important poets of the Arab world. I cannot imagine as future Director-general of UNESCO a Minister of Culture who does not stand up against censorship in his country, who wants to talk with Jews but not with Israel. We should really reconsider and analyze the meaning of many terms, and “moderate” is one of them. We should start using the term “liberal” for all those intellectuals who deeply believe in freedom, from freedom of expression to freedom of faith, who respect life of all human beings with no exception, including the life of all Israelis. There are true liberals in Egypt and the Arab world; they do not boast themselves, they do not dare to apply for the directorship of UNESCO, and if they did, they would not have any help from the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference. We should start to doubt “moderates” and to look for liberals if we care for true culture in life.

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