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The Book, If You Please - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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A customs officer at an airport in an Arab capital smiled at me and asked, “Can you please tell me what is inside your suitcase?” I answered, “Some books, clothes, and travel items.” Still smiling, the airport customs officer said “May I have a look at your books? What kind of books are they?” I felt the smile fade from my face as I began to worry about being delayed, especially as I neither had the time or inclination to deal with any authority with regards to the books that I had brought with me. However since one must comply with the rules I opened my suitcase for the customs officer and he looked through my books. He then asked me “What are in these books?” I answered, “The words of their authors.” The airports customs officer started looking through the books; he looked through a book by Ahmed Amin that deals with popular traditions in Egypt, another called ‘A Brief History of Time’ by Professor Stephen Hawking, and a third book about Sufism and politics.

The customs officer grew bored with his investigation and returned my books to me saying, “I don’t want to detain you; I will let you pass although this is no small matter. I should really pass these books onto the ‘concerned authorities.'” This ambiguous term disturbed me. Nevertheless, I thanked the customs officer for his kindness, and left thinking “what would have happened if he had taken these books and passed them onto the ‘concerned authorities?'”

The most that I, or any other Arab citizen, could do is complain and try to obtain such books by downloading them from the internet, and the kind of websites that offer this service are on the rise. With a single click one is able to download a book either in the form of a PDF [Portable Document Format] or a Word document. If this is not possible, one can simply purchase a book from a bookselling website, or ask a friend travelling overseas to buy the book, or simply buy it themselves on their next trip abroad. It is not even necessary to travel to a distant country.

The concept of blocking and banning [books from entering the country] which the customs officer was trying to enforce may have been effective as a form of censorship before the age of the internet, satellite and international travel. However today, in this information age, it is an ineffective and obsolete measure. It is like somebody trying to open the door to a five-star hotel room with an old-fashioned brass key [as hotels now use key-cards]. There is nothing wrong with a five-star hotel room or a brass key; what is wrong is trying to use this tool in the wrong place and at the wrong time.

I recall attending a meeting with an Arab Information Minister in the company of a group of journalists and writers. During this meeting, I asked the Minister about the suppression of books at airports and border crossings in this age of the internet. He answered cleverly, saying “we realize that banning such materials will not prevent an individual from reading what he wants. Suppression or censorship by the Ministry of Information is equivalent to stating a position and sending a moral message against the book or material in question more than it is a means to deprive the population, or those that want to, from reading the material in question.” This is a clever and intricate bureaucratic view, but ultimately completely impractical.

Without mentioning any specific Arab country, we must say that systems and laws are established in order to organize and regulate people’s lives, determining their rights and duties and clarifying what is permitted and not permitted. Moreover, systems and laws are supposed to regulate and widen all that is permissible, whilst narrowing and clarifying all that is not permissible. There is nothing wrong with reversing a decision or repealing a law if this proves to be outdated and obsolete. These laws and systems were brought into effect in order to serve man, not constrain him. For example, if a young girl wears the same bracelet as she grows up without having it re-sized or taking it off completely, this bracelet will ultimately turn into a shackle and hinder growth and development, and perhaps even cause deformity by preventing natural growth.

Censorship or banning is an ordinary feature of societies and individuals – and this is not limited to any creed or culture – until the subject of the ban’s features can be fully examined, or until it is revealed to be useful and conducive to material comforts, as was the case with telephones, automobiles, the radio, television, and even the printing press.

As we have mentioned the printing press, we must remember that even if this now seems to be an outdated and archaic tool, this was something that was initially looked upon by Muslims as a terrifying and evil thing; a tool to meddle and tamper with the purity of the past. Fatwas prohibiting the use of printing presses were issued by the clerics of Constantinople [Istanbul], the capital of the Ottoman Empire, particularly when it came to printing copies of the Quran, on the pretext that this was a violation of the sanctity of the Holy Book. This prohibition extended to include all other religious and juristic books as well.

Yemeni writer Ahmed al Hubaishi has an interesting article that deals with this issue in which he writes: “Printing was introduced to the Muslim World for the first time at the beginning of the 16th century in Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. However the clerics strongly resisted this, allowing the Jewish community of the Islamic Empire to benefit from this by printing an Arabic translation of the Torah. Arabic printing first entered the Muslim world in the middle of the 18th century at the hands of Mohammed Chalabi and his son Said. Chalabi was the Ottoman Ambassador to Paris, and he and his son saw the benefits of printing first-hand, and with great difficultly Chalabi managed to convince the clerics to issue a fatwa in 1728 permitting the printing of non-religious books only.”

It is important here to look at the hidden aspects that led to the issuance of a fatwa prohibiting printing during the middle period of the Ottoman Empire. With regards to small-scale interests, the spread of the printing press would have dealt a devastating blow to calligraphers and scribers who had a complete monopoly on state correspondence and books written by jurists and poets and others, not to mention all the power, influence, and money afforded to the calligraphers and scribers as a result of this. As for large-scale interests, the spread of the printing press and other tools that facilitate the writing process and the horizontal circulation of information would have weakened the central state’s control of the trading of books and leaflets, and would have made it much more difficult for Constantinople to censor such material. In other words, the printing press would almost certainly have been used to promote information and concepts that Constantinople was against. However in the end all those fears were cast aside for the higher interests of the state and society. We have seen how the founder of modern Egypt, Ottoman Governor Muhammad Ali Pasha, became a symbol in the history of modern printing in the Middle East through his establishment of the famous Bulaq press [first official governmental printing press to be established in Egypt].

Censorship, or relying on the inability of an individual or a group to obtain information, or trying to control the flow of information to the population, may be an effective strategy in the short term, but not in the medium or long term. Information cannot be held back for too long. Those who gambled that information could be prevented from reaching the masses in the age of conflict between the inkwell and the printing press lost their money, and others are making this same mistake today in this age of conflict between the printing press and the internet.

The easiest, safest, and best approach is to deal with information and diverse culture in an open manner. We should be willing to change our views if fresh evidence comes to our attention proving us wrong.

A good example of this can be seen in the breakthrough made in the mysterious death surrounding the iconic ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen. Modern science has been able to answer many baffling questions about the Golden Pharaoh, and his death was discovered to be the direct result of a malarial infection, as cited by Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Dr. Zahi Hawass. It was also revealed that the Pharaoh Boy-King had a club foot, and this explains the presence of 19 walking sticks in his tomb, contradicting the previous assumptions of many Egyptologists who believed that the walking sticks signified the Pharaoh’s greatness. Test results also confirmed that Tutankhamen was the son of Akhenaton, the Pharaoh who promoted monotheism, contradicting previous beliefs that Tutankhamen was the son of Pharaoh Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye.

All of these ideas, upon which historical and therefore ideological illusions may have been built upon, have all been revealed to be untrue by science and information. If we use the light of knowledge to clear away the darkness the outcome will always be positive, even if it does not appear to be so at first glance.

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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