November 23, 2005 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 254

Arab Intellectuals: Under Threat by Islamists

November 23, 2005 | By Aluma Dankowitz*
North Africa, Tunisia | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 254


The restrictions placed on intellectuals' freedom of expression in the Arab world and the death threats from Islamists are hampering the activities of reformist, secular, and moderate Arab intellectuals. Many of them have found asylum in Western countries, and are attempting to impact Arab and international public opinion from there. Some have stopped writing; others have been forced to request protection from the authorities.[1]

Recently, several reformist intellectuals have faced threats from both the Islamists and the Arab regimes. The following are a few examples of threats, and Arab media reactions to them:

Muhammad Sa'id Al-'Ashmawi

Egyptian judge and author Muhammad Sa'id Al-'Ashmawi has been subject to Islamist threats since 1979. The reason for this was his interpretation of Koranic verses according to their historical context, which was perceived by Islamists as undermining their religious validity for all places and times. In January 1980, the Egyptian authorities assigned him a police escort.

In March, 2004, following a speech he delivered in the U.S. on moderation and reform in Islam and in Egypt, the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior cancelled his police protection. The leading reformist Internet sites and joined the campaign in his defense, and called on the Egyptian government to renew his police protection. Only after Al-'Ashmawi brought a legal suit against the Ministry of the Interior was his police protection renewed, though at a lower level that does not meet his security needs. According to Al-'Ashmawi, the authorities have, in effect, placed him under house arrest, since "everyone is afraid that [extremists] will assault me on the streets of Egypt, which are no longer safe for me and for others."[2]

Dr. Ahmad Al-Baghdadi

In March 2005, Dr. Ahmad Al-Baghdadi, a reformist author who teaches political science at Kuwait University, published a public request for political asylum in a Western country, after a Kuwaiti court condemned him to a one-year prison sentence, commuted to three years on probation and bail of 2,000 dinars ($6,800). In response to the court's decision, he also announced that he would stop writing in the Kuwaiti press.

Al-Baghdadi was sued by three Islamists who accused him of contempt for Islam after he wrote, in a June 2004 article in a Kuwaiti paper, that he would prefer his son to study music rather than the Koran. The circuit-level court cleared Al-Baghdadi of the charges, stating that he had merely expressed his opinion and had not attacked the religion. The court of appeals, however, overturned the decision, and pronounced that Al-Baghdadi had overstepped the limits of criticism and freedom of expression when he implied that there was a connection between studying Islam and reciting the Koran, on the one hand, and terrorism and intellectual backwardness, on the other.[3]

Sayyed Al-Qimni

The most recent case was in July 2005, when, following death threats from Islamists, the reformist Egyptian author and researcher Sayyed Al-Qimni, who had a weekly column in the Egyptian magazine Roz Al-Yousef, announced that he was submitting to the demands of those who threatened him. He announced that he was retracting everything he had written in the past, and would no longer write or appear in the media.[10] Ten days later, Al-Qimni received an additional message from the Egyptian "Jihad" group saying that he had been spared a fate similar to that of the assistant editor of the Al-Ahram daily, Ridha Hilal. Hilal disappeared in August 2003 and the Egyptian security services have been unable to locate him or to discover what befell him.[11]

The following is a collection of reactions in the Arabic press to these cases:

"What is the Difference between Killing a Man With a Gun and Issuing a Fatwa Permitting His Killing?

The reformist Libyan intellectual Dr. Muhammad Al-Houni wrote: "It is worth our while to consider what is happening these days to the intellectual Lafif Lakhdar, and to draw lessons from it...

"We all know how these stories end: somebody accuses someone else of heresy... and a third person, seeking reward [in the hereafter], physically eliminates the one accused of heresy. The new feature in [Al-Ghanushi's] assault on Lafif Lakhdar is that the crime presented as the reason for his elimination is based on a cheap lie: a book that Lakhdar never wrote..."[12]

The Iraqi reformist Dr. 'Abd Al-Khaliq Hussein wrote: "Al-Ghanushi's blind fanaticism, hatred, and stubborn desire to take revenge on his political rival has blinded him, and he has taken a path ridden with hatred, lies, and incitement to murder Lafif Lakhdar, in order to eliminate an intellectual rival...

"With his false accusation, Rashed Al-Ghanushi has revealed his ignorance and hatred, and has demonstrated to everyone that he is intellectually, politically, and morally bankrupt...What is the difference between killing a man with a gun and issuing a fatwa permitting his killing? The clerics who incite to terrorism [are, in fact], inciting the Muslim youth to carry out suicide acts and to murder innocent people, in Iraq and elsewhere...

"The incitement to murder Lafif Lakhdar is [actually] incitement to murder the free intellectuals who call for democracy, secularism, and modernism. This is intellectual terrorism on the part of Al-Ghanushi and others who issue fatwas inciting to terrorism. It is therefore incumbent upon us as intellectuals... to help bring Al-Ghanushi to justice within the British judicial system, since he lives in London and enjoys freedom and a safe life there, thanks to the very 'infidels' against whom he incites..."[13]

Both Arab and Western Governments are Powerless when Faced With Clerics Who Incite to Bloodshed

In a May 16, 2005 interview with reformist researcher and author Dr. Shaker Al-Nabulsi about the threats against Lakhdar, Al-Nabulsi was asked what can be done to protect reformist Arab intellectuals - both those living in Arab states and those living abroad. Al-Nabulsi said, "The Arab governments cannot do anything when it comes to clerics who sanction bloodshed. What have the Arab authorities done about Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi? What have the Western governments done about Rashed Al-Ghanushi, who lives in London? And what has Saudi Arabia done about the 26 clerics who published a fatwa last year legitimizing the jihad in Iraq, which is, in essence, pure terrorism? The governments can't do anything to these people. There is no solution other than to place the subject under international jurisdiction. The international community should establish an international tribunal to try these people...Just as the U.N. is currently investigating the murder of a political leader, [former Lebanese prime minister] Al-Hariri, it should also investigate the death threats against the intellectual leader Lahkdar."[14]

Roz Al-Yousef Weekly: Even If Al-Qimni Retracts His Writings, We Do Not Retract Ours

An editorial in Roz Al-Yousef, the magazine in which Al-Qimni published his weekly articles, was skeptical about the threats on Al-Qimni's life and expressed reservations about his decision to stop writing: "Even if Al-Qimni has retracted what he wrote, we are not retracting what we published, [since] we regard it as part of our duty to provide [the public] with an opportunity to discuss Islamic ideas and topics without overstepping the boundaries of religious or of freedom of thought..."[15]

The Terrorism Against Al-Qimni Reflects the Intellectual and Cultural Bankruptcy of the Arab World

Dr. Ahmad Al-Baghdadi, author and political science lecturer at Kuwait University, who had also announced that he would stop writing due to harassment (but later resumed writing) questioned whether Al-Qimni had made the right decision.

In an article in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyassa, he wrote: "In our miserable Arab world, the intellectual writes with one hand and carries his coffin with the other. He writes with only the wall behind him [to protect him], and his bank account is usually modest. In addition to all these worries, there are the terrorists, who threaten to murder him.

"Is it possible to condemn a man like Dr. Al-Qimni who has remained calm through all these troubles and has reached such a difficult decision? Do you think that the decision to stop writing was easy [for him]? The pen is the only lung which provides [an Arab] intellectual with air. When he is forced to put down his pen, it is like being stabbed in the heart...

"In today's world of terrorism, there is no laughter... In our Arab world, the era of noble virtues is over. But as someone who has had a similar experience [of being persecuted], I tell my brother Dr. Sayyed Al-Qimni that to believe that life and death are in the hands of a cowardly terrorist is to show disbelief in the all-powerful Allah. Who among us has a guarantee of life when traveling in his car, flying in a plane, or even when he goes to sleep in his bed at night?...

"The important question is: How long will these base people, who do not believe in Allah and His Messenger, arbitrarily control the fate of the intellectuals?... When will the world arrest the [extremists] who belong to religious groups, and put them in international prisons?...

"The terror against Dr. Al-Qimni and others reveals the intellectual bankruptcy of the religious groups, and the cultural bankruptcy of the Arab regimes and of the Arab peoples. By Allah, the West should not be condemned for thinking that every Muslim is a terrorist, when it sees all these shameful deeds and the Muslims remain as silent as the dead..."[16]

Director of Al-Arabiyya TV: "We are Living in a Climate that Silences Authors"

Director of Al-Arabiyya TV and former editor of the London Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed criticized the public manner in which Al-Qimni chose to quit: "Clerics, intellectuals, and authors have all experienced the same tragedy as Sayyed Al-Qimni... All have experienced the fear, and have walked the same path, when coercion forced them to stop expressing their thoughts - yet they did not issue communiqués, and they did not publish an admission of fear...

"Sayyed Al-Qimni did what dozens of authors and writers did before him... This is understandable, considering the psychological state [that he is probably in]. However, he made a grave mistake when he agreed to be used as a tool for spreading fear and frustration... He could have retired quietly, or announced that he would no longer write, without publicizing [the threat].

"Since the 1980s, and following the emergence of the extremists due to the success of the Islamic revolution in Iran, we in the Arab region have been living in a climate that silences authors. Most of the Arab extremists have made it a mission to persecute thinkers, authors, playwrights, and those working in the cinema. They recently added to this list the moderate imams and clerics, and are using the same method against them, namely overt and covert threats.

"As long as the [Arab] society fails to express solidarity against the intimidation, the accusations of heresy and treason, and against the direct threats - many people like Sayyed Al-Qimni will announce their retirement. Those who rejoice to see an intellectual like Al-Qimni leave the arena are opening the [gates of] Hell for themselves. As we have seen, these threats do not spare any sector. They have reached the top echelons, and have even targeted senior clerics and leading Islamic thinkers, because beside every radical there is someone even more radical."[17]

Al-Qimni Has Exposed the Disgrace of the Arab Regimes

Ahmad Abu Matar, a Palestinian intellectual living in Oslo, wrote that Al-Qimni should not be condemned for his decision: "Every man has his specific circumstances, and we cannot charge him to choose a certain path of struggle when we do not live under the same conditions... In my view, we must all support Al-Qimni, and stand with him. If his position encourages the terrorists to intensify the terror, it will cause everyone to realize the extent of the darkness that will prevail in our lives if these [terrorists] come to power... The Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which lasted for several years, is the best proof of what the Arab Taliban will do if they come to power.

"[Al-Qimni's position] has exposed the disgrace of the Arab regimes, some of whom allied themselves in the past with [Islamist] groups for [short-]term purposes... Afterwards, these [groups] became enemies of the regimes and the citizens, to the point of issuing threats such as the threats against Al-Qimni and dozens of others...

"If I may give Al-Qimni advice, I would say that the option of emigration, which was chosen by Nasser Hamed Abu Zayid [an Egyptian researcher and intellectual] and by Ahmad Subhi Mansour [a former lecturer at Al-Azhar University who was fired for his writings on the Sunna], is the preferable option. It will protect his life and ensure that he will continue [to carry out] his role, which illuminates the important and necessary path in this dark time that the Arab peoples are living in."[18]

Al-Qimni's Announcement Calls on the Arabs to Wake Up and Deal with Reality

Egyptian researcher and author Kamal Ghabrial praised Al-Qimni's announcement, and argued that it was "a bomb in the face of the regimes that rule the helpless, in the face of the hypocrites and those who play with the fate of their nations; a bomb in the face of the peoples that are indifferent, distracted, ignorant, and fanatical; a bomb in the face of the writers and those in the media who sell out [their opinions] and [publish] in haste; a bomb in the face of the hypocrisy, sanctimoniousness and false heroism of those who have not even one percent of the courage and heroism displayed by Dr. Sayyed Al-Qimni...

"Al-Qimni's announcement shows every self-respecting man that we are living in a world that does not respect thought, and even erects a gallows for it... His announcement does not include a single word that indicates an actual retreat from his positions, or even actual fear... This announcement is not submission to the bats of darkness [i.e. the fundamentalists]. [Rather] it spits in their face, and [also] spits in the face of the era that has created them, cultivated them, and submitted to them. It is a call urging all of us to wake up from our slumber and deal with the perverted reality under which we are collapsing..."[19]

What Would Happen If Everyone Gave in to Terrorism?

In contrast to the sympathetic reactions expressing solidarity with Al-Qimni, there were also harshly critical reactions in Arab reformist circles. For example, Dr. Ihsan Al-Taraboulsi, a Lebanese intellectual living in the U.S., asked what would happen if everyone submitted to the terrorists. He said: "Sayyed Al-Qimni has turned into a living model for the terrorist fundamentalists, and they will use him in the future as a sharp weapon against the reformists... It would have been better if you had died, Sayyed Al-Qimni, because in your death [you would have willed] us life. Your life today is [like] death, and [it is] a humiliation to us [reformists]..."[20]

Dr. Shaker Al-Nabulsi, a Jordanian reformist intellectual living in the U.S., published a reaction in the same vein: "You [Sayyed Al-Qimni] are an example of the cowardly intellectual. You left the criminal fundamentalist terrorists with the false impression that they had vanquished the reformists, and that, if they increase the threats against us, perhaps we will relinquish our ideas and our views - just as you did, out of fear, weakness, and love of life...

"Do you think that you are the only one who is getting death threats every day? All of us, all the reformist intellectuals, receive such threats on a daily basis, and they have even tried to murder us - but we did not announce it [in public], we did not write about it, we did not fear, and we made no retraction...

"Why don't you walk in the footsteps of the martyrs of [free] thought, such as... Farag Foda [an Egyptian intellectual who was assassinated by fundamentalists], Hussein Muruwwa and Mahdi 'Amel [Lebanese intellectuals who were assassinated by fundamentalists], Mahmoud Taha [a Sudanese intellectual who was executed by Hassan Al-Turabi], Ahmad Al-Baghdadi [a Kuwaiti intellectual who was jailed for his views], and others?... How will Arab enlightenment burst forth if the blood of the intellectual reformists is not spilled for its sake?"[21]

What Can Be Said In the U.S. Cannot Be Said in the Arab Countries

Egyptian author Ayman Al-Samiri attacked Al-Nabulsi for these statements, and pointed out that Al-Nabulsi, writing from the U.S., could not be compared to reformists living in the Middle East: "Why do you wage holy war from Denver, Colorado? Why don't you return to Al-Karak, Al-Mafraq, or Al-Zarqaa [in Jordan], and voice your opinions from there? Why don't you make Nablus [in the PA], Falluja, or Al-Qaim [in Iraq] your permanent residence, and publish your reformist communiqués from there?..."[22]

'Adel Hazin, who lives in the U.S. and writes for the reformist website, also rejected Al-Nabulsi's statements, and addressed him directly in an article: "Sayyed Al-Qimni's honesty is sheer courage, Al-Nablusi. You and I live in the U.S. and benefit from the protection of the American police, while Sayyed Al-Qimni lives in Egypt, where the police and the politicians conspire with the terrorists...

"Al-Qimni's decision to quit writing... is not a disgrace to him, but rather to us, and to our governments which have relinquished their social obligation towards us."[23]

* A. Dankowitz is Director of MEMRI's Reform Project.

[1] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 208, "Accusing Muslim Intellectuals of Apostasy," February 18, 2005: Accusing Muslim Intellectuals of Apostasy.

[2], May 24, 2004., May 5, 2005., April 19, 2005.

[3] Eventually, following many expressions of solidarity from reformist Arab circles, Al-Baghdadi resumed writing. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 889, "Progressive Kuwaiti Intellectual Ahmad Al-Baghdadi Requests Political Asylum in the West," April 8, 2005: Progressive Kuwaiti Intellectual Ahmad Al-Baghdadi Requests Political Asylum in the West

[4], May 21, 2005.

[5], May 13, 2005.

[6] For example, following the May 2003 terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, Al-Ghanushi wrote an article justifying the attacks, claiming that they were acts of extremism directed against a greater extremism - governmental, cultural, and secular. In addition, on February 6, 1991, Al-Ghanushi wrote in the Palestinian paper Majallat Al-Islam:

"The greatest danger, on which we should focus all our efforts, is the American imperialist progress towards the heart of our nation. Any collaboration and solidarity [with the Americans], or loyalty [to them] must be denounced. These are all grave religious sins and unforgivable acts of national treason... We will fight them, and it will be a campaign of all [forces of] heresy against all [forces of] faith. We will eliminate all evil, and then a new world will emerge, and a new stage in Muslim civilization [will unfold]..." (, May 13, 2005)

[7], June 6, 2005.

[8] On the petition, see: Arab Liberals Petition the U.N. to Establish an International Tribunal for the Prosecution of Terrorists.

[9], May 14, 2005.

[10] Some questioned the authenticity of the threats and claimed that Al-Qimni was seeking empathy and attention for personal reasons. The attorney of the Islamist groups in Egypt, Muntasir Al-Zayat, claimed there was no truth to the claim of threats, since the Islamist movements in Egypt had changed their strategy and renounced violence. He added that the movements' current weakness did not allow them to consider assassinating authors and intellectuals. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 17, 2005.

[11] According to the Jihad's statement, Hilal was murdered by Islamist elements, who declared that they would document future acts of this kind in order to instill fear in the public, and that, to the same end, they were planning to videotape and broadcast Al-Qimni's assassination. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 28, 2005.

[12], May 18, 2005.

[13], May 16, 2005.

[14] Al-Ahdath Al-Maghribia (Morocco), May 21, 2005.

[15] Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), July 28, 2005.

[16] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), July 20, 2005.

[17] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 21, 2005.

[18], July 17, 2005.

[19] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), July 19, 2005.

[20], July 17, 2005.

[21] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), July 19, 2005.

[22], July 20, 2005.

[23], July 17, 2005.

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