December 13, 2006 Special Dispatch No. 1392

Censorship and Persecution in the Name of Islam: A Tunisian Weekly Counts the Ways

December 13, 2006
North Africa, Tunisia | Special Dispatch No. 1392

In an article titled "Ban… Ban…," published in the Tunisian French-language weekly Réalités, [1] Tunisian columnist Zyed Krichen denounced the policy of censorship and denial of free speech that he said had been implemented by most Arab states and Islamist groups "since the advent of printing." In the second part of his article, he lists instances of censorship and persecution in the name of Islam from various Muslim countries, from 1925 to date, including banned works and writers and artists who have been imprisoned, flogged, and/or killed.

The following are excerpts from the article. For the full article in French, see

"From Philosophy to Cinema, Literature, and Art - No Field Has Been Spared and No Violent [Act] Has Been Avoided"

"In the West, the advent of printing meant enormous progress in terms of freedom of thought. Printing made possible the gradual spread of knowledge and the questioning of the established order. Technology and freedom seem to have marched hand in hand.

"But in our [Muslim] societies, the opposite seems to have happened. The advent of printing [in the Muslim world] in the mid-19th century and the spread of written materials in the 20th century have [only served to] undermine freedom of thought.

"The numerous examples of 'censorship in the name of Islam' from 1925 to date makes one wonder. From philosophy to cinema, literature, and art - no field has been spared, and no [act of] violence has been avoided. From the [mere] banning of the work to a death sentence for [the writer] - every kind of obscurantist horror has taken place in the lands of Islam. Given that we are one of the Civilizations of the Book, [2] this is a complete paradox.

"However, without glorifying the past, [it must be pointed out that] such things did not happen during the first three centuries of Islam, [which was] the golden age [of Islam]. [True], the political authorities killed dissidents and revolutionaries - but no one saw books burned, and freedom of thought was at its peak. No controversial topic was avoided in philosophical or theological debate. From the authenticity of the prophecies to the very nature of divinity - each doctrine had its proponents, its platforms, and its leading [thinkers]...

"And consider the delightful freedom that pervaded Arab literature [in those days]. One could say anything, write anything, sing about anything... the love of women, sex, and wine, and even [the love] of boys... [Even] the sacred could be laughed at, and [religious] devotion as well... This golden age was also the age of that eclectic and refined aestheticism of which Abu Hayane Attaouhidi wrote so beautifully.

"The images we [now] see on TV and the sickening [instances of] censorship listed below might lead us to believe that Islam has produced nothing but extremism and intolerance.

"To this list we can add another list - as long as the first, if not longer - of books that are part of Muslim heritage and are now banned in Islamic countries.

"Some [Muslim] countries have a complete aversion to philosophers. [The writings of] Ibn Rochd (Averroes), Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Al-Farabi, Ibn Baja, and others are still banned in certain countries - not to mention [the works of] Zakaria Al-Razi, who is considered an irreverent atheist...

"Theology books are also burned. In certain countries, the [works of the] leading writers of the rationalist school (Mudtazila) cannot be obtained. Even Al-Ashdari, one of the leading theologians of Sunni orthodoxy, is considered a deviant nationalist, and his books are banned..."

"As for Literature - The List of Banned Books Is So Long that It Is Easier to Name the Ones that Are Permitted and Approved"

"As for literature - the list of banned books is so long that it would be easier to name the ones that are permitted and approved. This is true even in large countries like Egypt, and [even] for masterpieces of our cultural [heritage], like the One Thousand and One Nights. [Works by] Abu Nawas, Bashar Ibn Bord, Al-Isfahani, Al-Madari, and hundreds of others were banned from bookstores in the 20th century.

"Even books of Islamic historiography are considered suspect in certain countries. The great Tabari is reviled - not for the historical content [of his books], but because some of his stories are [considered] too provocative...

"Thus, this dark list of banned [works], which should be completed and updated, includes not [only] modern works but an entire facet of our heritage. The fact that our country [Tunisia] is being spared these obsolete practices these days must not lead us to ignore the danger of this intellectual regression... "

Instances of Censorship and Persecution in the Name of Islam

"[Réalités journalist] Riyadh Fékih wrote: '1925 saw the banning of the book Islam and Principles of Government by Sheikh 'Ali 'Abd Ar-Raziq of Al-Azhar [University], which advocated the separation of religion and state - a principle of proper governance adopted by humanity a century earlier. Since then, there have been countless [instances of] religious censorship in the Islamic world, ranging from the [mere] banning of books to the imprisonment and sometimes murder [of writers].

"In order to protest against this kind of censorship - often implemented against those who purportedly harm Islam, 'humiliate' the Prophet and Allah or violate shar'ia - we found it useful to list all the violations of freedom of thought that have been recorded in the Muslim world, or have been attributed to Muslims around the world, from 1925 to date. This list, in chronological order, is as long as the victims of religious intolerance in Islamic countries are numerous. It may seem exhaustive, but it is in no way complete. We therefore suggest that our readers [add to it to] complete it, if necessary. We hope, however, that it will some day come to an end, inshallah! For this to happen, our societies must show greater respect for freedom of thought, and must pass laws that will protect this freedom from 'arbitrary imams,' or 'illiterate, fatwa-issuing Koran-[thumpers],' as the Tunisian psychoanalyst Fethi Benslama calls them.

"1925, [Egypt]: Sheikh 'Ali 'Abd Ar-Raziq is expelled from Al-Azhar University and his writings are banned [because] he advocates the separation of religion and state. His book Islam and Principlesof Government is declared heretical, and banned.

"1926, [Egypt]: [The book] OnPre-Islamic Poetry by Taha Hussein is banned. In 1931, the Education Ministry had him expelled from the university, for his rationalist interpretation of pre-Islamic literature and the Koran.

"1946, Iran: The terrorist group Fedayyan-i Eslam accuses historian, jurist, and linguist Ahmad Kasravi of unbelief. In March, he is murdered for heresy, based on a fatwa [issued against him].

"1973, Algeria: The poet Jean Sénac is assassinated by Islamist nationalists.

"December 18, 1975, Morocco: Omar Benjelloun, leader of the Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USPF) and director of the paper Al-Mouharrir, is stabbed to death by a group affiliated with the Islamic Youth [movement].

"February 1977, [Syria]: The president of Damascus University is murdered on campus by Islamists.

"1981, Egypt: The book History of the Arabic Language by Fikri Al-Aqad is banned [for claiming that] certain words in the Koran are of Egyptian origin.

"1982, [Iran]: Writer Ata Nourian, a member of the Iranian Writers Union, is killed for his 'anti-Islamist ideas.'

"1984, Iran: 83-year-old Ali Dashti, the author of a book critical of Islam, dies in prison after mistreatment.

"January 1985, Sudan: The writer Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, over 80 years old, is sentenced to death and hanged in Khartoum. [His crime:] writing a book on the history of Islam which advocated separation of the political and the religious domains. In the book..., he stated that the spiritual message of the Prophet as revealed in Mecca is universal, but that the judicial framework which [later] developed [in Medina emerged] in a particular historical context and is [therefore] not adapted to the life of Muslims today.

"In the same year, the Ethical Court in Cairo sentences the publisher of One Thousand and One Nights to jail for corrupting the morals of the younger [generation]. The Court [also] orders the destruction of 3000 copies of this popular masterpiece.

"1987, Iran: 80,000 books, labeled as 'attacking Islam,' are burned at Isfahan University.

"1988: A book published in Saudi Arabia accuses more than 100 Arab writers - some dead and some living - of apostasy and hostility towards Islam. [They include] Salama Moussa, Shibli Shmmayyil, Nagib Mahfuz, Lofti As-Sayyid, Muhammad Al-Jabiri, Shakir Shakir, Said Aql, Adonis, and others. These authors' [books] are still banned in the Wahhabi [Saudi] kingdom.

"February 14, 1989, [Iran]: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, [rules that] that The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie is blasphemous and calls to murder its author and publishers. A reward of $3 million is offered to anyone who kills Rushdie (but only $1 million if the murderer is not Iranian). For years, the Iranian author [Rushdie] lives like a hunted animal in Britain, though he receives protection from British police. The Italian and Japanese translators [of his book] are less fortunate: [both] are killed in 1991, in Milan and Tokyo [respectively]. On March 29, 1989, the head of the Brussels Mosque and his assistant are killed, on the orders of the Iranian intelligence service. Their crime was to try and find a theological way [to circumvent] the fatwa by declaring that Rushdie must simply stand trial and repent - as required by the Islamic law regarding blasphemy and apostasy. [Rushdie's] book was burned in the very heart of Europe... The fatwa against him is still in force, since the only person who can revoke it - [Ayatollah] Khomeini - is dead...

"In February 1989, Iranian writers Amir Nikaiin, Manouchehr Behzadi, Djavid Misani and Abutorab Bagherazdeh, and two Iranian poets, Said Soltanpour and Rahman Hatefi, are killed for their liberal ideas that are regarded as an attack on Islam.

"1990, Egypt: Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, a university teacher who wished 'to consider Islam from within and propose a profoundly reformist approach' receives death threats from Islamists for his historical reading of the Koran...

"1991, Sudan: Ajjabna Muhammad is accused of apostasy and is expelled from the university. Rejected by his own family, he tries to flee [the country, but is caught] and tortured in prison, where they try to force him back to Islam.

"January 1992, [Egypt]: A delegation of Al-Azhar scholars demands the banning of eight books on Islam.

"June 8, [1992], writer Farag Foda is shot to death along with his son Ahmad and a friend of his son's. A few days earlier, the secular intellectual was declared an 'apostate' by the Sheikh of the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo. The Al-Azhar scholars denounced the manner in which Foda was murdered, but [continued to] consider him an apostate who deserves a death sentence. The Islamist group Al-Gamma'ah Al-Islamiya took responsibility for the murder...

"September 3, [1991], Saudi Arabia: The poet Sadiq Melallah was beheaded in the main square of the city of Qatif for denying [the faith], on [the orders of] the state authorities.

"1993, Algeria: This was a very bloody year for writers, journalists, academics, and artists [in Algeria]. The victims, most of them murdered by Islamist activists, include Ruptures magazine writer and editor Taher Djaout; sociologist Djilali Liabès; Beaux-Arts [College] head Ahmed Asselah; sociologist M'hamed Boukhobza; Bab-Ezzouar University head Salah Djebaïli; poet and writer Youssef Sebti; playwright and stage director Abdelkader Alloula; psychiatrist Mahfoudh Boucebci, national education superintendent Salah Chouaki; playwright Izzedine Medjoubi; pediatrician Dilalli Belkhanchir; economist Abderahmane Faredeheb; and journalists Ferhat Cherkit, Youssef Fathallah, Lamine Lagoui, Ziane Farrah, Abdelhamid Benmenni, Rabah Zenati, Saad Bakhtaoui, and Abderrahmane Chergou..., and the list is far from complete...

"In Iran, cartoonist Manouchehr Karimzadeh is sentenced to 10 years in prison for sketching a soccer player who slightly resembles [Ayatollah] Khomeini. The cartoonist and the editor of the newspaper [that published the cartoon] are flogged. Their [prison] sentences are later reduced.

"In Saudi Arabia, the publication of a comic [strip] leads to the arrest of two Indian employees of the Arab News [paper]. According to theologians, the comic [strip] questioned the existence of God. The two men are sentenced to a harsh flogging. Following international pressure, they are pardoned by the [Saudi] king.

"In May, in Saudi Arabia, reformist professor M. Al-Awajj is sentenced to four years' imprisonment. He is dismissed [from his job] and his passport is confiscated.

"On September 24, a group of Bangladeshi Islamists issues a fatwa against [Bangladeshi author and doctor] Taslima Nasreen, accusing her of blasphemy… The fundamentalists destroy bookshops that sell her books. The government confiscates her passport and orders her to stop writing if she wants to continue working in a state hospital. She leaves the country...

"January 1994, France: Muslim organizations are outraged when Claudia Schiffer wears a dress [decorated with] Koranic verses. Chanel apologizes and burns the dresses...

"In May, in Iran, university lecturer and human rights activist E. Sahabi is arrested for participating in a conference in Germany, and is accused of 'anti-revolutionary behavior.'

"On October 14 in Egypt, literature Nobel prize laureate Nagib Mahfuz, aged 83, is stabbed in the throat by a young extremist in Cairo. Al-Gamma'ah Al-Islamiya takes responsibility for the assassination attempt...

"In Iran, author Saiidi Sirjani is murdered in prison for publishing his works outside the country after they are banned in Iran.

"April 1995, [India]: Mufti Shabbir Siddiqi of Ahamdabad issues a fatwa of excommunication against the poet Muhammad Alvi. [The poet was excommunicated] because of a [single] line in a poem written 17 years earlier: 'O God, if you are too busy to visit us, send us a good angel to guide us.'

"In the same year, the Egyptian Supreme Court declares Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid an apostate and orders him divorced from his wife - since a Muslim cannot be married to an apostate. The couple... escapes to the Netherlands.

"In Iran, Ahmad Miralai, a translator of foreign literature, is murdered.

"1996, Iran: Four 'subversive' writers and editors are murdered: Ghafar Hosseini, Reza Mazlooman, Ebrahim Zalzadeh, and Ahmad Tafazoli...

"1997, [Egypt]: Al-Azhar University compiles a list of 196 books to be banned on moral and religious grounds...

"1998, Pakistan: Ayub Masih, [a young Pakistani Christian], is sentenced to death for blasphemy.

"In Egypt, author Alaa Hamed stands trial for [writing] a novel that 'insults Islam.'

"In Iran, [several] writers, journalists and academics - Pirouz Davani, Hamid Pour, Hajizadeh, Majid Sharif, Daryoush and Parvaneh Furouhar, Muhammad Jafar Pouyandeh, and Muhammad Mokhtari - are murdered by fundamentalists because of their writings.

"In Turkey, journalist Nuredin Sirin is sentenced to 20 months in prison for writing that 'we must support the oppressed even if they are atheists.'

"1999, Iran: The religious reformist Hadi Khamenei is beaten by Islamist students...

"2000, Kuwait: Two female authors, Leyla Othman and Alia Shaib, are each sentenced to one month in prison for moral and religion offenses...

"In Egypt, writer Haydar Haydar is declared an apostate and sentenced to death by Islamists for writing [his book] A Banquet for Seaweed, in which a character says: 'The divine Bedouin laws and the teaching of the Koran [are all] shit.' The rector of Al-Azhar University calls for a public burning of the book in a public place...

"2001, Egypt: Writer Salaheddin Mohsen and female preacher Manal Manea are each sentenced to three years in prison for atheism and blasphemy against Islam...

"May 27, 2003, Saudi Arabia: Jamal Khashoggi, editor of [the daily] Al-Watan, is fired for approving the publication of articles criticizing the religious establishment, and in particular the mutawa (religious police)...

"Saudi teacher Muhammad Al-Harbi is sentenced to 750 lashes and three years and four months in prison for 'harming the integrity of Islam.'

"Saudi teacher Muhammad Al-Souheimi is accused of apostasy, sentenced to 300 lashes and three years' imprisonment, and banned from teaching.

"In Iran, the Canadian-Iranian journalist Zahra Kazemi is brutally tortured by the Iranian police and then murdered in detention - [all] for writing her articles.

"2004, Iran: The musician and poet Ahmad Bayat Mokhtari is abducted and run down by a car in Chiraz because of his artistic activities.

"On October 30, in Damascus, researcher and writer Nabil El-Fayadh, author of many books banned in Syria and other Arab countries, is arrested by the intelligence service...

"On November 2, Dutch film maker Theo Van Gogh is murdered in Amsterdam by a Moroccan Islamist because of his film Submission, which portrays the submissiveness of Muslim women... The murderer, the son of a Muslim Moroccan immigrant, left a [letter with] a list of additional individuals to be killed, including Theo's scriptwriter Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born Dutch MP who later fled to the U.S. The letter ends with the following lines: 'I am certain, O America, that you will die/I am certain, O Europe, that you will die/I am certain, O Netherlands, that you will die/I am certain, O Hirsi Ali, that you will die/I am certain, O infidel fundamentalist, that you will die.'

"September 30, 2005: The conservative Danish daily Jyllands-Posten publishes 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, which leads to demands for apologies, death threats, and demonstrations in Copenhagen. On October 20, a number of Muslim ambassadors send an official protest to the Danish government, and on December 29, the Arab League [likewise] issues a protest. On January 21, after another Norwegian magazine and several additional European papers re-publish the cartoons, the International Association of 'Ulama in Cairo calls for boycotting Danish and Norwegian products. Despite the 'apologies' and 'expressions of regret' published by the accused newspapers, and [following] ambiguous declarations by the Danish and Norwegian governments, the Arab states demand sanctions, and recall their ambassadors. Riots break out, and embassies of the [involved] countries are set on fire in the Middle East. Many of the Muslim rioters... are injured or killed...

"January 23, 2006, [Iran]: Journalist Elham Afrotan, head of the weekly Tamadone Hormozgan, is imprisoned with six others... [for writing] an article comparing Ayatollah Khomeini's [rise to power] with the AIDS [epidemic]. The journalists are arrested in Bandar-Abbas…"

[1] Réalités, No. 1072, July 13-19, 2006.

[2] Muslims refer to themselves and to the Jews and Christians as the "Peoples of the Book."

Share this Report: