October 6, 2009 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 549

Dispute over Granting of State Award to Egyptian Liberal Sayyed Al-Qimni

October 6, 2009 | By L. Azuri*
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 549


Liberal Egyptian researcher and author Sayyed Al-Qimni's writings - critical of Islam and the Islamic discourse, calling for researching Islam and the Koran using objective criteria, attacking fundamentalist organizations and senior Islamic clerics, and fulsomely praising secularism - have made him many enemies. On July 16, 2005, after receiving death threats from Islamist elements, Al-Qimni announced that he was acceding to demands by the authors of the threats and recanting everything he had ever written, and was also giving up writing and media appearances. [1]

On June 25, 2009, the Egyptian Culture Ministry awarded Al-Qimni its annual prize for achievement in the social sciences. The decision to do so sparked protests by the religious establishment and Islamists, who criticized the ministry and called for the prize to be rescinded. They claimed that Al-Qimni had harmed Islam and the Muslims with his writings, and that he was therefore not worthy of receiving the prize of 200,000 Egyptian pounds (about US$36,000) of the Egyptian taxpayers' money; they also accused Al-Qimni of heresy.

Liberal intellectuals came to Al-Qimni's defense, protesting against the culture of takfir (accusing other Muslims of heresy). Al-Qimni, for his part, expressed his thanks for the award, and promised to continue to work for reform in Egypt - and first and foremost for the revocation of Article 2 of Egypt's constitution, which states that the Islamic Shari'a is the main source of legislation in the country. As the media attacks against him grew more aggressive, Al-Qimni resumed writing and giving interviews, but said he feared for his life and for the lives of his family members, and appealed to the free world for help.

Al-Qimni Is Awarded Annual Culture Ministry Prizefor Achievement in Social Sciences

On June 25, 2009, the Egyptian Culture Ministry Dr. Farouq Hosni awarded Al-Qimni and three others the annual prize for achievement in the social sciences; the others included prominent Egyptian philosopher Dr. Hassan Hanafi. [2] Award committee member Salah 'Issa, member of Egypt's Supreme Council for Culture and editor of the Culture Ministry weekly Al-Qahira, said that he had voted for Al-Qimni because he was "a rigorous thinker who strove to interpret our heritage in a new light..." 'Issa added: "The state prizes are awarded for research effort and for innovation in literature and art. They are awarded to people who undertake a [meaningful] research effort, regardless of whether it yields results. Some of the people who voted for Al-Qimni may [actually] disagree with most of his views. The act of awarding [the prize] is not an endorsement of everything he believes." [3]

Responses from Egypt's Religious Establishment

Dar Al-Ifta: Those Who Slander Islam Deserve Punishment

Members of Egypt's religious establishment were enraged by the awarding of the prize to Al-Qimni. Dar Al-Ifta, Egypt's official fatwa-issuing body, headed by Chief Mufti Dr. 'Ali Gum'a, capitulated to the intensive public pressure campaign against Al-Qimni's candidacy carried out by the pro-Islamist Egyptian daily Al-Misriyoun, [4] and issued a fatwa regarding Al-Qimni's prize. The fatwa was published in response to a query by Gamal Sultan, a columnist for Al-Misriyoun and the brother of the daily's chief editor. He asked about the legitimacy of awarding a monetary prize to a man who had attacked the Prophet and had called Islam a false religion and its revelations an invention.

The fatwa stated: "The Muslims [believe] unanimously that whoever curses the Prophet or slanders Islam removes himself from the fold of Islam and [from the community] of Muslims, and deserves punishment in this world and torment in the world to come... The statements [from Al-Qimni's writings] quoted by the [individual] who requested the fatwa are heretical, regardless of who wrote them; they remove their author from the fold of Islam… and [also] constitute a crime according to Article 98 of [Egypt's] penal code. If these depraved, loathsome, and invalid statements were indeed made by a specific individual, then this individual should be convicted rather than awarded a prize, and punished to the full extent of the law..." [5]

Former Egyptian Mufti: Al-Qimni's Prize "ACrime against Egypt's Muslim Identity"

Former Egyptian mufti Dr. Nasr Farid Wasil said that the decision to award Al-Qimni the prize was "a crime against Egypt's Muslim identity." He added: "This indicates that filthy secularism is taking over our culture institutions, and that the idea of separating state and religion prevails among the Culture Ministry officials." [6] Wasil called to prosecute those responsible for awarding the prize to Al-Qimni, first and foremost Culture Minister Farouq Hosni. He stated further that Hosni must be forced to rescind Al-Qimni's prize, since it has been awarded to a man "who devoted his life to harming Islam and denying the prophecy..." [7]

Jabhat 'Ulama Al-Azhar: Al-Qimni's A Heretic, Hosni's His Accomplice

Jabhat 'Ulama Al-Azhar - which was founded as a social welfare association and is now known for its criticism of Sheikh Al-Azhar and for its extremist views on social and political issues, to the extent that some have recently called for it to be closed down - proclaimed that Al-Qimni's writings had designated him an apostate and heretic. A statement on the organization's website said: "[Al-Qimni] has openly blasphemed in a manner that does not lend itself to [any other] interpretation, and which does not leave his fans any escape from the abomination in which he is steeped..."

Addressing Culture Minister Hosni, the statement adds: "What right to life, honor, or authority is left to you, now that you have publicly removed the head of Islam from your shoulders?... Allah is saying to you and to all others of your ilk, who have brazenly renounced the faith of the nation: 'Those who oppose Allah and His messenger will be abased even as those before them were abased; and We have sent down clear tokens, and for disbelievers is a shameful doom [Koran 58:5].' Honorable Minister… he who assists treason is an accomplice of the traitor, and he who assists heresy is an accomplice of the heretic..." [8]

Reactions from Islamic Organizations

Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiyya: Hosni Go Home

Non-governmental Islamic organizations also opposed the awarding of the prize to Al-Qimni. Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiyya proclaimed in a statement that was posted on its website: "Al-Qimni and others of his ilk sat in front of the entire Egyptian [public] clutching forged checks from the Culture Ministry and sporting [the Ministry's] badges of honor on their chests. [They sat there] cross-legged, smoking a cigar of modernity and enlightenment stuffed with hostility towards the religion and history of [their] nation. They stuck out their tongues at the Egyptians, [saying]: 'We cursed you, mocked you, besmirched your history, and spat on your heritage - and we got a prize for it. Your state honored us and we took your money...'

"What special thing has Al-Qimni done to deserve a prize for [originality,] genius, innovation and excellence? Among all the Egyptian clerics, the culture ministry could find not one single good and honorable cleric worthy of receiving this great prize, so that it had to award it to a man like Al-Qimni, who has denied the [Prophet's] Sunna, and who has made no serious, high-quality contribution to research in social science or in any other science?..."

Referring to Farouq Hosni, who is a candidate for the position of UNESCO director-general, the statement said: "We regard the awarding of a state prize to a man of this sort as the gravest insult and offense on the part of the Egyptian state... Honorable minister, it is time that you left the important role [of Culture Minister]. Go to [be director-general of] UNESCO, or stay home... [but] leave the business of Egypt's culture to someone who appreciates its history and respects its principles..." [9]

The Muslim Brotherhood: The Awarding of the Prize to Al-Qimni is and Affront to the Public's Sensibilities

Objections were also heard from the Muslim Brotherhood. [10] One of the movement's representatives in the Egyptian parliament, Dr. Hamdi Hassan, submitted an urgent query to the prime minister, stating that awarding the prize to Al-Qimni was an affront to the public's sensibilities. [11]

The movement posted on its website several articles by Muslim Brotherhood official Sayyed Nazili calling for rescinding the prize, but at the same time stressed that the Muslim Brotherhood was opposed to the accusations of heresy directed at Al-Qimni. Nazili wrote: "The honor [conferred by] this prize, and the money [that comes with it], must be taken away [from Al-Qimni] - for the funds of the Muslim public should be spent only on things that truly benefit the entire Muslim public, instead of contravening its values, norms, and religious and moral principles." [12] In another article, Nazili wrote: "With all due respect to Jabhat 'Ulama Al-Azhar, we do not agree with the issuing of a fatwa [of accusations] of heresy against this man, who has deviated from the nation's consensus..." [13]

Egyptian Culture Minister: My Ministry Has Nothing to Do with the Prize

In response to the harsh criticism against him, Egyptian Culture Minister Farouq Hosni said that his ministry had nothing to do either with the awarding of state prizes to intellectuals or with the withholding of such prizes. He explained that the prizes were awarded by the Supreme Council for Culture, which he headed, based on secret ballot, but that the list of candidates was compiled by various culture institutions, in accordance with Egyptian law. [14]

Reactions from Liberal Circles

Petition Calls on Government to Defend Al-Qimni against Heresy Accusations

Egyptian liberals came to Al-Qimni's defense. A group of human rights activists, academics, and journalists issued a petition of solidarity with Sayyed Al-Qimni that condemned the incitement against him since his winning the prize. The solidarity campaign is led mostly by Coptic activists in Egypt and abroad. In a communiqué, they stated: "We strongly condemn the actions of those who accuse [others] of heresy, and we charge all the state institutions to fulfill their duty and put an end to this tragic farce, in order to protect the peace of the homeland and the culture of its people."

The activists also called on the government to defend Sayyed Al-Qimni against accusations of heresy, and to do likewise for other Egyptians subject to such accusations, such as Baha'i and Christian Egyptians who convert to Islam and then return to their original faith: "[Let us] all [fight] together against the culture of heresy accusations, which are tantamount to incitement to murder... [Let us] all [fight] together against [the attempt] to censor [our thoughts] and make us all follow [the leader] like sheep... [Let us] all [fight] together against those who present themselves and their ideas as holy, and thus allow themselves to issue fatwas that only Allah may issue... [Let us] all [fight] together against those who close the doors of the future in our faces..." [15]

Coptic liberal Magdi Khalil, founder of the Middle East Freedom Forum, called for the creation of a front of intellectuals, sponsored by his forum, to take legal action against those who accused Al-Qimni of heresy. [16]

Arab Liberal: Al-Qimni's Writings - Evidence of Free Thought in Egypt

Jordanian-American intellectual Shaker Al-Nabulsi wrote in Al-Qimni's defense: "I was overjoyed to hear that outstanding Egyptian intellectual Sayyed Al-Qimni had won the social sciences prize, along with several others. [Actually,] I had hoped that he would win the prize by himself, since he is above par and should not share it with others...

"I was saddened by the behavior of some people in the beloved [land of] Egypt, including some who purport to be religious scholars and who persecute the intellectuals, poets, and writers in every street and alley [by] dragging them to court and fining them large sums of money. Some of the enemies of progress in Egypt - deceitful journalists and clerics - called to revoke Al-Qimni's prize and to prosecute the Egyptian culture minister, who agreed to award it to him... [This call] is a disgrace to Egypt and to Egyptian culture...

"Al-Qimni's writings and views are a living example of diligent [research], and [evidence] that in Egypt there are still liberal intellectuals, freedom of thought, and room for people who think differently. Those who call to strip Al-Qimni of his prize should have responded to the arguments [he makes] in his writings in [appropriate] academic and scientific ways, and not through stupid, backward, police-like [persecution] that is unworthy of Egypt, of its history, and of its magnificent cultural heritage...

"[The call to strip Al-Qimni of his prize] has exposed the true face of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which came out against Al-Qimni and led the campaign against him and his receiving the prize... This movement has [now] proved that all the cunning slogans that its leaders chant now and then in favor of democracy, freedom, and pluralism in politics, thought and culture are nothing but lies and self-degradation..." [17]

Al-Qimni: I Have Not Renounced My Views - And Will Continue to Demand Reforms

Al-Qimni broke his silence to respond to the attacks against him, writing: "[Those who call to rescind my prize] are trading in religion and making a profit from it. They are unwilling to gain a true understanding of religion. My writings are aimed at clarifying Islam and making it more accessible to the public. But those who have filed lawsuits [18] and accused me of heresy - had they not done so, they would have lost their livelihood." [19]

In an interview with the Egyptian weekly Roz Al-Yousef, Al-Qimni said: "I am against those who turn religion into a political platform, with all the lies, fraud, and conspiracies inherent in politics. I think that these people harm religion itself. I am also against those who want to keep people from thinking... It is they who pose the most immediate danger - not real democracy based on freedoms, human rights, and genuine science. It is our job [as intellectuals] to awaken society and get it to board the train of progress before it leaves [the station]...

"The problem with the extremists is that when I argue that as a society we must respect all religions and accept [the principles of] pluralism and freedom of belief, they say, 'No, [the only true] religion is with the God of Islam,' [and state] that there is no choice but [to follow the principle of] 'al-walaa wal-baraa.' [20] Therefore, I have no choice but to come out against them and say to them: 'Do you want us to be like Iraq and Somalia?' I am doing this because the [value] most sacred in my eyes is Egypt [itself], while the second most sacred [value] is the honor of the Egyptian individual - and beyond this I have no 'red lines...'

About his years of silence, Al-Qimni said: "These were years of suffering, on every level, because I paid the price of my decision to be an independent writer, unaffiliated with any university, research institute or writers' union... I discovered that anyone who wanted to kill me could do so very easily. When [someone] mailed me photographs of my house, taken from several angles, and of the neighboring houses and of my parking spot, [I realized] that I was under surveillance, and that I must find a new home for myself and my children... [Despite this,] I did not renounce my views... [and] today there are thousands like me. When I look at Facebook and read blogs, I see myself as one of a group."

Asked whether the four-year period of fear was over, Al-Qimni replied: "Of course... [Today, the idea of] a civil state has many proponents in positions of power, which means that we are now part of the regime. We secularists and oppositionists… must support those within the regime, so that Egypt might become a modern [country]..."

Asked what the state prize meant to him, Al-Qimni said: "I am excited, because [it means] appreciation for my scientific research efforts..." In reply to the question of whether he intends to write again, he said: "I will never give up my demand to revoke Article 2 of the constitution, to cancel the religion clause in the [Egyptian] ID cards, and to [instate] full equality among [Egyptian] citizens." [21]

Al-Qimni: Save Me from the Radicals' Threat

As the media campaign against him intensified during the past several months, Al-Qimni published a communiqué appealing to intellectuals in the free world: "As part of my academic work, I have produced a number of important writings which prodded the stagnant Egyptian reality into motion. I have striven to promote reform from within, and have attempted to disarm those who are using Islam for political purposes and making it a source of livelihood at the expense of Egypt's decent, ordinary people. To this end, I have launched a secular movement, which has gained some ground, although it is still in its formative [stage].

"On June 25, 2009, in a free ballot, Egyptian thinkers [decided] that I should be granted the State Award for Social Sciences. The hard-line radical militant groups thought that the state had officially adopted this secular intellectual trend, and were so infuriated that they called on the state to rescind the prize. They issued a declaration claiming that I had betrayed Islam and should be excommunicated - which in our country is tantamount to permitting my blood to be shed. [It means that] any citizen is allowed to kill me, and will earn God's reward in paradise for doing so… It is noteworthy that none of the members of the groups that took part in the defamation campaign against me had read a single word of my writings…

"In light of the above, I appeal to the conscience of everyone in the free world to come to the rescue of me and of my children. [I ask them] to give us moral support, to condemn and denounce all radical thought, and to come up with a quick solution to save us from impending danger…" [22]

In an interview with the Arabic-language edition of Newsweek, Al-Qimni stated: "None of the texts attributed to me appear in my books. I implore you [i.e. those who cite my works as evidence against me] to support your claims. I have even asked them [representatives of the Jabhat 'Ulama Al-Azhar and the Muslim Brotherhood] to confront me in a [public] debate - to which they agreed at first, but at the last moment changed their mind. I cannot understand where they got these texts - the ones they used to accuse me of heresy…"

Asked if he feared for his life, Al-Qimni replied: "I am concerned about our people's fate… I forfeited my life to my country when I first began to write…" Al-Qimni said that he would not give up the prize of his own free will, stating: "If I feel that the danger has come too close to me and my family, I will leave Egypt. And then my attackers will be sorry, since I will become their sworn enemy, avenge myself and all those who are being persecuted in my homeland, and disclose the many secrets that I know…" [23]

*L. Azuri is a Research Fellow at MEMRI


[1] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 254, "Arab Intellectuals: Under Threat by Islamists," November 23, 2005, Arab Intellectuals: Under Threat by Islamists.

[2] Al-Gomhouriyya (Egypt), June 26, 2009.

[3], July 9, 2009.

[4] After the prize was awarded to Al-Qimni, the Egyptian daily Al-Misriyoun launched a fierce campaign against him and Egyptian Culture Minister Farouq Hosni, and provided a platform for their detractors. It also claimed that Al-Qimni's Ph.D. was fake. Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), August 2, 2009. Nevertheless, the Culture Ministry maintained its view that Al-Qimni deserved the prize, regardless of his academic background. Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), August 3, 2009. Next, the daily claimed that Minister Farouq Hosni had rigged the prize committee vote, and that he would be discharged from his post by presidential decree following the UNESCO elections. Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), August 12, 2009, August 14, 2009.

[5], July 9, 2009.

[6] It should be noted that Al-Qimni has criticized the Al-Azhar curricula, stating that they encourage extremism and terrorism. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 790, "Egyptian Intellectual: Al-Azhar University Curricula Encourage Extremism and Terrorism," September 27, 2009, Egyptian Intellectual: Al-Azhar University Curricula Encourage Extremism and Terrorism.

[7] Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), July 9, 2009.

[8], July 8, 2009.

[9], July 5, 2009.

[10] Al-Qimni has written against the Muslim Brotherhood. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1303, "Egyptian Reformist Renews Attack on Muslim Brotherhood," September 29, 2006, Egyptian Reformist Renews Attack on Muslim Brotherhood.

[11] Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), July 13, 2009.

[12], July 6, 2009.

[13], July 13, 2009.

[14] Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), July 20, 2009.

[15] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), July 16, 2009; Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), July 17, 2009.

[16] July 18, 2009.

[17], July 10, 2009.

[18] This refers to a series of lawsuits against Farouq Hosni by Islamist preacher Sheikh Yousef Al-Badri, Attorney Nabih Al-Wahsh, and other attorneys, demanding that Al-Qimni's prize be rescinded., July 9, 2009; Al-Misriyoun (Egypt), August 9, 2009.

[19], July 9, 2009.

[20] According to fundamentalist Islam, this principle decrees that there must be absolute allegiance to the community of Muslims, and total rejection of non-Muslims and Muslims who have strayed from the path of Islam.

[21] Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), July 4, 2009. Since July 7, 2009, Al-Qimni has been writing a weekly column in the government daily Al-Qahira.

[22], July 25, 2009.

[23], August 4, 2009.

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