February 4, 2009 Special Dispatch No. 2226

Liberals and Islamists in Algeria Clash over Statements By Renowned Liberal Syrian Poet Adonis

February 4, 2009
Algeria, North Africa | Special Dispatch No. 2226

On October 13, 2008, the National Library of Algeria invited renowned liberal Syrian poet and philosopher Dr. 'Ali Ahmad Sa'id Asbar, known as Adonis, who resides in Paris, to give a lecture. In it, Adonis discussed, inter alia, the separation of state and religion, and called on Muslims to divorce their Islamic heritage and adopt a modern mindset. His lecture caused an uproar in Islamist circles and in the Algerian parliament, sparking numerous reactions and counter-reactions. Some Islamists accused Adonis of apostasy, and an Islamic MP submitted a query to the Culture Minister, which led to the library director being fired from his post. Liberal columnists and intellectuals, for their part, condemned the campaign against Adonis, and protested the firing of the library director.

Following are details about the affair, and excerpts from articles and statements by both sides.

Adonis in Lecture: Muslims "Must Completely Divorce Their Religious Heritage and Adopt a Modern Mindset"

In his lecture, Adonis called on Muslim countries to separate state and religion, saying that the lack of such a separation leads to conflicts and wars in the Arab and Muslim world. Criticizing the various resistance movements, he said that such movements had failed consistently, throughout Muslim history, to achieve their self-proclaimed goals, and that their main goal had always been to take over the government.

Adonis explained that the Islamic Revival movement was "part of the culture of abandoning the [true] Islam, which caused the decline of the Muslim nation," and stressed that "the return to Islam meant cultural degeneration." He argued that in order to advance, Muslims "must completely divorce their religious heritage and adopt a modern mindset, which rejects the sanctification of the principles that Islam holds sacred."

On women and their place in Islam, he said: "According to the Koran, a woman does not have legal personhood. She is not free and is not responsible for her own fate – she serves as a vessel for satisfying man's desires."[1]

Adonis In Interview: Al-Qaradhawi – A Minor And Unnecessary Jurisprudent; "Religion's Intervention in Politics... is Killing" Algeria

Two days later, in an interview with the Algerian daily Al-Nahar Al-Jadid, Adonis spoke of prominent Sunni cleric Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi and his place in the Muslim world: "He has no role [at all]... He continues [to dispense] ancient Muslim law, which is no longer valid... and therefore plays a role that is no longer needed... He is a minor jurisprudent."

About religion and state, Adonis said: "When religion intervenes in politics, both fail. There are living examples of this. It is religion's intervention in politics that is killing this beautiful country [Algeria]...

"A cleric should have no function beyond his religious role... In order [to maintain] a truly democratic society and protect human rights, there is no option but to secularize society..."

"If You Are a Truly Believing Person – You Must Grant Me the Freedom Not To Believe"

Also in the interview, Adonis discussed freedom of belief and freedom of choice, saying: "If you are a truly believing person, you must grant me the freedom not to believe... I am not against religion; I am for [people's right to choose whether] to believe or not."

He concluded the interview by stating what he considered to be the causes of the decline of Islam: "Islam has ceased to be a spiritual experience and has become purely ritualistic, [focused on] how women should dress and how men should pray... and with issuing fatwas about killing Mickey Mouse. Islam no longer engages the heart and soul."[2]

Algerian Ulama Association Chairman: "Adonis' Statements are Nothing But the Nonsensical Claims of a Rebellious Apostate Poet"

Adonis' statements in his lecture and interview sparked considerable protest from Islamist circles in Algeria. Algerian Ulama Association chairman and former religious affairs minister Abderrahmane Chibane called him "insolent and irrational." A communiqué issued by his office, titled "Adonis' Offense to Islam And to Islamic Scholars in the Land of Jihad and of 1.5 Million Shahids," stated: "Dr. Adonis' criticism of the pure teachings of Islam – that is, against the Koran and the Sunna – is a blatant and impudent dispute against the righteousness of Muslim clerics and jurisprudents, past and present... The shari'a [that is set out] in the Koran – which is shirked by Adonis and his ilk –grants women their natural rights – [in contrast to the] attacks by those who boast of freedom, [but whose freedom is] nothing but materialism and corruption...

"Adonis' statements are nothing but the nonsensical claims of a rebellious apostate poet."[3]

Also, 'Abd Al-Hafdh Al-Junaidi, of the Al-Nahda movement, called Adonis "part of the misguided culture that caused the decline of the Islamic nation." He added, "People like Adonis are nothing more than a disgrace to the Islamic nation... They are fascinated with ignorance..."[4]

Algerian Preacher: Adonis Is "As Distant From Modernity As East Is From West"

Sheikh Shams Al-Din Borubi, an Algerian preacher who is also a former director of the Islamic Charity Organization, which is banned in Algeria, dared Adonis to criticize "the Jewish rabbis in Israel, the religious people in the White House, or the pope in the Vatican, who heads a theocracy in the middle of Europe…"

He added: "Adonis has proved to be steeped in backwardness and superficiality… He is as distant from modernity as East is from West."[5]

Algerian Culture Minister Denies Responsibility for "Ideological Deterioration" Caused By Lecture

On October 19, 2008, Islamist MP 'Abd Al-'Aziz Mansour, of the Movement for a Peaceful Society, submitted a query to Algerian Culture Minister Khalida Toumi, demanding to know what "hidden motives" had prompted the Culture Ministry and the National Library to invite speakers "hostile to the sacred [tenets] of Islam, who provoke the Muslim Algerians, curse them in their own homeland, [and malign] their most cherished spiritual values – when [even] the Algerian constitution stipulates that Islam is the state religion and that the state has a duty to protect it."

Mansour also demanded that the culture ministry "take steps to prevent the recurrence of such events at the National Library."[6]

In response to Mansour's query, Culture Minister Toumi fired National Library director Dr. Amin Al-Zawi,[7] and, in a statement to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, denied responsibility for the "ideological deterioration that occurred at the lecture of the Syrian poet Adonis."[8]

Ms. Toumi also said, at a press conference during the African Culture Ministers Conference in Algeria, that the reaction of the public to Adonis' statements "reflected the outrage of Algerian society at the insult to its faith and its character."[9]

Poet 'Ali Meghazi: Intellectuals Are Being Silenced

The criticism of Adonis and the firing of the National Library director elicited protests from liberals, academics, poets and others. In an open letter to the Culture Ministry and to Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, Algerian poet 'Ali Meghazi said that the state and the Islamists were waging a joint campaign against the liberals in Algeria.

He wrote: "Algeria, which has welcomed people fleeing persecution… throughout the Arab world, is [now] being robbed in broad daylight… This is part of a conspiracy by the establishment, which has made an open pact with [the Islamists], who claim that they have a monopoly over all [areas of life]… and are legally entitled to control others…

"Those who have brought closed-mindedness and inflexibility to Algeria… are dragging [the county back] to the era of darkness and backwardness, with an organized campaign targeting not only Adonis… but [also] young Algerian intellectuals, who have been silenced…

"The worst catastrophe is the Culture Ministry's firing of Dr. Amin Al-Zawi, director-general of the National Library… This is genuine disaster that heralds an alarming decline in freedom in Algeria."[10]

Further, Meghazi demanded that the Culture Ministry reinstate Al-Zawi immediately, and apologize to Adonis for the Islamists' accusations of apostasy against him. He also called on the prime minister to fire the culture minister.

Petition Calls On "Free World" To Defend Intellectuals "In the Arab and Islamic World Who Are Subjected to Accusations of Apostasy and Death Threats"

Protests were also heard from intellectuals throughout the Muslim world; a petition of protest was posted on the Al-Hiwar Al-Mutamaddin website. The petition, which began "In defense of the poet and philosopher Adonis; in defense of the freedom of thought and expression and the right to criticize religion and the tenets of Islam," stated that it condemned the campaign to silence voices in Algeria, which, it said, was supported by the regime and by religious institutions in the country.

The petition also warned that the Islamists, by accusing people of apostasy, implicitly sanction their killing, and pointed out that this leads to assassination, as was the case with Egyptian intellectual Farag Foda.[11] Finally, it called on the world to defend freedom of speech and those who fight for it.

The petition read: "…The persecution of Adonis and Islam Samahan[12] are reminiscent of the persecution of Nasser Hamid Abu Zeid,[13] the shahid Farag Foda, Dr. Nawal Al-Sa'dawi,[14] Hilmi Salem,[15] Ahmad Al-Shahawi,[16] Moussa Hawamda,[17] Marcel Khalifa,[18] Qassem Haddad,[19] and many others, who are constantly threatened by extremist Islamist groups and religious organizations... It confirms the existence of a large-scale conspiracy by government institutions and religious organizations.

"[Algerian] Ulama Association head [Sheikh Abderrahmane Chibane] called the poet and philosopher Adonis 'a rebellious apostate poet'... These accusations are reminiscent... of the medieval Inquisition in Europe... Moreover, accusations of apostasy, death threats, and lawsuits are the [Islamists'] secret weapons – and this reveals the extent of their shallowness, helplessness, and [moral] bankruptcy.

"The accusations hurled at Adonis by the Algerian Ulama Association director prepare the ground for [the perpetration of] a criminal act [against him] by the forces of darkness, which present religion, its sacred tenets, and 'divine justice' as justification for accusing Adonis of heresy and assassinating him...

"The history of the Islamist associations, of extremist fundamentalism, and of official religious institutions like Al-Azhar – which wield religious authority and are responsible for issuing fatwas – is rife with fatwas accusing [people] of apostasy... and these very often lead to, and form a basis for, premeditated murder. In the Arab world, all basic human rights and freedoms... are [thus] brutally violated...

"[Further,] many clerics... cause people to treat women as commodities at the slave market, and hold millions of people hostage [to their extremist views]...

"We, the signatories [to this petition], call on the free world to defend and support the philosophers, poets, artists, writers, and academics in the Arab and Islamic world, who are subjected to accusations of apostasy and death threats... by extremist fundamentalist Islamist groups and official religious institutions...

"[We call for acknowledging] that in a democratic civil society that respects human rights, secularism is the basis for the relations between the state and religion. We must hold to account the jurisprudents who have turned the Arab and Islamic societies into an object of derision among the societies of the world [by issuing] fatwas that accuse of apostasy and [incite to] murder, which even Mickey Mouse has not managed to escape..."[20]

Adonis: Culture Minister Toumi Attained Her Post Thanks To Values She Now Opposes

On December 20, 2008, Adonis published, in the Algerian daily El-Shorouq El-Yawmi, a response to statements by Sheikh Abderrahmane Chibane and by Culture Minister Toumi.

Referring to Sheikh Chibane, he wrote: "The honorable sheikh made these accusations against me without knowing me and without having read my lecture... In all Muslim history, we have not met a sheikh like Chibane, who dared to claim that his opinion [represented] that of Islam...

"My arguments in the lecture referred not to the religion itself, but only to its interpretation and to the implementation [of its values]... I did not say that the return to Islam meant complete cultural degeneration. I said that the return to Islam as it is understood and implemented today – that is, [by means of] terrorism, violence, closed-mindedness, rejection of the other, and accusations of heresy – would lead to cultural degeneration..."

On Culture Minister Toumi, Adonis wrote: "This radical [assault] on the freedom of culture comes from a woman, Khalida Toumi, [who attacked me] in the name of culture and on the grounds of [my] dangerous 'ideological deterioration.' [All this is from] a woman, who would never have attained the position of culture minister were it not for the notions of liberation and progress promoted by the Algerian revolution...

"[Toumi's] attitude is further proof that the Arab revolution – to which millions aspired and for which millions spilled their blood – has in some countries evolved into a [regime] that undermines its own [founding] principles and places new chains on the people..."[21]


[1] Excerpts from and a summary of the lecture were published in the Algerian press and on various websites. See, for example, Al-Nahar Al-Jadid (Algeria), October 15, 2008;, October 18, 2008;, October 20, 2008.

[2] Al-Nahar Al-Jadid (Algeria), October 15, 2008.

[3], October 18, 2008.

[4], October 18, 2008.

[5], October 20, 2008.

[6], October 20, 2008.

[7] El-Khabar (Algeria), October 27, 2008.

[8], October 27, 2008.

[9], October 24, 2008.

[10], October 27, 2008.

[11] Foda, whom Islamists accused of apostasy for his reformist views, was assassinated in 1992 by two Islamic Jihad members.

[12] The poet Islam Samahan was arrested in Jordan for "offending Islam."

[13] Egyptian university professor Nasser Hamid Abu Zeid was convicted of apostasy for publishing critical studies on the Koran. He was forced to flee the country following death threats. He was also ordered by an Egyptian court to divorce his wife.

[14] Dr. Nawal Al-Sa'dawi, renowned Egyptian women's rights activist and writer, has been sued several times by Islamists for her feminist views, described as "offensive to Islam."

[15] Egyptian poet Hilmi Salem was convicted by the Cairo Administrative Court of "offending God," based on a religious opinion by the Islamic Research Institute of Al-Azhar University

[16] Egyptian poet Ahmad Al-Shahawi was accused of apostasy by Al-Azhar, which banned his writings.

[17] Jordanian poet and columnist Moussa Hawamda's writings have been banned in Jordan and other Arab countries for "offending Islam." He has also been prosecuted by a shari'a court for apostasy.

[18] Marcel Khalifa is a Lebanese musician.

[19] Bahraini poet Qassem Haddad was accused of apostasy by Islamists.

[20], October 23, 2008.

[21] El-Shorouq El-Yawmi (Algeria), December 20, 2008.

Share this Report: