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Monday, 8 May, 2000, 21:47 GMT 22:47 UK
A new Salman Rushdie?
Injured protesters
Islamic students in Cairo say the book blasphemes against Islam
The book that triggered the protests in Cairo, A Banquet of Seaweed, by the Syrian novelist Haidar Haidar, was first published in Beirut in 1983.

But it was released in Egypt only in November by an institution affiliated with the Culture Ministry.

Ministry officials say it's one of the best Arabic novels of the 20th century.

They said the ministry reprinted it as part of a project to publish celebrated Arabic novels.

'Arab hope'

The novel's plot centers on two leftist Iraqi intellectuals who fled the injustice of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in the late 1970s.



The Syrian writer treats the Koran as rubbish

Al Shaab newspaper

The characters blame political oppression in the Arab world on dictatorships and conservative movements.

Haidar himself said that the book tried "to explore the atmosphere of Arab hope and the subsequent retreat of this hope".

But the Islamists in Egypt have accused the book of blasphemy.

'New Rushdie'

Al Shaab newspaper has led a virulent campaign against it, publishing selected extracts.


Riot police outside al Azhar
Riot police acted to defend the Culture Ministry's judgment

These include one in which God is described as a failed artist.

One article accused Haidar of "insulting God and the Prophet ... The Syrian writer treats the Koran as rubbish and the Prophet Mohammed as a polygamist who married 20 times".

The Islamists have denounced Haidar as a new "Salman Rushdie", the British writer who was forced into hiding in the 1990s after Iran's religious leaders adopted a fatwa, or decree, calling for his death.

Monopoly

Fighting back, Haidar has accused his critics of taking the extracts out of context, and said the real message of his novel was totally different.

He quoted a paragraph in which one of his characters states: "Islam was the fortress of the old Arab world. We need Mohammed today in the 20th century."



An attempt to halt the establishment of a civil society

Book's author

Haidar accused the protesters of "trying to impose their monopoly of interpreting Islam the way they like".

"By doing this," he said, "they want to impose a totalitarian cultural system after they lost their political battle".

Committee

He declared that the protest against him and the Egyptian Ministry of Culture was "an attempt to halt the establishment of a civil society that will confront backwardness, reactionism and obscurantism".

On Friday, as the protest gathered steam, the ministry appointed a committee to assess the complaints against the book and promised to publish the results, but that did not satisfy the protesters.

The Egyptian authorities have banned many books and films in recent years because Islamists complained that they contained anti-Islamic material.

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28 Sep 98 | Middle East
Rushdie 'enrages' Muslims
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