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Saturday, 17 June, 2000, 21:39 GMT 22:39 UK
Egyptian writer on trial over religion
injured student
There were riots last month over a 'blasphemous' book
By Caroline Hawley in Cairo

An Egyptian writer who described the Koran as a book of ignorance and blamed Islam for underdevelopment in Muslim countries has gone on trial in Cairo.

The writer, Salaheddin Mohsen, has been charged with offending religion.

The Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, which is monitoring the trial, says Mr Mohsen has confessed to the charge.

He could face several years in jail.

Sensitive time

Mr Mohsen is not at the moment well known in Egypt but that may well change now.

He was arrested back in March after he privately published copies of a book in which he expounds his anti-religious views.

Riot police protect the university
Riot police on the streets after the Haider row
The start of his trial comes at a sensitive time for freedom of expression in Egypt, just weeks after a major cultural confrontation over a novel by a Syrian writer, Haider Haider.

Islamists said the book was blasphemous while many intellectuals argued it had been taken out of context.

The difference here is that Mr Mohsen has not only admitted to being an atheist, he is also reported to have called for the establishment of an Egyptian atheists' league - and that does not go down well in a conservative society.


Some Egyptian intellectuals have accused Mr Mohsen of being deliberately provocative in order to attract attention.

But the head of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, Hafez Abu Saada, said it was Mr Mohsen's right to express himself freely.

You can criticise what he writes, he said, but it should not go to the courts.

Now that it has, however, lawyers say that Mr Mohsen will be extremely difficult to defend.


Last month, the controversy over the book by Haider Haider led to the worst student protests in several years at al-Azhar Religious University.

The head of al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's highest religious authority, threw its considerable weight into the confrontation, saying that the book should not have been printed.

Many intellectuals were shocked by al-Azhar's stand.

A newspaper representing them said at the time that the entire body of Arab literature would be lost if judged in a similar vein.

An Egyptian government inquiry later ruled that the book was not blasphemous.

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See also:

08 May 00 | Middle East
Cairo clashes over 'blasphemous' book
18 May 00 | Middle East
Egypt blasphemy row deepens
08 May 00 | Middle East
A new Salman Rushdie?
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