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Sad news this evening of the death Monday of Dr. Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, a professor at Cairo University whose mild deviations from Islamist orthodoxy led to a years of persecution and his eventual exile in Europe.

I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Nasr for The Washington Times in 1993. The article I wrote after that interview is attached below.

In retrospect, Dr. Nasr's persecution and the Egyptian government's collusion in it were harbingers of the path the country was headed down - a fact that most of us in the Western media did not quite grasp at the time.

I met Dr. Nasr a few more times after that interview - writing a short follow-up piece and quoting him in other articles over the next year. After leaving Egypt in October 1994 I did not see him again, though I am proud of the fact that I worked to get items about his ongoing troubles into CNN International's newscasts during the late 90s.

What I remember most from that first interview at Cairo University was how perplexed he was by what was happening, and his fears about what awaited him. He and his wife were not yet living behind locked doors with round-the-clock armed guards. Exile from Egypt was still several years in the future. But he seemed to know that these things were in the offing, and to be grimly resigned to them. It was left to his wife, Ebtehal, to express anger on behalf of both of them.

The Arab World has lost a great champion of intellectual freedom.

Rights groups eye Egypt's apostasy trial
Prof's marriage, maybe life, at stake

Published November 4, 1993

CAIRO - In a development that many believe represents a threat to free expression, Egypt's secular court system is scheduled to receive a report today on whether a defendant in a civil suit is an apostate from Islam.

Today's trial session is the latest twist in an unprecedented divorce action brought by an Islamic lawyer who claims that Nasr Abu Zaid, a professor of Arabic at Cairo University, is an apostate.

Since Islamic law forbids marriage between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man, the suit demands that the court dissolve Mr. Abu Zaid's marriage to Ebtehal Younis, a professor of French at the university.

At the trial's opening session in June, Mr. Zaid's writings were referred to Al-Azhar, a Cairo-based mosque and university that is one of the Muslim world's most important centers of theology and jurisprudence. The mosque's scholars were asked to determine whether Mr. Abu Zaid has, in fact, abandoned Islamic beliefs.

The case is being watched closely by human rights groups inside and outside Egypt. In a statement this year, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights said the suit placed Mr. Abu Zaid's life in jeopardy. Islamic Law traditionally prescribes death as the penalty for apostasy.

"Of course I'm afraid for my life," said Mr. Abu Zaid, who began receiving death threats last spring. "I am afraid of this court case."

The trouble began late last year when Mr. Abu Zaid applied for promotion to a full professorship at Cairo University, where he has taught for the past 21 years.

The procedure for such applications is for three scholars to review all of the applicant's published work in the previous five years. Their recommendation is then passed on to a committee of 13 scholars, which is usually guided by the report of the three-person subcommittee.

Mr. Abu Zaid said that two of the people reviewing his work found him "highly deserving" of promotion while the third criticized him on religious grounds. The committee backed the lone dissenter.

"I thought I was in the hands of an academic committee, not a religious committee. Whatever criticism I have made was pointed to human thinking, not sacred texts," he said.

"My whole career is to study Islamic discourse, whether classical or modern," Mr. Abu Zaid said in a recent interview.

In doing so, he said he had sought to draw a distinction between those elements of Islamic tradition, such as the Koran, that are believed by Muslims to be of divine origin and those that represent human exposition of divine revelations.

Denied promotion, in effect, because of the potential controversy surrounding his writings, Mr. Abu Zaid filed suit. He then learned preachers around Cairo were denouncing him as a heretic and an apostate.

Such denunciations are particularly sensitive in Egypt because of last year's assassination of Farag Fouda, a secularist writer who had also been branded an apostate.

Many Egyptian intellectuals have charged that criticism of Mr. Fouda by preachers amounted to an official license for his assassination by religious militants.

In an interview this week, Mr. Abu Zaid, who calls himself "a secular Muslim," said he hoped Al-Azhar would somehow avoid rendering a judgment on his piety."

If Al-Azhar does interfere, I won't take it silently. . . . Maybe a lot of things in my writing should be explained," he said. "There might be misunderstandings, and I have the right to explain this.

"I'm married to a woman I love. She is not merely my wife, She is my colleague."

Mrs. Younis said of the Islamic fundamentalists who filed the divorce suit: "They can go to hell. I will never leave him."


A thoughtful and measured reaction to President Obama's speech in Cairo earlier today is going to require a bit of time. That should be seen as a good thing - the President is a thoughtful and measured person. Here, however, are a few quick thoughts... with more to follow later.

A good initial take, however, can be found in this NYT blog post, consisting of quick reactions from Arab students in Egypt and Jordan. For a good summary of both the speech itself and of immediate reaction around the region take a look at this round-up from the BBC. Especially noteworthy is its report (sourced to AFP) that Hamas in Gaza gave the speech a guarded welcome, saying it showed "tangible change". In the nuanced world of Middle Eastern politics that represents a significant evolution in tone.

Unfortunate, if perhaps inevitable, is this analysis from Roger Simon at Politico. Simon is one of the most important analysts of the American political scene. By judging the speech almost entirely on the basis of which lines did or did not garner applause, however, he proves that a deep knowledge of American politics does not travel especially well.

Similarly, careful analysts should ignore reporting focused on the heavy security along Obama's motorcade route and the lack of adoring crowds. Some have treated this as evidence of a chilly reception. If US newspapers still took foreign coverage seriously, they would have local correspondents in Cairo who would know that the blocking off of a motorcade route hours in advance by police standing shoulder to shoulder along its entire length has long been standard procedure in Cairo for visits like this (as well as the rare occasions when President Hosni Mubarak ventures into the city center). In these instances the police are there to prevent crowds from forming. Even the sidewalks are closed to passing pedestrians.