Egypt clears riot-provoking book of blasphemy

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The Independent Online

A book that triggered two days of rioting has been cleared of blasphemy by a state-appointed committee, pro-government newspapers in Egypt have reported.

But prosecutors have questioned Culture Ministry officials linked to the government's republication of "A Banquet for Seaweed" by Haidar Haidar, police officials claim.

Islamic fundamentalist opinion-makers have called on the government to punish the officials responsible for the book's reprint and also to prosecute Haidar, a Syrian, for apostasy. On Wednesday, a senior member of the ruling party and the head of the parliamentary committee on religion, Ahmed Omar Hashem, demanded that the government confiscate all copies of the book and burn them.

Police arrested dozens of students after their protests against the book turned violent Sunday and Monday at Al-Azhar University, Egypt's most prestigious Islamic institution, in Cairo. A small demonstration demanding the release of the detained protesters was held at Cairo University on Wednesday.

The Culture Ministry reprinted the book, first published in 1983, as part of a series of great works of Arabic literature.

But an article in the Islamic-oriented newspaper Al-Shaab condemned the novel, saying it called God "a failed artist," referred to the Muslim prophet Mohammed as "a man of many marriages" and said the Koran was excrement.

A committee of literary experts, appointed by Culture Minister Farouk Hosni in response to the outcry, found that such quotes had been taken out of context.

"A great deal of injustice has been done to this novel. Its themes have been falsified and its great artistic values have been ignored," the committee reported.

"This novel does not defame religion and should not be judged from a nonliterary perspective," Al-Ahram quoted the report as saying.

"The obligation of literature is to criticise life and deepen aesthetic conscientiousness," the report added.

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