Nasr Abu Zaid, a roly-poly, voluble academic, is in Britain this week on a brief visit from his exile at a European university it is probably best not to identify. His story is so bizarre, and so illustrative of the crisis in modern Egypt, that it is best to start at the beginning.
In March 1993, Mr Abu Zaid applied for promotion to the rank of professor at the department of Arabic literature at the University of Cairo. He was turned down after a group of "Islamist" academics denounced his work as "heresy" and, falsely, called him a Marxist atheist. His offence was to belong to a liberal school of Muslim thought divergent from the rigid orthodoxy promoted by Al-Azhar, Cairo's greatest seat of Islamic scholarship.
"I am accused because I follow what I consider to be an enlightened brand of Islamic thought," he explained. "I think the whole Koranic verses about women, for example, should be treated in context, that is, in the pre- Islamic period when women were treated as nothing at all." But his case came to the attention of a group of Islamist lawyers who have made careers out of the legal harassment of intellectuals deemed to have "committed crimes against God or the people".
Egyptian law is a curious hybrid incorporating the Islamic sharia law with Napoleonic procedures acquired under French rule and some British elements imposed in the palmy days of Imperial administration. But it certainly offers scope for such indictments. The Islamist lawyers went to the First Court in Giza, and then to the Cairo Appeal Court. That body, last June, handed down a decision that shocked Egyptian secular society.
The Appeal Court ruled that Abu Zaid's writings showed that he was an "apostate" from Islam and therefore could not stay married to a Muslim woman. It ordered that he divorce his wife, Ibtihal Younis, who is herself a respected academic. Next, the extremist Islamic group Jihad put out a statement condemning the academic to death.
"Based on our faith in God's law rather than man's law, we affirm that the apostate ruling stems from Islamic law and whoever denies it or objects to it under false pretexts such as freedom of expression or opinion is an infidel," the Jihad pronounced. "Based on this it is legitimate to shed Nasr Abu Zaid's blood."
Sitting in a room at the north London offices of Article 19, the international pressure group against censorship, Mr Abu Zaid still seems bemused and understandably frightened by his plight. His lawyers have appealed, but the arguments could drag on for years. He is consoled by the fact that Cairo University reversed its original decision and appointed him professor. But in the face of death threats, he cannot teach.
"My wife and I went to the faculty, with an escort of dozens of police officers in cars. When we got to the gates there were many more security men and bodyguards," he recalled. The Egyptian government, mindful of the attempted murder of the Nobel prizewinning author Naguib Mahfouz and the killing in 1992 of the secular writer Farag Foda, did not want to take any chances. "On the way home I told my wife I had made a decision," Mr Abu Zaid said. "How can you think if you are not free? Imprisoned in your own house? We had to leave."
Ibtihal Younis stood by her husband, who speaks tenderly of how their love has been strengthened by adversity. They left Egypt together after she was slandered and insulted by "Islamic" journalists in the extremist press. "We are not only man and wife," said Mr Abu Zaid with fondness. "She is a professor. She is an intellectual. She is not only a wife supporting a husband, she is a colleague supporting a friend."
The Islamist press printed coarse jibes at Ibtihal Younis. Its male writers offered to find her partners to replace the "apostate". One "devout" columnist mocked the couple for "carrying on like Romeo and Juliet" because they held hands during an interview with CNN.
"If you make jokes about love then what is left in religion?" inquired Mr Abu Zaid with painful sincerity. "And what is wrong with Romeo and Juliet?"Reuse content