Post-Jan25, Is It Possible to Write Novels About Religion?

It was two decades ago that Alaa Hamed was convicted of violating Egypt’s anti-blasphemy law for his book The Void in a Man’s Mind.

Not only was Hamed sentenced to eight years in prison, but the court also convicted Hamed’s publisher and printer. Bookstore owner Mohamed Madbouli Mohamed was detained for four days and ordered to pay $1,890 for selling The Void, according to a report at the time in the LA Times.

A report in the newspaper two years later characterizes Hamed’s novel as “a dud” and “pseudo-intellectual rubbish.” But whether or not Hamed is a literary star, his imprisonment—and the fines levied against his publisher and printer—sent a message. Back in 1990, Negad al Boraei, a lawyer for the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, told the LA Times: “They want to frighten people into censoring themselves.”

The chilling effect has not only affected authors, but publishers and printers. Khaled al-Berry’s novel Negative, for instance, was nearly censored by a printshop worker.

By 2009, critic Rasheed al-Enany told Al Masry Al Youm that, while it was once possible, now “no Arabic writers can really write about religion.”

And what of the current, post-Mubarak era? This week, Alaa Hamed, who is now a representative of the Egyptian Secular Party, said Salafi leaders destroyed the fence around his house with bulldozers, in part because of his books.

But Hamed, whose work was dismissed as “psuedo-intellectual rubbish” and was called a “mere tax collector” in coverage two decades ago, remains firm. He told Al Masry Al Youm:

I’m not as sad about them attacking my home as I am about them attacking freedom of thought.

After the Jan 25 uprising, a number of authors—and non-authors—felt a sudden loosening of self-censorship, which Jordanian-British author Fadia Faqir called the death (or dereliction of duty) of “the internal policeman.” But does this apply to writing about religion? Or does this policeman remain on duty?