Alaa Al Aswany

Alaa Al Aswany on Promoting Tolerance in the Arab World

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A negative interpretation of Islam adds to the forces against tolerance Alaa Al Aswany believes.

Alaa Al Aswany

Alaa Al Aswany is the author of The Yacoubian Building, which has been translated into twenty languages and caused an immediate scandal due to its sexual frankness when first published in Egypt in 2002. It has since been made into a film and a television series. Al Aswany is also the author of Chicago, and a story collection, Friendly Fire, to be published in English in 2009. He is a founding member of the political movement, Kefaya, which is the unofficial moniker of the Egyptian Movement for Change, a grassroots coalition which draws it support from across Egypt’s political spectrum. Al Aswana lives in Cairo where he also works as a journalist and dentist.


al Aswany: It’s a very complicated thing because what you know in the West about the Arab world is what are the international media see it as a convenient thing to tell you, you see?  You are not told everything.  You are told what they see it’s good to tell you and you are not told what they see it is not very good idea to tell you, you see.  And this is a big problem.  But I believe that in Egypt, as a matter of fact, there are two struggles.  There is a very, very visible struggle.  It’s a struggle for the people for democracy, which is very [seen], and there is another one, very important as well, going parallel to the political struggle.  It’s a struggle to defend the Egyptian tolerance, as you say, against the negative interpretation of the religion.  And [I insist], it is a negative interpretation of the religion and not the religion itself because we have had a very tolerant interpretation of the Islam for centuries in Egypt.  That’s why we had very modern society.  Since the 19th century we had the woman everywhere, in education, in university, in administration, everywhere.  We had the first parliament in the Arab world.  We had the first constitution because our interpretation of the religion was very tolerant and the religion was not a burden for us.  It was never a burden.  So, now, beginning from the ‘80s, the whole world is influenced by a different interpretation, what we called the Wahhabis.  The Wahhabis was coming from the desert, and it’s a very negative, closed, aggressive interpretation of the religion, not only aggressive against the non Muslims, even aggressive against the Muslims who are not following the same interpretation, and this has been on and on in Egypt and I must tell you that the Saudi Arabia is powering billions of dollars to distribute this, to promote this interpretation everywhere, even in Europe, you see?  And we are defending our interpretation.  So, in Egypt, you have these two struggles, and I think they are very linked in the sense that if we could make it at one struggle, we are going to make it in the other one.