Nasr Abu Zayd, an alternative Muslim voice to religious fundamentalism
The Egyptian intellectual, who has been accused of apostasy, condemns suicide attacks and claims that Islam and democracy can be reconciled. He also defends inter-faith dialogue.

Rome (AsiaNews) – He denies that the Qu'ran should be taken literally, condemns suicide attacks, claims that Islam and democracy can be reconciled and defends inter-faith dialogue and the coexistence of Muslims with religious minorities. He is Nasr Abu Hamid Abu Zayd, Professor of Arab Literature at Cairo University, a Muslim forced into exile on charges of apostasy.

As a Muslim he talked about his views during the launch of Una vita con l'Islam (Life with Islam), the Italian edition of his autobiography that was recently released in Italy.

Nasr Abu Zayd' odyssey begins in 1993 when he was charged with apostasy because of his literary exegesis of the Qu'ran.

According to the Orthodox interpretation, the Holy Text 'came down' (from the Arabic verb tanzil) directly from God. Any critical analysis, any non literal reading of the text is tantamount to desecrating it.

As much as he is a Muslim Nasr Abu Zayd does not rely on such a literal interpretation. For this reason he had to flee his native Egypt in June 1995 and find refuge in the Netherlands for his and his family safety. Had he stayed he would have been forcibly divorced from his wife because he was no longer considered a Muslim.

During the press conference held at the Pontifical Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies (PISAI) Nasr Abu Zayd presented his latest book, but also spoke about contemporary radical Islamism, international politics and inter-faith dialogue.

The Egyptian scholar talked about the recent attempts at democratic reform in some Arab countries like Egypt and the politicisation of the religious message by some radical Islamic groups.

"The road to democracy is long and tortuous," he said. "The issue of democracy should not be a theological one as some radical Islamic groups claim. Such movements use religion to justify refusing any change. I believe that Islam and democracy stand on two separate levels and should not be mixed. Similarly, one should not confuse religion and politics."

For Nasr Abu Zayd, "multiparty politics has existed in Egypt for some time. The reality is that the Islamic world is not a single block; historically, it is has never had a centre. We can instead speak of an Indonesian Islam, and Indian Islam, and so on, but not of a single Islam."

Talking about the controversy among Muslim theologians over suicide attacks, Nasr Abu Zayd explained that "Islam is quite clear in condemning suicide. Personally, I find it horrifying, especially if they kill innocent people like in Iraq and Palestine."

"We must make a clear distinction between understanding the motives that push some people to commit such acts and justifying them. It is impossible to justify them, but I can understand that in a war situation everything can happen."

"We must look at things from within, from the point of view of the would-be suicide bomber. It is terrible, but some young people feel they have nothing to lose by dying. It is not a religious issue. Still from a human point of view I find suicide incomprehensible."

As for inter-faith dialogue between Muslims and Christians and the status of minorities, Nasr Abu Zayd acknowledged that Egypt's Coptic minority suffers from discrimination, big and small things that victimise it on an almost daily basis.

"The Vatican recognises Islam as a religion," he noted. "I am Egyptian and Copts represent about 10 per cent of the Egyptian population. They are an intrinsic part of the country's history which would not be the same without them".

The Egyptian intellectual also spoke about the abduction of Giuliana Sgrena, a journalist with Italian newspaper Manifesto.

"I don't believe," he said, "that the Italian journalist was kidnapped because she sided with the cause of women during the Algerian civil war. Iraqi groups can't clearly explain their motivations; they lack obvious logical arguments or ideology to defend abductions. It is clear that above all they seek media exposure". (SC)