A government censorship agency banned a book. Two days later, it revoked the ban. Should we be thankful that the ban was temporary? No, we should be concerned that a censorship agency exists in the first place, whatever its mandate and however infrequently it uses its authority.
Last week, the Egyptian Print Censorship Authority held a shipment of history textbooks that was headed to the American University in Cairo (AUC). Everyone involved must have been puzzled. Khaled Fahmy, the history professor who ordered the book, is by no means the first to assign it. The American University in Cairo bookstore has probably been selling the book since it first appeared in 1994. True, the AUC has been in the middle of censorship controversies in the past, most famously in 1998 and 1999 when it faced (and unfortunately, succumbed to) government and media campaigns to ban the teaching of Maxime Rodinson’s “Muhammad” and Mohamed Choukri’s “For Bread Alone.” But in these instances, the accusations revolved around denigrating Islam and offending the students’ cultural sensibilities. Even those clichéd phrases are irrelevant to the book in question.
“A History of the Modern Middle East” is a popular introductory textbook that covers the history of the region since the 19th century. William L. Cleveland, a historian of Arab nationalism, originally authored the book. Due to its success as a textbook, second and third editions were issued in 1999 and 2004. Both times, as is the norm with academic works, Cleveland revised parts of the original text, added new sections (covering, for example, the American occupation of Iraq) and summarized his revisions in a preface. Cleveland passed away in 2006 but the textbook continued to be widely taught in English-speaking universities around the world, including Egypt. A few years later, another historian, Martin Bunton, took on the task of issuing a fourth edition of the book, which came out in 2009. This latest edition, now co-authored by Cleveland and Bunton, expectedly became one of the main English language introductions to the history of the Modern Middle East.
Like any effective textbook, the popularity of “A History of the Modern Middle East” comes from its comprehensiveness and organization. The book covers a very wide range of topics from Muhammad Ali’s attempt to build a modern state in Egypt 200 years ago, to Islamic activism in the contemporary Middle East. Because it is impossible to tackle each of these issues in depth within the span of a single book, even a 600-page book like this one, and since this is an introductory textbook in the first place, the authors have also included a concise list of specialized history books as an appendix.
The bottom line is, not only is it an extremely useful book for students who are seeking an introduction to the history of the region, it is not a controversial book. Even if an instructor wanted to indoctrinate his or her students in a certain idea they would not be able to use the book, which is specifically designed to encourage its readers to seek more specialized knowledge outside it.
Why then was the book (temporarily) banned? The censorship agency explained that the maps in the book were inaccurate. No wonder, of course, that their justification had to do with an image rather than with the written word. Who has the time to read 600 pages of history anyway? The book contains 18 maps, none of which is of contemporary Egypt. Following the process of elimination, one is left with a possibly controversial map on page 168 that is entitled “The Middle East in the interwar period.” The map is centered on the Arabian Peninsula and is meant to show the countries occupied by Britain and France in the period 1918-1939. Only the eastern part of Egypt appears in it. Probably, what the censor found most unnerving about the map was that the Halayeb triangle (unlabeled on this map) fell outside the border of British-occupied Egypt and inside Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. Needless to say, both are political entities that have ceased to exist for almost 60 years. Convinced that he arrived at a reasonable resolution to this minor crisis, the censor finally decided to lift the ban on the book after “correcting” the maps in each copy manually.
What is most concerning about the episode we are looking at here is that it does not contain the necessary elements of a censorship cause célèbre. In recent decades, cases of censorship that gained a high level of public attention usually revolved either around religious sensibilities and morality, or were championed by journalists. In the near past, intellectuals protested when a group of lawyers tried to ban the monumental “One Thousand and One Nights” on the grounds that it contained obscene content. A wider outcry occurred when journalist Ibrahim Issa was sentenced to a year in prison for defaming the former president. A couple of days ago, Islam Afify, the editor of Al-Dostour, was detained briefly by a criminal court, where he is being tried for insulting the current president. All of these cases rallied support because they were easily identified as assaults on freedom of expression.
In the case of the banned/altered history textbook, we are facing a different kind of challenge. First, the case received very little media attention because history occupies a rather paradoxical place in our public conversations. On the one hand, history is perceived as a compilation of verifiable objective facts. On the other, it is considered an entirely subjective enterprise that follows no standard. Hence, censoring a history book could take place on the grounds that it got its facts wrong, or alternatively, because it produced a politically motivated account. In either case, seeing a historical study as an exercise in freedom of expression is not a straightforward conclusion for most. Second, even though politically motivated, those who imposed the ban are nameless bureaucrats who did not claim to heroically protect society from false knowledge. The ban was a silent, routine act of censorship undertaken by a clerk who was probably protecting himself against the offhand chance that his superior might accuse him of not doing his job properly.
This routine episode is a reminder that we should reject all forms of state censorship. We cannot blame the censor for doing his job, nor should we praise him for being permissive. Both of these positions are self-defeating and will lead us time and again to the question of where to draw the line and who is to draw it. The burden of authenticating any form of knowledge should not fall on a state appointee, however knowledgeable. In a democratic society, this burden is undisputedly reserved for the citizen.
Omar Cheta is a PhD candidate in the departments of History and Middle Eastern & Islamic Studies at New York University.
This article was originally published in Egypt Independent’s weekly print edition.