In memory of a man who died standing

Marwa Mohie, Tuesday 7 Jun 2011

A celebration of the life of Farag Fouda on the 19th anniversary of his assassination for his ardent opposition to Islamic extremism is timely at this juncture for Egypt

Nineteen years after his assassination, Farag Fouda came back to life for the first time to celebrate with the Egyptians their revolution in the Damietta Cultural Palace (around 400 km north of Cairo) yesterday, 6 June. The event was organised by a group called Out to Light, an independent modernist cultural group.

The crowd of tens coming to celebrate the evening was quite a surprise: veiled women and male Salafists coming to commemorate the man who fought against a religious state and for a secular one. Perhaps they came to revere one of their own: as Fouda was born in Damietta governorate.

Farag Fouda was a famous thinker and writer who battled during the 1980s and 1990s for the separation of religion and state. His major books include A Discussion About Secularism, Discussions About Sharia, So Words Aren't in Vain and Terrorism.

His many debates with the conservative and violent Islamist movements at the time inspired many death threats against him, so numerous, in fact, that he was heard joking "a day when I don't receive a threatening message would be 'A lost age that should not be counted against me' "(referring to the famous song by the legendary Egyptian singer Om Kalthoum, You Are My Life.

On 8 June of 1992, while heading out of his house with his young son, they were shot at from a couple of men waiting on a motorcycle, later known to be the Islamic Jihad group, ordered by a fatwa (religious decree) by the sheikhs of that organisation.

The celebration started with a short documentary about Fouda's life and contributions, including a famous debate at the 1992 Cairo International Book Fair titled Egypt Between the Religious State and the Secular State. It is thought that this debate was the primary cause for his assassination.

The film described Fouda’s battles against extremist Islamists who peaked their terrorism and violence in Egypt by killing of the tourists at the Hatshepsut Temple in 1998. He used to the extremists as "Those who walk backwards, speak nonsense, carry a sword, who read one letter and leave another."

The movie showed some snapshots from his funeral that started with a few thousand sad people that eventually turned into an angry crowd and finally evolved into one of the 1990s largest demonstrations screaming "No gods but God … terrorism is the enemy of God."

During the interim and before the second part of the celebration the crowd grew to attend the readings and presentation of some of his famous works, most of which are considered highly controversial among religious men and even some intellectuals.

The short excerpts shared from his book were a big surprise to many, for the forward-looking intellect was battling a fight that is rocking Egypt today – nearly twenty years after his departure.

At the trial of Fouda's assassin the accused was asked: "Why did you kill Farag Fouda?"

He simply replied: "Because he's a heretic."

The judge continued, "From which of his books did you judge that he is a heretic?”

To which the man replied: "I've never read any of his books … I'm illiterate."

The little theatre act at the end of the celebration caught on this sad event, and reminded everyone of Fouda's famous prophecy of his own death: "The end is a cheap price to pay so others can start on the right path."

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