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Religious censorship at Egypt translation centre

State-owned National Centre for Translation censors book criticising religion; critics fear growing attacks on freedom of expression

Mohammed Saad , Sunday 12 Feb 2012
Faisal Younis

Egypt's state-owned National Centre for Translation (NCT) has omitted two chapters from Daoud Rofail Khashaba's book Sphinx and the Phoenix due to its "vehement criticism of religion.”

The decision has sparked renewed concern about freedom of expression and censorship in post-revolution Egypt, especially following the sweeping victory of Islamist political parties in recent parliamentary elections.  

NCT director Faisal Younis told Ahram Online that the decision was not made due to political or religious pressure and was approved by the author:

“The story started when we saw that the book, originally written in English and translated to Arabic by the author, contained two chapters titled ‘What is God’ and 'Towards a Criticism of Religion' that vehemently criticised religion. We sent it to an academic philosophy professor who recommended that the two chapters be omitted. I called the author and explained the situation to him and he approved it.”

Younis denied the centre had come under pressure from religious groups or that the decision was a 'flirtation' designed to curry favour with Islamists:

“I’m personally against these [Islamist] political trends. I voted against them in the elections but I’m running a public institution that’s financed by the Egyptian tax-payer and I can’t hurt his religious sensibilities. This is why we took the decision.”

The book's author confirmed to Ahram Online that he was asked before the chapters were omitted, and though he consented, he requested that a note be added to the preface explaining the omissions, which the centre accepted.

“It’s not a retreat from my ideas; the chapters are published on my own blog and in many English periodicals. It’s just that I didn’t want the centre to take the consequences of my ideas, I didn’t want to get them into this,” Khashaba said.

Khalil Kalfat, a translator and a friend of Khashaba, criticised both the centre and Khashaba for the decision:

“The decision is damaging to the freedom of scientific research and expression. The book was supposed to be published in full, and this is a retreat from the path the NCT has taken since it was established. This self-censorship is going to be very harmful.

“The author's permission doesn’t imply its right to omit the chapters, and the argument that the decision was to protect the ordinary reader’s sensibilities has no merit since few Egyptian readers buy this kind of philosophical book. A book that criticises religion should not be censored but replied to by another book. We’re witnessing a revolution that demands freedom; we should be discussing and criticising everything.”

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