The battle for the language academy - II

Mohamed Salmawy
Thursday 26 Aug 2021

The current conflict in the Arabic Language Academy against the remnants of Islamo-fascist thought has stirred widespread concern and anger among large tracts of society. This is because of the cultural prestige of this institution which is a source of soft power regionally and internationally. In my discussion of the issue in last week’s column, I faulted the government for ignoring the problem rather than applying the same resolve it dedicates to the fight against terrorism which, in fact, feeds on such deviant thought.

My friend Khaled Abdel-Ghaffar, the minister of higher education, phoned me as soon as he saw my article. He assured me that the government was, indeed, concerned with this question and that his ministry had already taken steps to challenge the recent elections of the academy’s board of directors, which is dominated by Muslim Brotherhood affiliates and sympathisers. He said that he had refused to certify the results of the elections and appointed Salah Fadl as acting chairman of the board until such time as proper elections can be held. 

I had mentioned this in my article, but followed with a question as to what the point would be of holding another round of elections when the composition of academy’s membership remains unchanged. I suggested appointing a number of prominent intellectuals whom the current academy’s leadership had prevented from joining it for no sound reason. A prominent example of this type of snub is our great Arab novelist, Naguib Mahfouz, who remained excluded from the academy to the end of his life, despite his prolific literary output, his contribution to the development of literary Arabic and the fact that he is the sole Arab Nobel laureate. We should also note that the academy has never counted a Copt or a woman among its members.

We have a major precedent for government appointments to the academy’s membership. It occurred in 1940, seven years after its official establishment, when King Farouk issued a royal decree bestowing membership on some of the most eminent literary figures of the time. They included Taha Hussein, Ahmed Lotfi Al-Sayed, Mohamed Hussein Heikal, Tawfik Al-Hakim, Abbas Mahmoud Al-Akkad and Ibrahim Abdel-Qader Al-Mazni, who together they ushered the academy into its golden era. Abdel-Ghaffar told me that personally he would have no objection to this idea as long as it was conducted in a manner consistent with the academy’s charter and the law. According to my information, the academy actually applied to the ministry, in November last year, to change its bylaws. The proposal included a list of ten nominees to vacant positions in the academy. The ministry has yet to take action on this application. 

Certainly, the speed with which the minister responded to the concerns I raised last week is praiseworthy in its own right, as is his commitment to the rule of law. However, I do hope he will turn his attention to the amended bylaws submitted to his office so as to clear the way for the admission of enlightened intellectuals and writers who will help rescue the academy from the clutches of Islamo-fascist thought. We are still caught in a vicious battle against the pedlars of an ideology that the Egyptian people rose up against on 30 June 2013. The longer those individuals remain in positions of influence, the greater will be their ability to disseminate their dangerous ideas. Although we can take heart at the tangible decline in terrorism thanks to our security agencies’ concerted operations, we must not forget that terrorist violence derives its raison d’être from a perverse ideological foundation that began to take root in society four decades ago. Unless it is totally eradicated, that thinking will continue to work its malignant effect and inevitably breed more terrorism.

 I was pleased to learn that my fellow journalist Hamdi Rizk too addressed this subject in his well-known column in Al-Masry Al-Youm. “Purging the academy of Muslim Brotherhood members and sympathisers in accordance with the law is a battle that has waited for too long,” he wrote. “The battle for the academy is the battle for Egyptian culture. It is symbolic of the victory of secular forces and an affirmation of Egyptian leadership of linguistic organisations in the Arab world.” 

I was also heartened by several letters. Ambassador Mohamed Al-Dali wrote: “The Arabic Language Academy truly suffers from the plague of the age. I am not familiar with the academy’s bylaws, but why shouldn’t the appointment method serve as the solution for selecting suitable members capable of advancing the academy and its lofty message? As for the bylaws, surely there are many legal ways to amend them.”

Ahmed Morsi, the eminent heritage scholar, wrote: “A respectable article on a respectable topic that merits the attention of the linguistic, literary and intellectual communities. The time has come for them to rescue the Arab Language Academy from the mafia that has dominated it for decades.”

And from the great artist Mostafa Al-Razzaz: “A well-merited call for justice and reform for the venerable and worthy Arabic Language Academy. The government and the people should support and settle this matter with the utmost haste, as the academy is an embodiment of Egypt’s honour as a member of the Arab nation. This is a call that inevitably requires the sponsorship of the Second Republic, and with the same degree of zeal.”

To which University Professor Fathi Abu Ayana adds that the government and civil society should launch a campaign in the media and the academic community to save the Arabic Language Academy “as a beacon for the preservation of our language and a source of Egypt’s soft power.”

Equally encouraging was news of an urgent suit filed with the courts to oblige the minister of higher education to accelerate the process of amending the academy’s bylaws so that the institution can be freed from the remnants of the Muslim Brotherhood and its followers.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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