The battle for the language academy ­– III

Mohamed Salmawy
Thursday 2 Sep 2021

Celebrating the Arabic tongue

The problem I raised some weeks ago concerning the Arabic Language Academy continues to stir responses. The academy itself continues to battle against the control of adherents to Muslim Brotherhood ideas and attitudes which the Egyptian people had risen up against on 30 June 2013. Cairo University professor of philosophy and former secretary-general of the Supreme Council for Culture Said Tawfik contributed an excellent article in Al-Akhbar entitled “Crisis in the House of the Immortals: The Academy against the Muslim Brotherhood.” He, too, believes this problem cannot be understated.

The academy, he writes, “is currently split between a progressive academic group and a reactionary traditional camp. It is no secret to the intellectual community that the venerable academy has endured this crisis for decades because the Muslim Brothers, consciously or instinctively, are given to flagrant favouritism of their own kind, fellow members of the ‘family and clan,’ regardless of competence and academic merit. This explains the presence of certain individuals among the academy’s members, while it is impossible even to nominate far more gifted literary talents and academically qualified individuals for membership.” 

Professor Tawfik agrees with my suggestion that a number of enlightened intellectuals should be appointed to the academy as a means to counterbalance the proponents of Islamo-fascist thought, whose majority has always enabled them to prevail in internal elections. In my previous article, I mentioned the major precedent for this, namely King Farouk’s Royal edict of 1940 appointing to the academy such eminent intellectuals as Taha Hussein, Mohamed Hussein Heikal, Abbas Mahmoud Al-Akkad, Tawfik Al-Hakim and Mohamed Abdel-Kader Al-Mazni. These were among the pioneers who steered the academy into its golden era. Tawfik cautions that the academy will not be able to perform its duties effectively “unless it is given a strong boost by our political leadership who, with the assistance of trustworthy experts, should restructure the academy, identify its operational mechanisms and set the criteria for membership.”

In his recent Al-Ahram column, the well-known scholar Osama Al-Ghazali Harb wrote that he had been watching developments in the Arabic Academy since November with increasing concern. Mona Makram Ebeid and Abdel-Moneim Taha Al-Mohandes wrote to me, voicing their support for an examination of the current condition of the academy. I also received a letter from the academic, Dr Mohamed Madkour, the son of the former director of the academy, Ibrahim Bayoumi Madkour, saying that he, too, urged the Minister of Higher Education Khaled Abdel-Ghaffar, to have the academy’s bylaws amended as soon as possible in order to expand its membership.

Madkour pointed out how the minister of transport had recently amended certain laws and regulations, “enabling him within a few weeks to tear down one of the icons of underdevelopment, the old labour law which had protected incompetent, bribe-taking and obstructive state employees.” He added, “your article, in which you mentioned that there is not a single Christian or woman among the academy’s members reminded me of my father’s repeated attempts, during his tenure to support the nominations of the writers Sohair Al-Qalamawi and Bint Al-Shati as members, but sadly without success.” 

Ahmed Magdi Hegazi, professor of political science at Cairo University and a member of the Supreme Council for Culture, wrote that it is a national duty and humanitarian honour to rid the nation of terrorist thought and to strengthen national identity, adding, “saving society from those terrorist groups is an implementation of constitutional justice on the path to progress and the leap towards advancement.” 

My friend Fakhri Abdel-Nour, a Wafd Party leader and former minister, wrote to me to express his gratitude for my drawing attention to the crisis of the Arabic Language Academy. “It is a very important yet delicate subject. I hope it does not lead to a clash with Al-Azhar. This institution, in its capacity as a mosque and a university, regards itself as responsible for the preservation of the Arabic language and its dissemination throughout the world.” But the academy was eminently qualified for this purpose. “Since its establishment, the membership of the Arabic Language Academy represented an Egyptian and international coalition of devotees to the preservation and defence of the Arabic language. Unfortunately, this coalition is collapsing under the pressure of the current polarisation we see.” 

In a recent article, Said Tawfik spoke of the “fiction” being promoted by some people that graduates of the Dar Al-Ulum University are the only proper guardians of Arabic. With all due respect to Al-Azhar, to Dar Al-Ulum and to other organisations concerned with our language such as the Arabic language and literature departments in our universities, the main mission our constitution confers on the Arabic Language Academy is the preservation of the Arabic language.

In other words, the academy’s responsibilities are a constitutional mandate. Our ancient and uniquely rich language is too great and vast for its defence to be confined to a single institution. In fact, there is a certain consistency in having a plurality of guardian agencies. What weakens its defence is to leave it prey to intolerant, fanatic thought, which we hope will be eliminated from the academy under new bylaws that reflect the changes society has undergone since the 30 June Revolution.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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