An Interview with Alaa Al Aswany

In The Hindu, an interview with Egyptian novelist and activist Alaa Al Aswany.

Looking at the geo-political context of the region and these authoritarian regimes, one wonders if the people of the region feel let down by their rulers. Is this contributing to the rise of fundamentalism? What other factors are playing their part? One of the characters in your novel too becomes a terrorist.

[Aswany] Of course this and other factors are contributing to this phenomenon. Let us take the Egyptian experience, which was quite similar to the Indian experience as they emerged out of colonial domination. Our Saad Zaghlul corresponded with your great Gandhi and our founding fathers believed in secular values and the struggle was both for independence and democracy. Our Delegation (Wafd) and your Congress party shared these ideals. The leadership of the Wafd had devout Muslims and very liberal Muslims and even Coptic Christians in its fold! While you, In India, got democracy after your independence we have been struggling and have now lapsed into long spells of despotic dictatorships. This led to crushing poverty, exploitation, corruption and eventually to terrorism.

Looking at Islam in this context it must be borne in mind that Islam was born in the desert but it found its civilisation away from the desert and thus there exists many interpretations of Islam ranging from an inclusive vision of the religion which is open, tolerant and liberal to less inclusive visions and interpretations. Egypt has always been part of a tolerant stream and that is reflective of our essential national character. But what happened in the late 1970s was a significant turning point in the history of the region. The sudden surge in the price of oil gave unprecedented power to Saudi Arabia. This enabled Saudi Arabia to export its pre-medieval, not-so-inclusive Wahabi vision of Islam to most of the countries in the region. You know the Wahabi vision is a Christmas present to the dictator! It does not encourage dissent against the ruler as long as he is a Muslim. Thus a complex pattern of interlocked factors, including the support these dictators got from outside, led to a steady erosion of liberty and freedom which I believe is at the centre of the woes of this region.