CAIRO: What do Elton John, “Arabian Nights” and Youssef Ziedan have in common?
Until earlier this week, nothing, really.
But today in Egypt, the British pop singer, the centuries old medieval collection of folk tales that has become an integral part of our collective human heritage, and the award-winning author of “Azazeel”, who dramatized a dark era of Coptic history in Alexandria were suddenly launched into the eye of a cultural storm, reviving tired debates over the definition of obscenity, political correctness and the respect (or lack thereof) for religious values and symbols.
Sir Elton John became persona non grata in Egypt because the head of Egypt’s musicians union Mounir El-Wassimi – the self-appointed guardian of ethical lifestyles – decided that Elton John’s professed homosexuality is a threat to Egyptian moral values.
Almost simultaneously, “Arabian Nights” became an obscene, pornographic text that must be smoked out of public bookshelves and possibly even burnt at the stake in a public square when a group of Islamist lawyers ironically affiliated with “Lawyers without Restrictions” filed an obscenity case against officials in the general cultural authority to try to ban the book.
And in a new fad of Christian hesba cases (brought forth by private citizens who have no direct interest, but have clear religious motives) Naguib Gobrael, ironically the head of the Egyptian Union for Human Rights Organization, filed a complaint against Ziedan to the Prosecutor General calling for his arrest for insulting Christianity according to Article 98 of the Egyptian penal code, for allegedly “mocking the Christian faith”.
But before I embark on an incredulous tirade on the degeneration of Egyptian society intellectually and religiously, first a disclaimer: I am not an absolutist, advocating the brand of cultural liberalism that accepts anything, anywhere at any time just to keep the high-brow intellectuals happy.
As a self-described conservative, I am appalled at the ridiculous notion that any human being espousing ideas or adopting a lifestyle that do not break laws (such as those penalizing the incitement of hatred or murder) could be banned from entering another country as punishment for their ideas. Banning Elton John for his sexual orientation or for his religious views, from performing in Egypt is nothing short of an exercise in moral bigotry that is unbecoming to anyone claiming even the remotest affiliation to the realm of creative art, let alone the head of the musicians union.
It’s worse when this bigotry is lumped with an unhealthy dose of hypocrisy and delusion. Anyone who claims that our Arab/Muslim/Christian world is “free of the curse of homosexuality” (as they would put it) is burying his head in the sand. So why is it that we hypocritically accept to have our own homosexuals performing on screens and stages all over the country, but feel so threatened by foreign ones?
As a Muslim my own views on homosexuality are unequivocal: it is simply forbidden in Islam, and I have no qualms about accepting that. The question is, if I were the head of the musicians union, would my personal views be at all relevant to the case of Elton John? No.
The fact is, Elton John was not invited to Egypt to give a public lecture on the forbidden pleasures of homosexuality or on his theory of why he believes Jesus was gay. He was simply invited to sing. So why aren’t his songs and albums banned as well? And why is it that we’re allowed to access his videos and performances online at any place at any time, even watch him on state TV?
Realistically, banning a performer, a book or an idea in this interconnected age of global communication is not only an exercise in futility, but also a symptom of a social and intellectual stagnation that is reversing Egypt’s role as the lighthouse of progressive thinking, to the abyss of ignorance unmatched in its history throughout the ages.
Egyptians have more urgent issues to worry about than a gay singer, a folktale or an agnostic, so let’s not get distracted.
Rania Al Malky is the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.