A new center for free thought opens in Cairo
Ebtehal Younes, interviewed by Azzurra Meringolo 22 August 2012

Professor Younes, what are the goals of this new center?

We are an academic institution for post-graduate students and researchers. We have three objectives. First of all, we want to be a service for young scholars in the field of Islamic studies. This is why we created a library, which contains most branches in Islamic fields. We hope to help Egyptian scholars to be in contact with other researchers who, all over the world, are working within the same field. Finally, we want to create a prize for the best researcher in the field of Quranic studies, which will be reserved for young academics. In addition, during the academic year, we organize seminars and conferences for anyone interested in joining.

One of your husband’s goals was to spread a cultural renaissance in the Islamic world that to help the Arab region to reach modernity and democracy. What will you do to follow this path?

We think that one of the most important and urgent things to do is to open the mind of young generations in the field of Islamic studies and to prompt this renaissance. During the opening ceremony, Abdelmajid Charfi – a Tunisian philosopher and a leading scholar on Islam – gave a lecture about the Enlightenment in Europe and in the Arab World. He related it to my husband’s studies and to his school. They are following the same trend of thinking. I decided to create this center to continue walking on the path that my husband paved the way to. We will also continue to spread the idea that to understand Islam, we have to contextualize the Quran historically and culturally. A literal interpretation does not lead to a true understanding of Islam. My husband insisted a lot on this issue too, and he wanted to create a community that would share this idea. This is the right moment to assert these types of studies.

Nasr Abu Zayd often said, “The history of Islamic philosophy is the history of the effort to bring reason and revelation together.” Is the Arab world close to reaching this point?

It does not really matter whether or not now we are close to this point. We are working for the future. Maybe now we are not close to it, but the young generations will be closer than us in the next decades. There are many young people who are interested in our center. Among young scholars, the idea that reason and revelation have to go side by side is much more widespread than what we can think.

Being considered an apostate, your husband was described as a dangerous person, but dangerous for whom? Are you afraid that the same judgment can be given to your center?

He was not considered an apostate by Islam, but by some people, and this did not affect the importance of his works. He was considered dangerous by the traditionalist and literal trends of thought, those who want us to be back to the Middle Age. He opened peoples’ minds. He pushed them to think. Those who do not want us to think cannot accept his work, but very few people consider him as an apostate. I hope what happened to my husband will not happen to our center. We have just started our work and we want people to come to see our activities.

Do you think that your center will help the Western World focus more on liberal and reformist Islamic trends?

We are an academic center and those who are giving a bad interpretation of Islam are the media outlets. Most of the academics in Europe and in the Western World are not obsessed with the negative interpretation of Islam. We hope to prompt a mutual comprehension and this is the reason why we also have an English version of our website. People from all over the word can follow our activities.

Which can be the contribution of your center to the Egyptian transition and to the country’s future?

We are not a political organization, but we can help people understand and analyze what is really going on in the country. It is very normal that after the revolution people support those who were persecuted by the previous regime. This is the reason why Egyptians decided to vote for Islamist parties, but after six months, in the June 2012 elections we saw that the most radical Islamists did not obtain the same success. People are discovering that most of their promises are just slogans to achieve power, and they decided not to vote for them again. My husband used to tell me not to be afraid of an Islamist success. “Let them take the power. People will reject them as soon as they will discover that they do not have any means to solve the Egyptian problems.” This is what’s going on now in our country. Little by little, Egyptians are opening their minds and speaking about politics. Nowadays, people are not seduced by the idea of paradise if they vote for Islamic parties.

Image: Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd



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