UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) daily operations have been brought to a standstill over the nomination of Egyptian culture minister Farouk Hosni as its Director-General, according to sources close to its top officials. Voting for the post, with Hosni among nine candidates, will begin on Thursday, September 17. Unfortunately, Hosni’s bid for the UNESCO job is backed by Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
The controversy over Farouk Hosni mainly focuses on his statement last year that he would burn any Israeli books found in Egyptian libraries. Hosni has not denied the comment, but attempted to explain it away as a misunderstanding, according to some, and apologized, according to others. Hosni has aggravated the situation by accusing the new American ambassador to UNESCO, David T. Killion, of opposing his candidacy because, according to him, Killion is Jewish.
This accusation alone - replete with racial and religious bias - should be sufficient to disqualify Hosni. Killion is not Jewish, which should be irrelevant, except that it makes it clear that Hosni’s earlier statement reflects a deep-seated habit of inflammatory hate-mongering. As we see, however, in the impending UN Human Rights Council discussion over Israel’s attempt last year to stop Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza, hostility to Jews and Israel is so thoroughly established in the UN that Hosni’s bigotry would otherwise seem commonplace. But UNESCO is left with a leading candidate who not only engages in hate-mongering, but is also reckless about it, who favors book-burning rather than book preservation, and whose nomination is endorsed by people who should know better. They argue that it’s time UNESCO had an Arab Muslim chief, but why should it be someone who stands out as an adherent of its most extremist views?
The Hosni debate has divided opinion in various countries, but for open-eyed observers, the unsuitability of the Egyptian culture minister to head UNESCO seems clear. In the ideological system others and I have called Islamofascism, the burning of books is the next logical step after the censorship of books. We saw the latter in the recent and despicable case decision of Yale University Press to remove the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, and other depictions of Muhammad derived from Christian art, from a prospective publication, The Cartoons that Shook the World, by Jytte Klausen.
In answering the Islamofascists on these issues, I have argued that Muslims should cease portraying the faith as so weak in the commitment of the believers, and in its global presence, that it can be harmed by cartoons. But destruction of books is an even more disgraceful act when pursued by a Muslim, as Islam is based on a revelation communicated in a book, and the Qur’an refers respectfully to Jews and Muslims as “People of the Book.”
The Torah, Judaism’s scripture, is described by all Muslims as one of four surviving books of divine revelation, along with the Psalms of David (treated in Islam as a separate work), the Christian Gospels, and the Qur’an. In classical Islam, Jewish legal precedents, as well as the Torah, were cited by Muslim scholars and theologians. The Jewish commentator Saadiah Gaon (known among Muslims as Sa’id al-Fayyumi), born in Egypt in the 9th century C.E., translated the Torah into Arabic. His writings still form an important component of Jewish religious study. Would Farouk Hosni burn Israeli editions of his works? Or those of the outstanding Jewish thinker Maimonides, who lived in Egypt and also wrote in Arabic?
The remarks of Faruk Hosni imply even more questions about his suitability to serve as a national culture minister for Egypt , much less a UNESCO Director-General. The Cairo Genizah or storage room for old Jewish manuscripts was uncovered in Old Cairo in the 19th century, and its significant documentary hoard was eventually transferred to universities outside Egypt , with the assent of the Egyptian authorities. If the contents of the Genizah, which are precious in recording the interactions of Jews and Muslims in Egypt, had not been taken out of the country, or if new such cultural resources were found, would Hosni be happy to see them destroyed?
It has become a commonplace that items from the cultural legacies of former colonies and similar countries should be returned to their place of origin - see, for example, the indefatigable polemics of Christopher Hitchens demanding reversion from London to Athens of the Parthenon reliefs known as the Elgin Marbles. Many Latin American, Asian, and African governments forbid export of authentic indigenous artifacts, and UNESCO plays a major role in this issue. Some of these demands are demagogic - while trading in stolen antiquities is abominable, the Elgin Marbles were legally purchased, not stolen. In addition, emptying the museums of major countries of their holdings makes no more sense than returning the island of Manhattan to its original inhabitants.
With an outspoken book-burner in charge at UNESCO, what can be done to assure that the repatriation of cultural treasures under UNESCO supervision might not result in their destruction, as Hosni would seem to suggest? Few people, it would seem, could be less qualified to head a transnational agency with “educational, scientific, and cultural” goals?
By declaring his enthusiasm for book-burning, Hosni revealed his affinity with the Wahhabi clerics of Saudi Arabia, who have obstructed archeological excavation of pre-Islamic remains in the country, at the same time as the Wahhabi fanatics, in their perverse dedication to “religious” vandalism, demolish buildings from early Islamic history. (They claim that historical preservation will lead to treating old Muslim structures, shrines, tombs, and graveyards as idols, and from there to polytheism.) When they conquered Mecca and the cities near to it in western Arabia , the Wahhabis engaged in wholesale destruction of old copies of Qur’an, using their leather covers to make sandals.
Farouk Hosni betrays a woeful heartlessness that would extend to some of the most significant chapters in Islamic as well as Jewish cultural history, both past and present. The first volume using Western printing techniques that appeared in Asia was the Arba Turim, a compendium of Jewish religious law published in Ottoman Turkey in 1493. The first book printed in Africa was a Hebrew collection of religious opinions, the Abudarham, published in Muslim-ruled Morocco in 1516.. Would Hosni destroy Israeli editions of these examples of early printing? In addition, the Balkan Wars of the 1990s saw the deliberate destruction of libraries by Serb forces in Bosnia-Hercegovina, in which documents from Jewish as well as Muslim and Christian heritage were destroyed, some of them irreplaceable. Bosnian Muslims have been rightly praised for saving the Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the most beautiful of classic Jewish books, from the flames. Would Hosni burn an Israeli edition of it?
Memory of the fighting in ex-Yugoslavia brings up another question about UNESCO. The Renaissance city of Dubrovnik was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but when it came under bombardment in 1991, UNESCO did nothing to protect it. What, then, is UNESCO’s use? And how can an individual who advocates the destruction of culture even be considered to lead an institution dedicated to preserving culture? UNESCO should say no to Farouk Hosni as its Director-General.