I have made it a rule never to get dragged into futile arguments or wars of words. But I hope it is obvious that the right-of-reply rule stipulated by the journalist code of honour includes the right of comment by the editor.
On 7 March I wrote, under the title “…Refuting the allegation”, about the mosque imam in the town of Tahta in Upper Egypt who visited my office to protest against what he considered a slur Watani had inflicted upon him. In Watani of 29 November 2009 I had written, under the title “Extremism on the street”, about the fanatic Islamic thought spewed through mosque microphones by imams in Friday sermons; the live example I gave had been relayed to me through a Tahta reader. On his visit to my office, the young imam said he had been extremely pained by the allegations against him, claimed he was a moderate and that all the neighbourhood Copts were his friends. I said this made me very happy, and would he please ask them to write to Watani refuting the allegations. I promised that, by right-of-reply, I’d print whatever material I received. But the young imam hesitated and stuttered then, and said his neighbours might take their time to do that, so why don’t I clear his name anyway?
Today I print, word for word according to the right-of-reply rule, a letter I received from the Tahta imam. I retain, however, my right to comment later.
“To the editor-in-chief of Watani,
From Sheikh Mohamed Ibrahim, imam and preacher of the mosque of Hajj Abdel-Aal in Tahta, and head of the Tahta branch of the Sharie [Islamic] Society,
“Please be informed that your paper has, for the second time, insulted me. The first time was in the 29 November 2009 editorial in which I was accused of insulting Christians and Christianity, which provoked the Minister of Religious Endowments and the security officials against me. The only evidence offered by your paper to support this allegation was a single letter from an anonymous reader. I wish to inform you that I am a Muslim cleric and, as such, I warrant the same respect you grant to Christian clerics. But you apparently discriminate against Muslim clerics while you venerate Christian ones, which is one of the worst forms of fanaticism. I sent you a reply in which I defended myself, but you refrained from printing it. Yet I practised the tolerance Islam originally spread on Earth, and visited you in Cairo. I was met with no gracious hospitality, however, neither any form of acceptance of the other. Instead, you commented on this visit in your 7 March editorial by mocking me as a hesitant, stuttering ‘turbaned young man’. Is this any way to describe a cleric? Is this not a ridicule of the Islamic religion? I am used to preaching in the largest of Tahta’s mosques and I never stutter while addressing thousands of Muslims. How can it be that I stuttered before you? But I really found the last part of your article ridiculous when you wrote that you finally discovered the probable purpose of my visit, but never mentioned what it was. I ask you to exercise sufficient courage to declare what purpose you figured out. Then you appointed yourself judge and asked your Coptic readers to testify to my innocence of the allegations against me. I see that as inflaming the fire of sectarian sedition in Tahta I call upon the authorities to intervene to rescue from sedition Tahta, the town of [one of the first figures of 20th-century enlightenment in Egypt] Sheikh Rifaa al-Tahtawi, Muslims and Christians in Tahta live side by side, but it appears you do not like that, and exploit Watani to destabilise the security of Tahta by printing articles which inflame sedition between the children of the nation. I hope you exercise the right-of-reply and print this letter; otherwise I retain my legal prerogative to take my case to court.”
My comment begins with the imam’s allegation that the November editorial included a provocation of the Minister of religious Endowments and the security officials against him. This implies that he was reprimanded, an action never taken for no cause. The mosque in question lies close to the police station, meaning the police is fully aware of whatever is voiced through the microphone.
When I described Sheikh Ibrahim as a turbaned young man, it never crossed my mind he would take offence since it was written with not the slightest intention of offence or mockery; it was a mere fact. And when I wrote he ‘hesitated and stuttered’, it was also a mere fact. It actually took me by surprise, since I was practically offering him an excellent opportunity to absolve himself of allegations against him. When he refused to grasp the opportunity, it dawned upon me that his visit was not intended to absolve himself before the readers, but that he in all probability wished me to clear his name before the authorities which had reprimanded him.
Finally, it gives me honour and pleasure to recognise Tahta, the birthplace of Sheikh Rifaa al-Tahtawy, as a place where Muslims and Christians live together in peace. Our Egypt was one day all like that. Today, as the persistent question: Whatever happened to Egypt? imposes itself, I hope we join hands to rescue our Egyptian civilisational and enlightenment heritage from being trifled with. I hope this would be the common purpose that would unite us all, Sheikh Ibrahim and myself included.