Awarding Islam's Challenger

An Egyptian critical of the Koran was recently chosen by Cairo for a scientific prize. Of course, barely anybody is happy Every year the Egyptian Minister of Culture distributes valuable prizes to outstanding scientists from various fields. The list is composed of about 50 scientists of differing levels of prestige. This year, sociologist and scholar Sayyid al-Qimni is among the winners of the top prize for social sciences, which is worth 200,000 Egyptian lira.

The candidates for the prize are chosen by a committee of 28 people, among them leading Egyptian scientists, and are confirmed by Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni. Hosni is currently maneuvering himself to be awarded the top post in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and has even received Israel's endorsement for the position.

When the list of winners was published, clerics from all the religious denominations protested - from the scholars of Al-Azhar University and independent Islamic thinkers to the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Islamic organizations.

They all demanded that the Hosni deny al-Qimni the prize or resign from his post.

"It is inconceivable that the money of this impoverished country should be wasted on giving prizes to someone who attacks the religion," one critic said.

"The man is a heretic," said another, "and in a country that sanctifies religious law such a man must not be allowed to win the government prize."

Al-Qimni, one of Egypt's leading social scientists, has attacked, with exceptional rhetorical ability, not only the country's violent organizations, but also thinkers like Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi - considered one of the most important scholars of the central religious stream and the religious authority of the Muslim Brotherhood - and Fahmi Hawaidi, one of the most productive Islamic columnists in Egypt and the entire Middle East.

After the terrorist attacks in Taba in 2004 al-Qimni wrote a strong-worded article entitled "This is Egypt, oh dogs of hell," in which he mercilessly attacked the perpetrators of the attacks who act in the name of Islam.

But what particularly angered the religious scholars were his books in which, they claim, he stated that Islam is a false religion and was nothing more than a political organization used to take control of the city of Mecca.

Al-Qimni rejected the complaints about his writing and explained in his articles that Islam is a human as well as a divine phenomenon. He argued that because the Koran includes elements of history and belief, there is nothing wrong with examining the historical aspect of the Koran with scientific tools and according to criteria that are customary when dealing with any other historical phenomenon and process.

But his ideas and explanations did not go unchallenged. An extremist Islamic group informed him via the Internet that five volunteers had already signed up to assassinate him if he didn't retract his words of incitement against the religion. Al-Qimni, who has published some of his books and penetrating essays on Web sites and who used to write a regular column in the Egyptian newspaper Rose el-Youssef, was frightened and declared that he had decided not only to stop publishing his opinions, but to retract everything he has published to date against the clerics and the religious organizations. From the time of that decision, which was made in 2005, he stopped publishing his articles and the Islamic organizations breathed a sigh of relief.

Al-Qimni did not infuriate only the Islamists. He also aroused the anger of a group of secular intellectuals who considered him a Marxist, a publicity hound and a dubious scientist. There were even some who claimed that he was inventing the threats on his life as a publicity stunt.

The government, on the other hand, took the threats seriously and sent bodyguards to protect him. But in recent years even his rivals have lost interest in him, until the uproar over the prize last week.

So far the government has not responded to the calls against his selection for the prize. The regime, involved in a tough political struggle against the religious streams and particularly against the Muslim Brotherhood, wants to clearly convey to them that their ideological enemy is an honoree of the country. But this expensive gesture could not hide the double standard with which the country treats its intellectuals.

"Look what the country does to bloggers when they're only expressing their opinion. Look how he system persecutes them while it demonstrates indifference toward the sheiks who monitor 'religious offenses,' those who disseminate nihilism and religious madness among the youth," wrote Nabil Sharaf al-Din in the newspaper Al Masri al-Youm.

No war? Party in Lebanon

Every Lebanese summer is the same story: war or festivals. This year, it's festivals. Last week Charles Aznavour performed at the Beiteddine Festival, and pianist David Fray played at the Baalbeck Festival.

This week will see the opera "La Traviata,", and a show from English rock band Deep Purple. Later there will be an Arabic song competition.

The variety is large and fascinating, and Lebanon is already full of tourists from the Persian Gulf who are not scared away by the political disputes in the country and the difficulties of forming a stable government.

They are also the ones who will pay $80-$120 per person for tickets to each of these performances.

If the efforts of U.S. President Barack Obama are successful, perhaps in a few generations Israelis will also be able to buy tickets on the Internet and travel over the weekend from their bed & breakfast in Metula to a performance in Beirut.

These performances, which in other places would be described as "a Western invasion meant to brainwash" do not receive a single reprimand from Hezbollah's leadership. Even Hassan Nasrallah knows that his supporters in Baalbeck make a good living from the festival season in the city and that any damage to them means damage to him.