A government censorship agency banned a book. Two days later, it revoked the ban. Should we be thankful that the ban was temporary? No, we should be concerned that a censorship agency exists in the first place, whatever its mandate and however infrequently it uses its authority.
Last week, the Egyptian Print Censorship Authority held a shipment of history textbooks that was headed to the American University in Cairo (AUC). Everyone involved must have been puzzled. Khaled Fahmy, the history professor who ordered the book, is by no means the first to assign it. The American University in Cairo bookstore has probably been selling the book since it first appeared in 1994. True, the AUC has been in the middle of censorship controversies in the past, most famously in 1998 and 1999 when it faced (and unfortunately, succumbed to) government and media campaigns to ban the teaching of Maxime Rodinson’s “Muhammad” and Mohamed Choukri’s “For Bread Alone.” But in these instances, the accusations revolved around denigrating Islam and offending the students’ cultural sensibilities. Even those clichéd phrases are irrelevant to the book in question.
“A History of the Modern Middle East” is a popular introductory textbook that covers the history of the region since the 19th century. William L. Cleveland, a historian of Arab nationalism, originally authored the book. Due to its success as a textbook, second and third editions were issued in 1999 and 2004. Both times, as is the norm with academic works, Cleveland revised parts of the original text, added new sections (covering, for example, the American occupation of Iraq) and summarized his revisions in a preface. Cleveland passed away in 2006 but the textbook continued to be widely taught in English-speaking universities around the world, including Egypt. A few years later, another historian, Martin Bunton, took on the task of issuing a fourth edition of the book, which came out in 2009. This latest edition, now co-authored by Cleveland and Bunton, expectedly became one of the main English language introductions to the history of the Modern Middle East.
Like any effective textbook, the popularity of “A History of the Modern Middle East” comes from its comprehensiveness and organization. The book covers a very wide range of topics from Muhammad Ali’s attempt to build a modern state in Egypt 200 years ago, to Islamic activism in the contemporary Middle East. Because it is impossible to tackle each of these issues in depth within the span of a single book, even a 600-page book like this one, and since this is an introductory textbook in the first place, the authors have also included a concise list of specialized history books as an appendix.
The bottom line is, not only is it an extremely useful book for students who are seeking an introduction to the history of the region, it is not a controversial book. Even if an instructor wanted to indoctrinate his or her students in a certain idea they would not be able to use the book, which is specifically designed to encourage its readers to seek more specialized knowledge outside it.
By Omar Cheta
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