Citizens sound off about book censorship
Yemen was one of those countries. On Sept. 13, protestors gathered outside the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a, smashing windows, burning cars and tires and storming the compound. Protestors chanted phrases calling for the removal of U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein and for the execution of the filmmaker, Yemen Times journalists reported from the scene.
However, many people who read materials at book exhibitions in Sana'a said there are books that attack other religions and prophets from all over the world, and often the writers of these critiques are well-known Arabs. Yet, in recent history the city has never experienced an outrage like the one that played out at the U.S. Embassy.
Fatema Amer, a student at a local university, said she doesn't think people have any idea what is written in books in Yemen.
“I believe that reading doesn't have as big of an affect as watching. That's why we can see the difference between the reactions between movies and books,” she said.
Yassin Ahmed Abdul-Malek , an engineer, attributes the lack of furor over books containing inflammatory statements to the relatively low reading level in Yemen and the Arab World in general.
“We can't judge without reading first,” he said. “However, the existence of such books tells us that there are not as many readers, as movie watchers.”
Abdul-Malek also believes that such materials can be used to manipulate people and for the benefit of those wanting use media for their gain, especially in Arab societies where people tend to be sensitive to religious issues.
The fact that books that criticize Islam exist has led to the debate whether anyone has the right to censor these works or if their publication is the right of the author and the liberty of the reader.
Local residents are torn on the issue.
Khalil Al-Wajeeh, a teacher in Sana'a, said that publishers should carefully monitor book exhibitions for materials that attack the Muslim prophets or other defamatory statements that are considered a crime against Islam.
Lamia, a journalist, who declined to give her last name, agreed and said there must be a clear role of a general authority that monitors books, especially considering Yemen's current situation.
Mahfood Dahshan, a student in Sana'a University, said he finds it strange to find such books at exhibitions that criticize religion. He also believes in a general law that would only allow books in stores that defend religion.
“Religion in the whole the world must be fully respected and have punishments for those that disrespect it,” he said.
Another local resident, Samer Ahmed, supports Dahshan's opinion. He said that disparaging religion and prophets in written materials or movies is a not a matter of liberty, but should always be punished.
On the other hand, Ali Ahmed Al-Shamam, a security officer for the General Authority of Books, a government organization that monitors publications, says there must be a space for people to read what they want and to think as they want. He fears Yemen will never achieve progress if there is tight control over what is printed.
Al-Shamam further stated said that in the past there was more liberty to write freely despite societal disapproval. Without this freedom, he does not believe people will be able to build a cultural with a strong intellectual structure.
The advocate of printing freedom also pointed out that in the Quran itself, there are statements that tell people to think about their existence, and it recognizes there are some that will not believe in it.
“Let people read and know how others think, and then people will know how to protect their religion,” Al-Shamam said.
Abdul-Bari Taher, the head of the General Authority of Books, agreed with his colleague. He said “people are not blind or stupid” and can figure out for themselves what is right and what is wrong.