A Voice in Egypt for an Arab Age of Reason
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
FROM his pulpit at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Ismail Serageldin
preaches what might be called Islamic liberalism, a philosophical view
grounded in reason and tolerance with roots in the early days of his
faith, when Muslims led the world in intellectual pursuits.
His goal is to help spark the Arab world's own age of reason, though
he acknowledges that there is a long way to go.
"We can defeat the forces of hate and confrontation and build through
education, science and culture better understanding for our future,"
he said at the opening ceremony of a recent conference at the library.
Mr. Serageldin has fashioned himself as the anti-Islamist, a
self-declared "secularist when it comes to the civil state," a calling
that does not endear him to the conservative majority of this society.
But he is comfortable in his role as the founding director of the
library, the modern successor to the ancient library of Alexandria.
He uses his position to counter what he has called the "current drift
toward an intolerant, pseudoreligious fanaticism." He defends and
promotes women's rights, saying "no issue looms larger," and calls for
freedom of expression as "the foundation of self-fulfillment." He
opposes the Muslim Brotherhood, the popular Islamic movement, and has
resisted pressure to allow the creation of a mosque or prayer room
within the library itself.
And one of his core messages, aimed at his own community, is that
Muslim societies today need to learn from Muslim leaders of the past,
like Ibn al-Nafis, the 13th-century religious scholar, philosopher and
scientist who called for tolerance in hearing out opposing views.
"How different these enlightened voices from the past sound compared
to the frenetic ranting and condemnations of everything that is new
and different that we see and hear everywhere in the Arab and Muslim
worlds today," he wrote in one of a series of pamphlets issued by the
His critics in Egypt's Islamist circles note ruefully that Mr.
Serageldin, for all his professed devotion to tolerance and freedom of
thought, rarely, if ever, invites them to his conferences. "You find
representatives from the left and the nationalists, and of course many
of those who are loyal to the current regime," said Muhammad Morsy,
the former head of the Muslim Brotherhood bloc in Parliament. "I am
never invited, not me or anyone like me."
Mr. Serageldin, 66, grew up in Cairo and graduated in 1964 with a
bachelor of science degree from Cairo University. He earned a
doctorate in planning from Harvard in 1972 and joined the World Bank
that year, passing the next several decades there. He has received 26
honorary doctorates from universities around the world; he is a knight
of France's Legion of Honor and a member of Egypt's upper house of
But Mr. Serageldin was lured back to Egypt from Washington by the
opportunity to help build the new library.
"The ancient library was about openness of knowledge, no taboos,
questioning everything, " Mr. Serageldin said as he strolled, hands in
pockets, through the soaring 2,000-seat reading room in the library's
main hall. "Now, I would hope very much that our own society would
benefit a lot from that."
HE knows well that his views are among a distinct minority here in
Egypt and around the region, and that his call for freedom of
expression runs up against authoritarian systems that stifle public
He has also been called arrogant and condescending, and accused of
exceeding the bounds of his actual expertise. During the closing
ceremony of a recent conference, he publicly apologized to Rashad
Hussain, President Obama's special envoy to the Organization of the
Islamic Conference, saying, "I spoke to him in a tone that appeared to
him to be dismissive, and I apologize for that."
But he also says that being unpopular in the more neutral sense is
O.K. because throughout history great change was often instigated by
the few, and then embraced by the many.
"We who believe in democracy and in liberty are going to win," he said
in a speech in 2007. "The statists and the Islamists are standing
against the irrevocable march of history."
For the sliver of liberal intellectuals in Egypt who bemoan their
nation's inexorable slide from a cultural and intellectual capital,
Mr. Serageldin's library is a rare bright spot. He has hired and
trained a staff of about 2,200 and keeps the doors open seven days a
week until 7 p.m. He said he received about 70 percent of the
library's $20 million annual budget from the government, raising the
rest in donations, and has accumulated a $23 million endowment.
He has also helped define the library as a learning complex, with a
planetarium, art exhibitions, a children's learning center, a virtual
reality chamber and a museum chronicling the life of President Anwar
el-Sadat. The library also operates as a cultural pulpit for Mr.
Serageldin and like-minded scholars and regional leaders.
"Dr. Serageldin debunks the myth about Islam with the insightfulness
of a social psychologist and firmness of a school principal," said
Najmedin Meshkati, an engineering professor at the University of
Southern California and a Jefferson science fellow with the State
Department who attended a recent conference at the library on
"Initiatives in Education, Science and Culture Towards Enhanced
U.S.-Muslim Countries Collaborations."
In signature fashion, the conference was a forum for opposing views,
at times exposing tensions between American and Arab participants. But
in explaining the value of debating ideas, rather than stifling
discussion, Mr. Serageldin addressed his fellow Muslims.
"Do you think that in the last 1,400 years, there were not books
attacking Islam everywhere, there were colonial powers everywhere, and
despite that Islam has spread throughout the world," he said. "So let
us not be afraid of opinions and ideas; we can fight ideas with
And to the West, he asked that Muslims not be treated as outsiders.
"The Muslims are here; they are in your own countries; they are your
own citizens; they are the children of immigrants. You have to
recognize the fact that Islam is part of the West today. It is no
longer a force that is outside of it," he said.
WHEN the morning session was completed, Mr. Serageldin gave visiting
officials a tour of the library, obviously delighting in both what it
is and what he hopes it will become. If there is one thing that Mr.
Serageldin is not, it is modest. As he walked through the halls, past
the art exhibits, sculptures, supercomputers and computer archives,
the hundreds of computer terminals at desks, one visitor asked, "Is
this all your doing?"
To which he replied, with a nod, "Yes."
Around the corner, Ahmed Mazhar, an accountant, was touring the
library with his wife and three children when he spotted Mr.
Serageldin, whom he recognized from his television appearances.
"It is good that he is open-minded like this," Mr. Mazhar said. "At
this particular point, Egypt needs people like him, people who are
well educated and who entice everyone else to be the same."
Mona El-Naggar contributed reporting.