Farouk Hasni is an Egyptian artist, an abstract painter with exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and institutions in Europe and the Middle East. For a while, he looked like a shoo-in to become the next director general of UNESCO (U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). His candidacy was pushed hard by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who thought that it was high time for an Arab to get the job.
But many are asking if he is the “Wrong Man for Top Job at UNESCO?” What’s the beef?
Over his career, Hosni has accumulated a long record of opposing exchanges with Israel, repeatedly saying normalization must await resolution of the Palestinian issue and warning that opening up to Jewish culture would be dangerous for Egypt. But his most notorious sally came in May last year, when he told an Islamist member of the Egyptian parliament that he would personally burn any Israeli books found in Egyptian libraries.
Generally speaking, you might think that book burners wouldn’t be at the top of the list to head an educational, scientific, and cultural organization—even if it is the UN’s educational, scientific, and cultural organization. So a few months ago, as his campaign for the post gathered steam, Hosni was forced to issue an apology. “In a statement published in Paris, he attributed it to a hot temper and an Arabic-language metaphor that sounded worse than it was.” Right! Hosni, right on cue, set out to prove he was really a “moderate Muslim” not at all like those Islamists he tried to appease.
But his opponents, particularly Jewish activists and intellectuals, weren’t willing to let bygones be bygones:
Bernard-Henri Lévy, the French philosopher; Claude Lanzmann, the producer of a landmark film on the Holocaust; and Elie Wiesel, the writer and Holocaust survivor, issued a joint statement charging that Hosni’s election would be a “shipwreck” for already troubled UNESCO and calling on the organization to “spare itself the shame” of choosing such a leader.
“Mr. Farouk Hosni is the opposite of a man of peace, dialogue and culture,” they said. “Mr. Farouk Hosni is a dangerous man, an inciter of hearts and minds.”
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, an international Jewish group dedicated to tracking down former Nazis, said that, given his background, the prospect of Hosni as director general poses “a major threat to the very values of UNESCO.”
Attacking from another angle, Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based journalism watchdog, said Hosni had failed to demonstrate his support for the freedom of expression that is one of UNESCO’s main missions.
“This minister of Hosni Mubarak has been one of the main actors of censorship in Egypt, unfailingly trying to control press freedom as well as citizens’ freedom of information,” the group said.
Another critic seems to be the new U.S. ambassador to UNESCO, David T. Killion. In a conversation with Egyptian journalists, Hosni accused Killion of working furiously in private to undermine support for his candidacy.
According to media accounts of the conversation, Hosni attributed Killion’s zeal to the fact that he is Jewish. Acquaintances said Killion is not Jewish but noted that he worked for the late Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), an ardent promoter of Israel.
What all these critics don’t seem to understand, however, is that Hosni really is, in some sense, a moderate. It’s not like he’s an Islamist, or a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, or Al Qaeda, or anything radical like that. You might say that he is a kinder, gentler sort of anti-Jewish, book-burning artist. Which explains, no doubt, why the U.S. State Department refuses to say whether the Obama administration officially opposes or supports Hosni, preferring instead to let it be known through “a senior administration official in Washington”—speaking on the condition of anonymity, of course—that “There’s no way we can support this guy.”
But, it seems, there may be no way they can oppose him either. Why is that? Welcome to the world of Arab-Israeli politics:
Even Israel, which spent months attacking Hosni’s candidacy, has backed off in recent months. Foreign Ministry officials said they got orders to drop the opposition after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu visited Cairo in May seeking Mubarak’s cooperation in preventing arms smuggling to the Gaza Strip and other issues important to the Jewish state.
Once again the US and Israel, not to mention the eternally feckless Europeans, have been put in a bind by the “moderate Muslim” world. Choose your poison: Do we swallow hard and go with your average, everyday, anti-Jewish, book-burning, non-Islamist bigot and his dictator patron, Hosni Mubarak, if the “moderates” promise to keep the really, serious book burning, anti-Jewish Islamist bigots—the Muslim Brothers in Egypt and the Muslim Brothers (HAMAS) in Gaza—at bay?
I can appreciate why, as a matter of national security, Bibi and the Israeli’s will go with Mubarak and the non-Islamist, anti-Jewish bigots, rather than the Islamists. And I can understand why the folks over at Foggy Bottom might have to play nice with Mubarak, at least officially. But could we be spared, please, all this talk about “moderate Islam.” Maybe there are a few moderate Muslims in the Middle East, but where are they? Where are the Muslim intellectuals and religious leaders in the Arab world denouncing the candidacy of this book burning anti-Jewish bigot? Is that too much to ask?
I suspect it is too much to ask. But then, could someone please tell me why Huntington’s “clash of civilization” thesis was so overblown?