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The Malady of Islam

Paul Monk

Abdelwahab Meddeb is a Tunisian poet and novelist, who has made his home in Paris and teaches comparative literature at the University of Paris. He has been a visiting professor at Yale University. He is a kind of French Tunisian Harold Bloom. His book La Maladie de l’Islam, (Editions du Seuil, 2002), was published in New York last year, as The Malady of Islam, and in London, under the title Islam and Its Discontents. It is very Bloom-like in its temper and style. One thinks especially of Bloom’s The American Religion (1992) and Kabbalah and Criticism (1979).

Whereas Bloom derives his critical lan from being a secularized Jew in love with the Western canon, Meddeb derives his own critical freedom from being a liberal scholar steeped in the Arabic canon, but more at ease in the secular West than in the Islamic world. He rejoices in heterodoxy and celebrates the heretics, Sufis, theosophists, libertines and free thinkers who punctuate the history of Islam. He declares, “I must confess that I felt something like shock with the reveiling of women in one of the strongholds of freedom and Western culture, Paris, France.”

None of this will endear him to those of his co-religionists who seek to restore Islam to what they imagine as its pristine truth. He, in turn, sees their project as an “insane absolute theocentrism.” He states forthrightly that “no rationale inherited from the past can justify” the acts of Osama bin Laden and his confederates. He derides the Taliban regime as having been “ridiculous” and “archaic” and denounces the works of the leading proponents of Islamic jihad, the Pakistani Abu al-A’la Mawdudi (1903-1979) and the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb (1929-1966) as a “radical and terrifying vision” in which the whole of civilization other than radical Islam “merits annihilation”.

Meddeb wants to see the Islamic world modernized. He decries the failure of the Islamic world to overcome “the despotic atavism at the foundation of the [Arab Islamic] tradition”. A United Nations Development Program report of 2002, he notes, documented the “catastrophic situation of the Arab present” and could not be dismissed as anti-Islamic or anti-Arab propaganda, given that “its researchers and authors are specialists native to the countries concerned.” It concluded that “the (combined) gross national product of all Arab countries…is less than that of Spain” and the number of books translated into Arabic each year is fewer than those translated into Lithuanian, though there are 300 million Arabs and only one and half million Lithuanians.

There are, of course, many who blame the West for the backwardness of the Islamic world, or who even assert that the term backwardness is a term of abuse. Such views are myopic. It is not the West that has retarded the development of the Islamic world. It is the tradition of despotism and religious obscurantism in the Arab and Islamic world that has done so. The West’s worst contribution to backwardness and repression in the Islamic world has been to refrain from frank criticism of the cultural roots of both. Meddeb’s book is a useful antidote to such self-defeating evasion.

“Between fear and political correctness, it’s not possible to say anything other than sugary nonsense about Islam”, wrote historian Alexander Stille in The New York Times on 2 March 2002. He had a point. Yet there are those who have written other than sugary nonsense about Islam, notable among them Ibn Warraq (Why I Am Not a Muslim), Bernard Lewis (What Went Wrong? and The Crisis of Islam), Robert Spencer (Islam Unveiled) and Azar Nafisi (Reading Lolita in Tehran). Meddeb is of this company. He states, at the beginning of his book, that in order to understand where the fanaticism of contemporary radical Islamists comes from, “we have to go far back in time. We have to recognize exactly where the letter - the Qur’an and tradition - is predisposed to a fundamentalist reading.”

He takes for granted that we should critically analyse Islam to separate the benign from the dangerous, the false and pernicious from the insightful and dignified. Meddeb neither rejects his Islamic cultural tradition wholesale, nor embraces it defensively, nor even insists that his modernist and decidedly liberal response to it is the only correct one. Rather, he says, it is vital that both Muslims and non-Muslims better understand the complex history of Islam and converge on a creative reshaping of it for the 21st century world - a secularization of it, by any other name. What he does not make clear is how or by whom this counter project is to be undertaken and brought to fruition.

“The Qur’anic letter, if submitted to a literal reading”, he concedes, “can resonate in the space delimited by the fundamentalist project. It can respond to one who wants to make it talk within the narrowness of those confines; for it to escape, it needs to be invested with the desire of the interpreter. Rather than distinguishing a good Islam from a bad Islam, it would be better for Islam to open itself to debate and discussion, to rediscover the plurality of opinions, to set up a space for disagreement and difference, to accept that a neighbour has the freedom to think differently. Better for Islam if intellectual debate rediscovers its rights and adapts itself to the conditions polyphony offers.”

This sounds very liberal and imaginative, of course. The problem is that it is more of a literary flourish than a practical policy recommendation. Meddeb’s real heroes are not Muhammed and the first caliphs, but Abu Nawas, Ibn Rawandi, Ibn Hazm and al-Ma’arri, all iconoclasts in the classical Islamic world and by any clear definition not actually Muslims at all. Abu Nawas was a poet who celebrated wine and women, in the manner of the Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam. Ibn Hazm was a skeptic in the Greek Pyrrhonist tradition, while al-Ma’arri conceptually did away with all religions. When, therefore, Meddeb calls for polyphony, he is, in reality, calling on the Muslim world to give up not only violent persecution of others, but the core notion that it is founded on a divine revelation.

The Islamic tradition that Meddeb disdains is the Salafist tradition, dating back to the 9th century fundamentalist, Ibn Hanbal and Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), an Old Testament style prophet who called for radical purification of Islam after the Mongol invasions and the sack of Baghdad. But this is precisely the tradition invoked by our contemporary Islamists and they trace its development up through the efforts of the Arabic Savonarola, Mohammed Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949) and the fusing of Egyptian Azhari radicalism with Saudi Wahhabist radicalism after the 1967 Six Day War.

This tradition pointedly rejects the kind of polyphony Meddeb calls for. One of its greatest 20th century theoreticians, Sayyid Qutb, explicitly argued in his most widely translated manifesto, Milestones, that the humanities and social sciences should be rejected as sources of knowledge about man, society and reality, because they programmatically undermine Islam as a revealed religion. It was Qutb’s teaching that Islam is unique, that it cannot be mingled with what he called jaahilii (non-Islamic or pagan) beliefs and values and, most alarmingly, that, in the words of Ahmed Bouzid, “the transition from jaahiliyyah to the Islamic order can be successfully carried out neither gradually nor through persuasion, but only through an abrupt confrontation with the prevailing jaahilii order.”

Al Qaeda and many similar bodies in the Islamic world in our time are grounded in this kind of thinking. Meddeb scorns it and dismisses Qutb as a virtual illiterate, but he was no more illiterate than was Lenin. He was a systematic thinker and widely read in the Western philosophical and sociological works he decisively rejected. His ideas have a wide appeal among the rancorous and ignorant in the Islamic world, as Lenin’s used to have among the colonized and exploited. They need to be countered as one would counter a contagion like SARS.

The problem is that the contagion is already at the level of a pandemic. It is the malady of Islam and it is not a perversion of the old religion, but a virulent reassertion of it against a world the Islamists see as corrupt and Godless. What, then, to do about the contagion? Meddeb has only the vaguest of ideas. He is a man of broadly Islamic culture, with whom it is clearly possible to talk polyphonically. He does not, however, provide any clue as to how we are to deal with the Islamists, who are not disposed to such talk, but simply call upon us, as Abu Bakar Bashir did after the Bali bombing, to convert as quickly as possible to Islam. If we dismiss them or describe them only as terrorists, we miss the point and our mark. The cultural and economic future of the Islamic world are at stake and the Islamists have a vision of both and a plan of action. Do you?