Arab thinkers must come up with a new reading of the Islamic message, one which is in harmony with the modern world rather than contradicting it, says Hachem Saleh. Mohammed Massad interviewed the Syrian intellectual in Paris, France
What is your definition of fundamentalism?
Hachem Saleh: In the Arab world the word fundamentalism is widely used as a synonym for a narrow-minded attitude. When we say a person is a fundamentalist, it means he is narrow-minded or fanatical in his religious views. This person understands religion as something that makes life more difficult, not easier, though the Koran recommends just the opposite.
Fundamentalism also means that one interprets the Holy Book literally, not metaphorically. This in turn means that the literal meaning has precedence over the deep, essential meaning of the religious content. Take, for example, Protestant fundamentalism in the US: its adherents read the Holy Scriptures literally and refuse to understand their meaning in a metaphorical sense.
Basically, fundamentalism means a return to the fundamentals and a strict adherence to them. This leads to the attempt to bring into line currently predominant religious convictions on the one hand and cultural and institutional opinion on the other hand. At some point in the distant past the latter were forced to adopt these convictions, even though faith should always be open, free and renewable and must not be allowed to become rigid.
Unlike people in past centuries, in the age of modern sciences and philosophy we can no longer believe in myths and miracles which contradict the laws of physics and the natural sciences. Furthermore, we cannot read the Holy Scriptures as writings on physics, chemistry, biology or mathematics. First and foremost they are books for spiritual and ethical questions. By contrast, the fundamentalist believes that all the modern sciences can be found in the Holy Scriptures.
To what extent is fundamentalism a problem for the Islamic world?
Saleh: Fundamentalism has become a complicated problem which is standing in the way of progress for the Arab-Islamic peoples. This is because its ideas contradict modern scientific theory, which, however, does not prevent it from insisting that its ideas are sacred, infallible and above debate. This means that every Muslim is faced with an acid test: if he adopts the teachings of the modern world and rejects fundamentalist ideas, he feels guilty because society regards these ideas as sacred.
Yet if he turns his back on modern thinking and submits to fundamentalism, he has the feeling that he is moving away from developments in science, philosophy and rationality. This puts him in a dilemma which he can neither escape nor solve.
This problem will only be solved when Arab thinkers offer a new reading of the Koranic and Islamic message. This means a reading which is in harmony with the modern world rather than contradicting it, as is the case today. In other words: we need a liberal and rational interpretation of Islam to confront the narrow-minded, medieval interpretation which currently dominates the Arab world.
Why do you think there is an exclusive focus on Islamic fundamentalism, when fundamentalism as such affects all religions and ideologies? Might it have to do with the fact that religion is avenging itself on religion, as Gilles Kepel put it?
Saleh: As I said before: fundamentalism affects all forms of religion, not just Islam. But unlike in Islam, the European Christians and the Jews managed to subject their traditional convictions to criticism by contrasting them with scientific and historiographic findings. This has not yet happened in Islam. But that is bound to change soon. It is just a question of time.
Kepel's notion that "religion avenges itself on religion" means that religion has returned to the scene with a vengeance in an age of liberal, Marxist and nationalistic ideologies when we really believed it had been completely overcome.
Fundamentalists are accused of rejecting modernity on the one hand, but on the other hand using its instruments and technologies better than any of its disciples. Isn't this a contradiction in terms?
Saleh: Fundamentalists only use the technology of the modern sciences, while strictly rejecting the philosophy which forms the foundations of modernity and enabled its development. For this reason some scientists regard them as schizophrenic.
For the theologian Hans Küng, the dialogue among the Christian religious communities initiated by the Ecumenical movement was the key to religious peace in Christianity. Would that be a precondition for dialogue among the Islamic religious communities on the one hand and among the world religions on the other? And do you believe this would be enough to overcome fundamentalism?
Saleh: I have a high regard for Hans Küng as a great Christian theologian because he develops a theology in keeping with the 21st century: a liberated theology which takes into account the scientific and philosophical progress that humanity has made. In so doing he defies the medieval theology which is no longer appropriate to our times. And one would wish that the Islamic world had scholars who were as open to scientific and philosophical theories as Hans Küng.
The Ecumenical movement has certainly had a positive influence on the development of European Christianity, and a similar development ought to start in Islam as well. The Sunni-Shiite conflict is starting civil wars thought the entire region and laying it to waste.
Your book presents the hypothesis that western thought arrived at the age of modernity and post-modernity because the progress of the western world was associated with a shift in religious thinking. Wouldn't this mean that Arab-Islamic thought must lose all hope of progress?
Saleh: No, we must not lose hope. But we should take the path of religious enlightenment, as the industrialized nations have done. If we do not do that, we will never escape the one-way street we have gotten stuck on. And it is a fact that those lagging behind follow those who have made progress; that is nothing to be ashamed of, it is a sociological law which has been valid since Ibn-Khaldoun.
What is your view of Habermas' statement that a correction in the course of globalization holds the solution to the problem of terrorism?
Saleh: I don't believe that Habermas reduces the problem of Islamic fundamentalism to economic aspects. After all, he also calls for enlightenment in the Arab world. Here he locates the responsibility in the unjust excesses of globalization. That is very much to his credit as a western thinker; he acknowledges the fact that the west is responsible for the highly volatile situation we have gotten into in the Arab world.
This shows that fundamentalism is a highly complex phenomenon and that both internal and external factors have contributed to its development. That is why one should do one's best to avoid focusing exclusively on one aspect.
Interview: Mohammed Massad
© Qantara.de 2007
Translated from the German by Isabel Cole
Hachem Saleh is a Syrian author and translator who is currently based in Paris. In 2006 he published a book on Islamic fundamentalism in Arabic.