Abdelwahab Meddeb is one of North Africa's most important contemporary thinkers. Meddeb talked to Beat Stauffer in Tunis about the maladies of Islam and his own confession to an open, humanist Islam
Your new book "Contre-prêches" contains 115 reflections on topical subjects such as the Madrid bombings and the veil ban in France, but also observations on world literature, hospitality and the "freedom of the body". Why did you call your book "counter-sermons"? Do you want to create a counterweight to the television appearances of conservative Muslim preachers watched around the world?
Abdelwahab Meddeb: That's exactly it. I want to show that there might be possibilities to take up elements from Islamic tradition; elements that could be a kind of antidote to the poison of religious fundamentalism and that obey the principle of life rather than the bleak, misanthropic spirit of fundamentalist preaching.
Did you choose a new, more accessible form for this book to attract a larger potential readership than "La Maladie de l'Islam"?
Meddeb: It's really just a different form. The new book started out as weekly opinion pieces I wrote for Radio Medi 1 in Tangiers, which were broadcasted over a space of three years.
The title "La Maladie de l'Islam" – and also the ideas you present in the book – may well have offended a lot of devout Muslims. Were you not concerned that your provocative choice of title might put a lot of Muslims off ever reading it?
Meddeb: I have to say first of all that the book has been translated into 16 languages – including Arabic and Turkish. In fact I did think a lot about whether to change the title in Arabic. In the end I chose the title "The Illusions of Political Islam". A lot of people have read the book, and it may well have helped certain people to re-orientate.
What I really want to do is write a critique of my religion, Islam, in a similar way as Nietzsche did with Christianity. A lot of people don't realise that there were critical voices in Islam in the 9th and 10th centuries, who were a lot more radical than today's critics.
In the two books we've mentioned, you take a vehement stand against Islamists of all shades and colours. But at the same time you criticise the traditionalists, for example professors at Cairo's famed Al-Azhar University.
Meddeb: Islam's enormous problem is that Islamism is attempting to spread its message in all directions. The official Islam, which is a kind of final metamorphosis of traditional Islam, is becoming increasingly infiltrated and poisoned by Islamist ideas. Traditionalist Islam, though, was involved in a very interesting phase of development starting in the 19th century. There was a recognisable willingness to adapt to the conditions of the time and develop the necessary concepts.
But now this way of thinking is disappearing; and to tackle Islamism, traditional Islam has adopted a strategy of taking over part of the Islamist message. That has made it almost as rigid itself.
Your criticism of the Islamists – especially all those based in Europe – is extremely strong...
Meddeb: That's right. I have an extreme aversion to these groupings and everything they represent, and when I see them in Europe, I say to myself: alright, that's all part of the freedom in democratic societies. But at the same time I want to warn people about these movements.
Some Europeans would probably have difficulty following your arguments. They feel it is part of the freedom of the individual to wear the veil or even the niqab. Have these people failed to see the Islamists' true nature?
Meddeb: I don't know. I think we have to be careful about multiculturalism. Of course it's very important for us to take other cultures and their values into account in Europe. But multiculturalism is not a place where everyone can do whatever they like. We can't let the fundamental values disappear. We have to look exactly at what things mean. The veil is a symbol. What does this symbol mean? If this symbol conflicts with my own values, why should I accept it?
You've been very critical of the integration of Muslims in Europe. Can you tell us some more about your standpoint?
Meddeb: It appears to me that the Islamists have taken on a strategy of circumventing the European legal systems. And at the same time they're increasingly attempting to introduce Islamic law in Europe. I see this as a serious matter, because the two systems are entirely incompatible. If it goes on this way, we'll soon be in the extremely difficult and confused situation that characterises many Islamic countries.
Your advice to the Islamic world to find a way out of its severe crisis is to allow "cross-pollination" from Europe and the achievements of its civilisation.
Meddeb: That's exactly what many Muslims did in the past, and some of them are still doing so. But this stream of thought seems to be in the defensive in the Islamic world at the moment. I don't think this is a final defeat though; it's more of a pendulum movement.
For me, fundamentalism and integrism essentially mean a search for purity, and a consequential rejection of all "outside" elements. But if you remove all the outside elements from what makes up Islamic civilisation, there's not much left; all of Islamic civilisation is founded on the adoption and adaptation of elements that came from outside. Without the contributions of the Persians, Indians and Greeks, there would have been no Islamic civilisation.
We can extend this to the present day as well. All these fundamentalists who dream of "purity" and don't want any outside elements, and who think they're the spiritual descendants of the Prophet of Medina, are very wrong. If you take a closer look at the two main mosques in Medina and Mecca, Islam's holiest places, you can soon see they correspond with a kind of Disneyland "non-aesthetics".
Today's Islamists think they are the spiritual contemporaries of the Prophet, but really they're Americanised without even noticing it; and their spiritual situation couldn't be worse.
Interview Beat Stauffer
© Beat Stauffer/Qantara.de 2007
Beat Stauffer is a freelance journalist based in Basle. His main field is the Islamic world and the Maghreb in particular.
Abdelwahab Meddeb: Contre-prêches. Chroniques. Edition Le Seuil, 2006.
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire