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Islam's heritage of violence

In an interview with Michael Mönninger, Abdelwahab Meddeb is perplexed by the Pope but makes clear that more shows of violence simply reinforce what he said.

Abdelwahab Meddeb. Photo: Ute SchendelAbdelwahab Meddeb. Photo: Ute Schendel

Die Zeit: Mr. Meddeb, how is it that in the Middle Ages, a peaceful dispute between Christians and Muslims was possible, whereas today, the very mention of these times causes an uproar?

Abdelwahab Meddeb: Because at that time, the Islamic world was home to a large, well-educated upper class which encouraged debate. Throughout the medieval period, there were renowned literary salons in major cities like Baghdad that were run by aristocratic patrons and merchants and whose sole raison d’être was to bring together Christians, Jews and various sects who did not agree at all on questions of faith. The Pope is wrong to speak of a single Islamic doctrine; there were many, and they were often the subject of open disputes. In Tunis, the capital of the Maghreb, the Sultan explicitly placed progressive theologians under the protection of the freedom of opinion and defended them against attacks by the people. Of course, the majority of simple Muslims were uneducated and hardly willing to be persuaded by the power of logic and arguments as the intellectuals hoped. Today, we have comparable Muslim masses, but there is little trace of an educated elite capable of leading the discussion.

Die Zeit: An obviously historical quotation used by the Pope is immediately understood as a declaration of aggression in the here and now. What is the source of this lack of historical awareness among Muslims?

Meddeb: I would ask you to consider that the Pope used this quotation not as a historical reference but as an assessment of Islam today. Nonetheless, Muslims must recognise that the aspects of their religion addressed by the Pope are not a malicious invention, but something that has existed from the outset in spoken and written form. For far too long now, Islam has failed to openly discuss this dangerous dimension of its faith. The imams and theologians are to blame for not dealing with the ignorance in their communities. The protesting masses show that the official state version of Islam has failed and that the old mediating role of the clerics is on the verge of bankruptcy. They are afraid that their mythology and the foundations of their faith will be demystified by historical and scientific criticism. So they put up barriers. Paradoxically, they are abetted in this by Western stereotypes, such as the claim that there is no dividing line between the religious and the political. In saying this, Western experts on Islam are in accord with the fundamentalists. A glance at the history of Islam shows that the claim is totally false.

Die Zeit: By raising the issue of violence, did the Pope hit a raw nerve?

Meddeb: Actually he didn’t, because theologians have been discussing this issue in great detail for centuries. In Islam, both sides exist: those who want conversion by the sword and want to kill all non-believers, and those who call for an end to coercion as part of religion. What is worrying is that in spite of this split, the violent side is the only one present in the media and in the self-image of Muslims. It’s just that when the Muslim subject falls ill, it chooses the warlike part of the Prophet’s message.

Die Zeit: Where does this disease come from?

Meddeb: If fanaticism was the disease of Catholicism and Nazism was the German disease, then fundamentalism is the disease of Islam. On the one hand, it is a way of fleeing the centuries-old inferiority to the West, but it is also a reaction to the failure of the West to acknowledge Islam as representing an inner otherness. But we should no longer react to these provocations by purely military means as in the failed war in Iraq. The real danger is not warlike Islam but authoritarian Islam which subjects day-to-day life in its entirety to religious practice.

Die Zeit: What was more provocative about the speech given by Pope Benedict XVI. – his criticism of the basis of the Islamic faith because it stands above all reason, or his raising of the question of violence?

Meddeb: The Pope is right to suggest that in principle, all belief systems built on ultimate truths will produce fanaticism. But what the Pope says about the role of reason in Islam is totally at odds with historical reality. One only has to study the theologians who convincingly founded Islam on reason following debates on Christianity and Hellenism. Seeing as he is German, it's a mystery to me why the Pope is not familiar with the rich intellectual resources devoted to these very issues by Islamic studies in Germany. That said, the protesting Muslims don’t have the slightest interest in subtleties like the question of reason. They take to the street because of the Pope’s mention of the issue of violence, and they don’t even realise that these violent manifestations confirm what the Pope is saying. Well into the nineteenth century and in many cases until the end of the colonial period, the great Islamic reformers repeatedly managed to neutralise jihad. But after World War I, the Islamists rediscovered jihad as a driving force to restore the hegemony and sovereignty of Islam.

Die Zeit: Are we going to see violent outbreaks like those triggered by the recent dispute over the Muhammed cartoons?

Meddeb: Only if the familiar feedback starts up again. In this matter, many Muslims resemble the Western media: they only show up when there’s trouble, because they love it when things escalate.

Die Zeit: What can the Pope do?

Meddeb: On no account should he tone down the dispute or allow himself to be intimidated. He has already apologised too much. I am very glad that he has addressed these problems. There is a growing number of Muslims who are willing to deal with such criticism in depth.

Die Zeit: Where does the violence in Islam come from?

Meddeb: It really is not unique to Islam. But whereas it took Christianity a thousand years to discover fire and the sword, this violent persuasion was part of Islam’s inheritance from the very beginning. Muhammed was a warlike Prophet, and the Islamic conquests from China to Spain followed a quasi-Napoleonic principle. Yes, Muhammed was a kind of successful Napoleon. But this is less astonishing than the fact that there was violence in Christianity, as this was completely at odds with the spirit of the gospels. Acting against all Christian teachings, there were Popes who also called for holy war and promised religious warriors a place in the kingdom of heaven. Not to mention the forced conversions during the Inquisition, when Jews and Muslims in Spain had the choice between exile, burning at the stake, and baptism. But just as the Christians overcame their historical phase of violence, the Muslims face the same challenge. What Europe experienced in the age of the Enlightenment happened a century later in the Arab world, coming mainly from Egypt, which until the interwar period was the centre of modernity and reason in the Islamic world. That was the place most likely to produce a figure like Spinoza, someone to finally break the taboo of the holiness of scripture.

Die Zeit: Why did this process stall?

Meddeb: Since the Middle Ages, Islam has been left behind by the rise of Christianity and has resigned itself to this plight. But we should not forget that Christianity too had to pass through the bloodbath of interdenominational wars. The fundamentalists’ current struggle against modernity can be seen as a form of belated inter-denominational war. One major problem is the failed Westernisation of many Muslims, who only have a scant knowledge of their own tradition and who are looking for a replacement. There is no more dramatic example than the attackers of September 11th, who may have been incapable of building aeroplanes but who were at least able to pilot them.

Die Zeit: What can the West do to ensure that this new religious war ends well?

Meddeb: What Europe must do – above all the Germans and the French – is to face Islam with solid convictions and to make clear to the Arab states what a danger the fundamentalists pose to the world. To give just one example: many countries have no idea of the unbelievable things going on in their schools. After September 11th, when Saudi Arabia’s leaders were reeling under the shock of Saudi nationals having attacked the country’s traditional protector, the USA, the Saudis were surprised to realise that their children’s schoolbooks contained things that were bound to produce hordes of little bin Ladens. The rulers of many Arab states have long since lost touch with their populations, which is most clearly visible in the puritanical Stone Age Islam of the Wahhabis.

Die Zeit: Which Islamic country holds the most promise in this respect?

Meddeb: Turkey. Its status as part of Europe is a matter of survival for us. Admitting the Turks into the EU would provide essential confirmation of the solidity of our principles, which are not just Judeo-Christian, but which contain a mighty historical promise of convergence. On this point, I do not agree at all with the Pope, who rejects the entry of Turkey into the EU. But I also think Morocco is on the right path, even if it has seen no republican awakening like Turkey. As a result of the French influence, the whole of the northern Mediterranean region is suited to becoming a laboratory for European thought. Only here can we win the worldwide cultural battle against the Islamists.

Die Zeit: But is Turkey modern enough?

Meddeb: I'm sure it is. The claims that a new Islamic republic is emerging in Turkey are all false. I only know one other country that defends its republican achievements with as much vigour as Turkey, and that is France. Democratic Islam is just as feasible as democratic Christianity. Moreover, the Turkish army protects secularism and makes sure that the Islamists abide by pluralism. What is happening in Turkey and Morocco is the strongest force in disarming the type of fundamentalism that is currently developing in Pakistan, the most dangerous development of its kind in the world. In Pakistan, fundamentalism lies at the heart of the reasons of state. By contrast, I am not at all concerned about Iran because Persian civilisation – in spite of Ahmadinejad – is enormously strong and highly developed. Iran's current attempt to secure a position within the world by means of its nuclear programme is a problem, but not an insoluble one, as the example of South Africa has shown.

Die Zeit: And what can the Pope do?

Meddeb: In his next address, he should delve a little deeper into the history of Islamic thought and not only refer Muslims to their shortcomings, but also remind them of the full glory of their traditions.


Abdelwahab Meddeb is a high-profile French writer of Arab origin. He was born in Tunis in 1946 and comes from a long family line of theologians and scholars. He studied art history and literature, beginning his working life as an editor for a major Paris publishing house. Between 1974 and 1988, he edited his own series of literary titles at Editions Sindbad. He has published the novels Talismano (1976) and Aya dans les villes (1999). His book The Malady of Islam (2003) gives a precise analysis of contemporary Islam. He lives in Paris.

This interview originally appeared in German in Die Zeit on September 21, 2006.

Translation: Nicholas Grindell

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