Abdelwahab Meddeb: The Malady of Islam (10)


The Malady of Islam

by Abdelwahab Meddeb

translated from the French by
Pierre Joris and Charlotte Mandell

(10th installment)


Fundamentalism Against the West


We’ll begin with the first conjunction and its effects on Egypt.  In the beginning of the 1970s, to fight against the Left, Sadat supported the return to legality of the fundamentalists whose political, if not physical, presence Nasser had abolished.  The legalization of fundamentalists, given their numbers, creates an explosive situation.  At the same time, the democratization of learning corresponds to the soaring demography; the number of university diplomas increases at the cost of third-rate education.  The masses of the semi-literate inflate in their turn.  Poor wages force the pseudo-academics to emigrate to Arabia.  In this political and social context, Egypt is subject to an active re-Islamization that accompanies the strategy of infitah, advocating opening up to the West — the best way of liquidating the state economy, inherited from Nasserism.

Integration into the market economy is strengthened by an alliance with the United States.  A regional coherence is established, with the convergence of Egyptian and Arabic perspectives.  For Egypt will come close to the Wahhabite example, at the risk of deviating from its Western tradition, still evident in literary experience.  Literature will find itself relegated to the margins:  the reading public is reduced as the television audience widens.  That is the effect of the Americanization of the world.  The triumph of the window of light, the new box of wonders, will bring cinematographic and literary creation, which was the vector of Europeanization, towards the periphery.  One had to adapt or die.  Resistance, especially of a literary kind, could create the conditions of a survival at the margins, where there was no lack of experimentation.  But the great majority remained riveted to televised images, as elsewhere in the world.  In the lands of Islam, though, because of the contrast a heterogeneous way of life makes when compared with the kind that television shows, change seems more obvious; it can be seen on the surface of things.  There is no need to dig deep or even to scrape the surface to unearth its evidence.

I will not linger over the emergence and entry into society of the fundamentalist phenomenon; it is described in its time by Gilles Kepel.[1]  I will not recall the inflammatory sermons of hysterical imams, who exulted in adorning their verbal anti-Westernism with flowers of rhetoric that belong to the resources of the language they use.  Such an anti-Westernism resounds in the walls of the city with a thousand mosques at the very time when the politicians place their hopes in a Western alliance, which will make Egypt (especially its army) an example of this new form of protectorate of which America is fond.  The re-Islamization of society and the American alliance will go hand in hand and will constitute another paradox, which I will call the Egyptian paradox.  As the society becomes Americanized (through incitement to material consumption and through the media), the quest for the specific gains in intensity.

This phenomenon will have as its emblem the sequence animated by the deception of the Islamic banks, adapting financial investment to the divine law which forbids the earning of interest, which is considered usury.  I will not insist on the bankruptcies that interrupted the activities of these banks; nor will I evoke the technical details that disguise bank interest as licit earnings.  The aim of such institutions was to answer to an ideological demand:  they were supposed to make the Islamic quality of participation in the market visible.  Such subterfuges prove illusory when any reasonable person knows that the immense Wahhabite fortunes flourished in the spheres of high finance and according to the rules of the Stock Exchange, which is not moved by any inclination to bend to the prescriptions of Islam.  The Islamic banks’ vocation was to symbolize the articulation between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, between Nile fundamentalism (heritage of the movement born in the 1920s, as I recalled earlier) and Arabic Wahhabism.  This was a way to give a color of Islam to the money earned by the Egyptian expatriates in Arabia. 

Should we connect the fundamentalist word with its deed, with the appearance of terrorism at the beginning of the 1980’s, of which one spectacular victim was Anwar al-Sadat, who was at the origin of the return to this political radicalism in Cairo? Recall that behind this political assassination[2] stands the specter of Dr. Ayman al-Zawahri, whom the reader will find later as the right hand man of Osama bin Laden during the second conjunction between fundamentalism and Wahhabism, the one that inducted the Afghan scene, as prelude to the attacks of September 11, 2001.  Should we also bring to mind the merciless war that the Egyptian government directed against fundamentalist terrorism, guilty of a long list of executed or excommunicated victims, featuring politicians and people belonging to the intellectual milieu or civil society, punished for having remained faithful to what’s left of the values spread by Western modernity? In this war, Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, almost joined his predecessor in death during the assassination attempt made on him in Addis-Ababa in July 1995.

But I would above all like to stress the consequences of such a political process devoted to violence.  Through its imprint, a society has changed its face.  Even if, politically, the fundamentalists have not won, their ideology has marked the whole of the social body.  Some of their precepts have been adopted by official Islam; in the war of words, the State thought it had to take away from the fundamentalists the argument denouncing the non-conformity of their society to Islamic norms.  To defuse this criticism, the State decided to entrust to al-Azhar the governance of souls, provided it would minimize the reach of political Islam.  After such a tacit agreement, society found itself metamorphosed.  The signs of European modernity were obliterated, while Islamic signs (adapted to an Americanized urban landscape) were restored. The most obvious of these signs, and the most polemic, is the wearing of veils by women.  With a few rare exceptions, even the most Westernized women conformed to this return to Islamic norm; the elegant ones created headgear to fit the circumstance, which fit tightly around their hair and kept it hidden.  The memory of the feminist Hoda Sha’râwi is as effaced as the beautiful Neo-Mameluke house where she used to live.  The house is destroyed; the land where it set now serves as a garage for the tourist buses visiting the pharaonic museum. 

At best, we are witnessing the unfurling of a devout society, the realization on earth of a human ensemble obeying what the Savoyard St. François de Sales had thought and imagined (in a different age!) when he recommended

accommodating the practice of devotion to the strength, business, and duties of each particular (…).  “The bee,” Aristotle said, “draws its honey from flowers without disturbing them,” leaving them whole and fresh as it found them; but true devotion does even better, for, not only does it not spoil any kind of vocation or business, but on the contrary it adorns and embellishes them.[3]

In such a way, through your devotion, you can contribute to founding a society subject to Islamic virtue while still keeping your profession, your economic activities; nor does devout practice prevent you from satisfying the desire to consume, or to succeed in the affairs of business the market offers.

The reeducation of such a society occured through the intervention of televised sermons and instruction, which have had their stars, among whom Sheikh Sha’râwi stands out. The sheikh had a large audience, and even an influence over the modern, enlightened minds that thought they were discovering the subtleties of traditional theology through the obscurantist theology this sheikh spreads, one more avatar in whom the semi-literate, emboldened by their very resentment, can feel triumph. 

Confusion is at its height, the loss of reference-points impairs judgment; and the public takes the theatrics as vitality. It responded to the literalist analogies the sheikh propagated. With drops of spit accompanying his emphatic gestures, this pedagogue of the poor submitted his role to a well-received theatricality despite (or because of) his elementary expressiveness. 

Using the new form of literalism he glorified, he located Qur’anic references to technological innovations, from electricity to the atom.  It was as if the masses of Islam could find an additional reason in this subterfuge to authenticate their book (which is supposed to enclose the very word of God), and credit it with an omniscience anticipating the inventions that changed the way humans live on the earth.  As if from such a sense they distilled an appeasement that could console them for having excluded inventions produced by those evil, strange Westerners.  As if such a divine premonition expressed in their language made them free of guilt, as if it placed their resentment in reserve to help them enjoy the material goods of post-industrial society while keeping the illusion of having been their heralds if not their actual inventors. 

This is the kind of magic thread on which depends adherence to such a religion (whose rational dimension, which frees it from myth and legend to found it in history, its incense-bearing admirers praise).  This claim — shared, moreover, by the proud epigones of three monotheisms — is pushed to the height of its exuberance in fundamentalists like Sayyid Qutb.[4]  But none of them knows that with such ideas thrown together in haste, they themselves are fabricators of myths. 

[1]  Gilles Kepel, Le Prophète et Pharaon [The prophet and pharaoh], Paris:  La Découverte, 1986.

[2]  Note that the fundamentalists, as children of Americanization, already cared about the televisual appearance of their horrendous crimes; they were already marked by the narcissism of the media, beyond the impact on the public that the image procures for them to propagate their ideology and intimidate the world through terror.

[3]  Saint François de Sales, Introduction à la vie dévote [Introduction to the devout life] Paris: Le Seuil, 1961,22-3.

[4]  In the same book we cited earlier, Sayyid Qutb shows how this passage from myth to a reality based on reason remained insufficient with the Jews as well as with the Christians, whose Scriptures are still full of legends (asât’îr) and are scarcely free of the prevailing paganism (wathaniyya). Though he cites Biblical legends, he remains blind to the Koranic recollections of these same legends, as well as to those that are unique to the Book of the Muslims, or that this Book reaps from post-Biblical literatures.


Among the preachers, and even among the “secular” editorialists, an extreme xenophobia illumines the disasters undergone by their community. Thus they invent an imaginary conspiracy attributed to the Other, in the role of the enemy.  The faults of the group and the deviances of individuals are attributable to the evildoing and malevolent foreigner.  Is there a better way of removing responsibility from the individual after having discharged him of guilt? The misfortune that plagues the Muslim has the West as its origin…  and Israel, whose success is irritating:  The counterpoint is in fact his own failure, which he cannot acknowledge.  That is how traditional anti-Semitism is changed into modern anti-Semitism.  A world separates the two ways of expressing hostility against the Jews.  Traditional anti-Semitism involved the theological controversy in which the Jews themselves participated, as was the case of Yehuda Halevi, who, in Arabic, sang the praises of “the despised religion” [translator’s note: Judaism] after having refuted the two rival monotheisms.[1]  Such a feeling of hostility inscribed itself into a competition for legitimacy.  The goal was to establish the authenticity of one’s own theological ground, all the more necessary since it had to distance itself from the potential influence the earlier exercises over the later, from the very moment you decide to found your own building on the site and with the materials of those who preceded you. 

Current anti-Semitism stems from unthinking Westernization; its engagement is fed by the use and adaptation of falsehoods made up by the anti-Semites of the West.  This is the case of the translation and distribution of The Protocol of the Elders of Zion.  Or the use of the anti-Semitic document created in the 1920’s by the American extreme right and attributed to Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), editor of the Constitution. The document that makes him express the suspicion the migration of the Jews should arouse, for if they were to multiply on American soil, they would usurp the State and manipulate it to make it defend their own cause.  This text is considered a blessing by those who, in their anti-Zionist war, don’t care about protecting themselves from the drift toward anti-Semitism. Relying without precaution on such falsehoods, they attribute the American alliance with Israel to Jewish infiltration of the most powerful State in the world.  They fail to see how basic the legitimacy of Israel is in the vision of Anglo-Saxon Protestantism, marked by its Messianic reading of the Old Testament.  They do not know that the Zionist idea emerged in the beginning of the nineteenth century in Puritan writings, from believers who found it unbearable that the Holy Land was not in the hands of its legitimate owners.  The idea of Zionism was born in a Protestant land before being formulated in a much more ample way as a Jewish aspiration.[2]  Let us add to this historic truth the inscription of the Holocaust into the symbolism of the State and in the civic education of the United States, a holocaust of whose accelerating role in the process that led to the foundation of the Hebrew State everyone is well known.[3]

It is important to remember this reality in an effective approach to the Palestinian question.  We must avoid the mistake of the great imam of al-Azhar, Sheikh Tantâwi, who imprudently used the falsehood attributed to Benjamin Franklin and made it the epigraph of the thesis he devoted to what should be a theological subject par excellence, The Children of israel in Koran and Sunna.[4]  This epigraph became the symptom that revealed that a traditional theological treatise had been transformed into an ideological tract, shot through with tendencies evoked by current events.  The Jews of Medina (contemporaries of the Prophet Mohammed) are judged in the same way as the Jews of Israel at war with the Palestinians and the Arabs.  Anti-Judaism is mixed with anti-Zionism and is changed into an anti-Semitism that is not even aware of being made from a Western import.  In the generalized confusion, a theological controversy is assimilated with a political question that in its turn is mixed with a racist perversion.  The wound Israel inflicts on Arab consciences remains exposed to all purulence. 

No one is spared, not even the least obtuse and least fanatical minds, such as Sheikh Tantâwi, one of the reasonable voices of authority of official Islam, representative of a semimagisterium to limit the damage that uncontrolled access to the word causes.  He denounced the deception of Osama bin Laden and denied him any legitimacy in attributing to himself the position of imam; he reminded the Saudi millionaire that he had neither the moral authority nor the doctrinal competence to call for holy war, which had to obey particular conditions to be proclaimed canonically unimpeachable — at a time when that notion was valid.  After saying all that, I am under the obligation to reveal that even the antidote to fundamentalist poison is not safe from the sickness of Islam, one of whose symptoms is xenophobia and anti-Semitism.

Thus we propose to ourselves the theoretical and abstract foreigner as a scapegoat we overload with falsehoods.  Almost unanimously, Egyptian opinion was that the Luxor attack (November 1997) was the result of a conspiracy hatched by the CIA and its Mossad hirelings.  In vain I explained to my interlocutors that beyond the obvious fundamentalist implication, such a massacre of innocent tourists can be perceived as the implementation of the discourse spread in the name of official Islam by the organs controlled by the State.[5]  The problem stems from the Azharian brand of Islam that the State put in charge of souls.  To defuse adherence to fundamentalism, this Islam felt it was in a favorable situation to take over the discourse of Islamists without shouldering its ultimate consequences, those that preach violence and insurrection. 

Can one lead a society with such a discourse toward piety and devotion without inciting it to found the Islamic State that would accord with its moral condition and would assure it, if not permanence, at least endurance and coherence? Are we in a situation in which we are still living the separation between religion and politics? That is certainly the case today in Egypt, but the distance between the values emanating from the two modes of thought is such that it risks producing schizophrenic citizens, susceptible to mending their interior division by soldering it into that unity the fundamentalism of secrecy and violent action promises.  This situation has engendered one of the leaders who directed the September 11 attacks, the one the press has talked about most of all:  Mohammed ‘Atta did not fall from the sky, he is the product of Egyptian reality, which produces many other similar figures.

In the commentaries revived by the latest attacks on New York, we again find at work the same way of disengaging responsibility. The attacks were attributed once again to the Mossad, on the pretext that the instant the planes hit their target, four thousand Jews were not at their posts in the Twin Towers.  Supported by large segments of public opinion from the fringes of the intellectual milieu, the press for a long time gave the spotlight to Mohammed ‘Atta’s father, who did his utmost to explain that his son had been abducted by the Mossad so that his name would be sullied and used in an operation led by the Secret Services of Israel in order to harm Egypt and Islam.  It’s not hard for a father in distress to clear himself of having engendered a criminal and a monster! We should point out too that such attitudes are not unique to Egypt.  While visiting Damascus during the last ten days of September 2001, I discovered that the attribution to the Mossad of the destruction of the Manhattan towers was circulated by the official Syrian press. 

Anti-Western xenophobia combined with anti-Semitism needs rumors to keep going strong.  When I was at Abu Dhabi in May 2001, a number of my interlocutors, of various Arab nationalities (Lebanese, Syrian, Sudanese, etc.) confirmed the warning, spread by the local newspapers, to the public of the countries of the Near East not to buy the very inexpensive belts with the label Made in Thailand. Thes ebelts, the people told me, were actually Israeli products in disguise, and carried a kind of flea that propagated an incurable disease:  one more Zionist trick to weaken Arab bodies, if not eliminate them.  These interlocutors, otherwise reasonable and likeable, gave credit to information as fantastic as that.  Those are the fantasies in which the symptoms of the sickness of Islam can be seen, the receptive compost where the crime of September 11 could be welcomed joyfully.  Didn’t the press report that, in a Cairo bus, when the radio revealed the first estimates of the number of victims pulverized in New York, the passengers had spontaneously applauded and congratulated each other as if they had just received the happiest news? If such a crime brought such joy to these people, how could it be attributed to the Mossad? It is true that opinions afflicted with blindness are not accountable for their contradictions. 

[1]  Yehuda Halevi, Le Kuzari, Apologie de la religion méprisée [The Kuzari:  In defense of the despised faith], translated [into French] from the Arabic by Charles Touati, Louvain-Paris:  Peeters, 1994.

[2]  See Henry Laurens, La Question de Palestine, Volume I, L’Invention de la Terre sainte [The invention of the Holy Land], Paris: Fayard, 1999, 18.  In his demonstration Laurens depends on Mayir Vreté’s study, “The Restoration of the Jews in English Protestant Thought, 1790-1840,” Middle Eastern Studies, vol. VIII, 1972, pp. 3-50.  See also George Robinson, “Jérusalem, 21 août 1830,” pp. 196-200, in Dédale/Multiple Jérusalem, 3 & 4, Paris:  Maisonneuve & Larose, Spring 1996.

[3]  The State of Israel was founded three years after the revelation to the world of the disaster caused by the “final solution.”

[4] Sheikh Ahmad Tantâwi, Beni Isrâ’îl fi-l’Qur’ân wa’s-Sunna, Cairo, 1987, p.9.

[5]  Abdelwahab Meddeb, “Comme un ange déchu au Caire” [Like an angel fallen in Cairo], pp. 402-426, in Dédale/La Venue de l’étranger, Nos. 9 & 10, Paris:  Maisonneuve & Larose, Fall 1999.

[to be continued]

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