Meddeb on Islamic Fundamentalism

Today’s Tageszeitung has an interview with Moroccan poet & essayist Abdelwahab Meddeb, whose book on Islam — The Malady of Islam — I co-translated a few years ago. It was published by Basic Books in New York, but only in a hardcover edition that was gingerly dropped (rather than promoted), hot-potato style, by the publisher and very quickly remaindered (you can get copies via ABE book). In Europe, especially in France and Germany, the book was, on the other hand, extremely succesful, as was its Arabic edition. Here is what Meddeb said about the reception of The Malady of Islam in the US:

I was very surprised about the negative reactions there. One reviewer thought my book was part of the “French syndrome”: that it was saturated with a deep “gallic dislike” for everything American. Another called it an anti-Israeli and anti-American fabrication. And the Army Review’s review of the book said something to the effect that “if even westernized Muslims can’t stand us, we really have to worry.” Do you see the absurdity? Thus while I believe that I have written a through and through pro-western book, I am dismissed as anti-American. Which only goes to show how serious the matter is. My friebnds in the US are speaking of a “Brejnev-era” though I would rather diagnose these times as a quasi-stalinist phase. With the motto “those who are not with us, are against us” all criticism is effectively blocked. That has led to a terrible blindness.

To the question “how dangerous is Islamic fundamentalism,” he answers:

The real danger is not the militant and violent fundamentalism which touches only a small minority. Much more dangerous is the diffuse fundamentalism that is penetrating and spreading throughout society. This became very clear to me when I visited Cairo toward the end of the nineties, shortly after the 1977 attacks on Luxor. These had not surprised me in the least. They were only a more radical expression of what society as a whole thought. All the journalists, intellectuals and thgeologians with whom I met, believed that those who had committed these acts could not be Egyptians and had to be foreign enemies. Again this flight from responsability! I got into quarrels with all of them back then telling them that they were crazy! That those who did this had simply put into action their own anti-Western and xenophobic rhetoric. The representatives of traditional and official Islam also contributed to this climate.

Has the climate changed?

There are a few new voices. I say that because I have noticed that my metaphor of the “malady” has since then spread pretty widely so that it is used even by religious Arab authors. One of them, for example, has written that Islam is sick and that it may be suffering from its worst illness ever. Another one wrote that one can’t lock up this malady because in jail it would turn into, and spread like, the plague. So there exist such theological voices somewhere inside the spectrum of traditional Islam, but they are still too rare.

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