Meddeb’s Islam & the Challenge of Civilization

MeddebCoverIf yesterday I posted Hind Meddeb’s letter from Tunis — an urgent cry for human rights &, I think, an accurate evaluation of the situation in Tunisia post-Arab Spring — I want to point today to her father, Abdelwahab Meddeb’s, latest book in English translation, out earlier this year from Fordham University press & translated (excellently so) by Jane Kuntz,  Islam and the Challenge of Civilization.

This book, for me, is the perfect handbook for deepening our understanding of both the incredible richness through time and the paradoxical present obtuseness of Islamic culture. Meddeb achieves this feat — how clear knowledge can disarm belligerent interpretations of a paradoxical faith —through his elegant and polyphonic use of Qu’ranic exegesis, advanced literary poetics, and a strong sense of democratic citizen politics, all of which are informed by a profound cosmopolitanism able to simultaneously draw on Ibn Arabi’s eclectic sufism and Voltaire’s secular intellect, among many other sources. A necessary exploration, a must read.

The Press accurately states the aim of  this book  — the same aim as that of his  3 other untranslated volumes of essays and of the book that opened his writing on this subject, The Malady Of Islam translated by myself & Ann Reid in 2003 but unhappily let go out of print by its publisher, Basic Books :

Abdelwahab Meddeb makes an urgent case for an Islamic reformation, located squarely in Western Europe, now home to millions of Muslims, where Christianity and Judaism have come to coexist with secular humanism and positivist law. He is not advocating ‘moderate’ Islam, which he characterizes as thinly disguised Wahabism, but rather an Islam inspired by the great Sufi thinkers, whose practice of religion was not bound by doctrine.

To accomplish this, Meddeb returns to the doctrinal question of the text as transcription of the uncreated word of God and calls upon Muslims to distinguish between Islam’s spiritual message and the temporal, material, and historically grounded origins of its founding scriptures. He contrasts periods of Islamic history—when philosophers and theologians engaged in lively dialogue with other faiths and civilizations and contributed to transmitting the Hellenistic tradition to early modern Europe—with modern Islam’s collective amnesia of this past. Meddeb wages a war of interpretations in this book, in his attempt to demonstrate that Muslims cannot join the concert of nations unless they set aside outmoded notions such as jihad and realize that feuding among the monotheisms must give way to the more important issue of what it means to be a citizen in today’s postreligious global setting.

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  1. Poo says:

    One wishes Abdelwahab Meddeb the best of luck in his efforts. It is a worthwhile and badly needed undertaking. Unfortunately, unless a large promotional campaign and a personal tour are mounted, few outside academic circles, or readers of this blog, will ever hear of it. This is North America and it is, as the kids say, how we roll. Mind you, I expect it will attract more readers pro rata than a similar treatise on the merits of North American culture and values (such as they are) would be likely to receive in Tunisia.

    Tunisia is much in the news here these days as we have a Tunisian and a Palestinian in jail for plotting to derail a Via passenger train from New York. The two men, Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, and Raed Jaser, 35, were planning to derail the train on the Canadian leg of its Toronto-New York route.

    The men were taken into custody in Montreal and Toronto. They face several criminal charges, including plotting murder, terrorist recruitment and terrorism. Both men availed themselves of Canadian hospitality and social services and now expect tax payer paid legal representation based solely on the Qur’an and not the law of “humans.”

    A third man, Ahmed Abassi, a 26 year old Tunisian citizen, was arrested in New York by counter terrorism authorities there, who claim he had come to the U.S. from Canada to set up a terrorist cell. He is a former Université Laval graduate student who arrived in Canada nearly three years ago but moved to the United States in March. Federal prosecutors have revealed that an undercover FBI officer had met with Mr. Abassi and Mr. Esseghaier and recorded conversations in which they allegedly discussed mass casualty terror plots. Abassi also told an undercover FBI agent he had radicalized Esseghaier.

    The good news for Abdelwahab Meddeb and, perhaps something to build on, is that the original tip to the RCMP came from a local imam. The identity of the actual imam remains anonymous but his involvement has been confirmed by community sources. The imam alerted authorities more than a year ago about a person he regarded as an extremist who was corrupting youth in his community. That single tip led to what the RCMP called the first-ever Canadian bust of an alleged al-Qaeda terrorist plot.

    It seems that the major terrorist threats have shifted to regional al-Qaeda affiliates. Michael Pierce, CSIS Assistant Director of Intelligence (our spies), testified last month that groups like Al Shabab in Somalia, the North African-based al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen were the new “sites of power and sites of activity” for al-Qaeda.

    Canadian investigators and detectives, who spent months on the case, claimed Chiheb Esseghaier and Raed Jaser relied on “direction and guidance” from al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists in Iran as they plotted their carnage in Canada. Esseghaier has confirmed to authorities in Canada that he had travelled to Iran.

    Esseghaier, a nanotechnology specialist who studied optical and electrochemical biosensors, was working toward a PhD. A devout Muslim, who has denounced Canadian law, said in an interview he believed Islam allowed for killing when there is a justification.

    “If there is a right to kill, you kill,” he said. “I am in jail, I have been neutralized, but tomorrow, maybe four or five Esseghaiers will appear amongst the one million and a half Muslims living in Canada.” Oh joy.

    Esseghaier met his co-accused Raed Jaser at a Toronto mosque when Esseghaier left Sherbrooke and came to the city to meet other Muslims. Clearly, he knew where to go to find the like minded. It is suspected he was led to this particular mosque by Ahmed Abassi.

    Esseghaier’s interview indicated he had committed to memory a very specific and detailed message.

    “If you stop colonizing Afghanistan, and take the army out of Afghanistan, there will be three gains,” he said, saying Canada would save on money and soldiers, gain the “heart” of Muslim Canadians, and find long-term peace domestically and abroad.

    A university colleague in Quebec told a reporter that Essaghaier was “a brainwashed person, basically,” who tore down posters he did not like and asked the institute’s administration to install a prayer room. The same colleague described him as having “very strict religious behavior.” Of course, the tearing down of posters one does not like has become the rule rather than the exception on today’s university campuses. Does anyone remember the year Free Speech died?

    The man arrested with Essaghaier, the aforementioned Raed Jaser, is a Palestinian with U.A.E. citizenship. He was a part time special needs bus driver for 10 months. He has a criminal record but Canada was unable to deport him due to his Palestinian citizenship. There is something very confusing and wrong with Canadian law here. Mind you, we allow dual citizenship but not the right to vote in another country. If we just dumped dual citizenship, we would at least be consistent and the problem would solve itself. But who asks me?

    Like I said, good luck to Abdelwahab Meddeb. He is up against it. I suggest he seek out other imams like the tipster. At least his concerns were with the youth of the country, always a good place to start.

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