More from Meddeb

On 20 September I posted a few excerpts (in a hasty home-made translation) from a longer interview with Tunisian writer Abdelwahab Meddeb first published in the German newspaper Die Zeit. Signandsight has just published a full English version of that interview, which you can read here. Below, some further excerpts from the signandsight version, in which Meddeb is asked about the (German) pope’s recent misspeakings re Islam.

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Meddeb: I would ask you to consider that the Pope used this quotation not as a historical reference but as an assessment of Islam today.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.

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