The Malady of Islam
by Abdelwahab Meddeb
translated from the French by
Pierre Joris and Charlotte Mandell
P A R T III
Fundamentalism Against the West
The second effort at re-Islamization is visible through the transformation of the social body in its relation to pleasure and enjoyment. Islamic society went from a hedonist tradition, based on love of life, to a prudish reality, full of hatred of sensuality. Prudishness has become a criterion of respectability. The urban scene teems with Tartuffes and other bigots. The city arranges its stages to take away the rights of the body, a consequence of the resentment taking root in the souls of the semi-literate, who are legion. The streets, repellent in their new constructions, negligent, disrespectful of the fabulous architectural past, increase in ugliness when they are traversed by oafish bodies, cut off from care of self; aesthetics withdrew as soon as seduction in the relation of the sexes was abolished. The maintenance of beauty, as well as its emphasis, are in turn eliminated.
What an eclipse this is of the religion that has so fascinated foreigners by its cult of the body and the call to pleasure, which are at its foundations! Behind what screens of repression has Islam sheltered itself so as to forget that, according to its medieval wise men, one made love in the name of God, not just to beget but also for pleasure? What breakdown has paralyzed the entity in which the word that designates religious marriage is the same that designates coitus (nikâh), which authorizes the jurist to decide that it’s enough to invoke the multiple meanings that pervade the word to know that canonically coitus is the reason for marriage? How has the society that had devoted so much to the rights of the body been so vaporized? What mutation has caught hold of belief whose promise is carnal, of faith that venerates desire on the stage of this world as at the heart of the theater promised to the elect in the beyond? What has happened to the community, perceived by medieval Christians (whose credo establishes a nihilism of the body) as an association of debauchees (because of the carnal promise as much as the legal dispositions that make polygamy, cohabitation, and divorce licit)? Why were ears stricken with deafness to stop hearing the language the Thousand and One Nights spread, those tales immersed in the satisfaction of the senses procured by earthly enjoyments — pleasures that were considered divine gifts? Their words traveled, and their European diffusion through Galland’s translation (1702-1714) contributed to liberating the Western body and inventing the fantasy of the harem, which pervaded the century of the Enlightenment: without speaking of Turkophilia and the fashion for oriental artifice, can one imagine the fable that reveals the truth and secret of sex in Diderot’s Les Bijoux indiscrets [Indiscreet jewels] if Diderot and his public had not been impregnated with the Thousand and One Nights?
What metamorphoses the lands have undergone, lands that so fascinated travelers and writers of the nineteenth century, for the same reasons that had scandalized the European clerics of the Middle Ages! What a blanket of shame has covered the countries that saw Flaubert engulfed in pleasure! To find the scene again, what can one do but recall the ardent hours the Norman writer spent with the almah Kuchuk-Hanem on the shores of the Nile in Upper Egypt? Or bring to mind Guy de Maupassant, who grew passionate about the Arab manual of medieval erotology and wanted to write a new translation of it? This manual had been composed in the fifteenth century by my compatriot Sheikh Nafzawi, a theologian who exalted the body in the name of God in his Perfumed Garden. Or we should also quote Nietzsche, opposing the nihilism of the body (which the Christianity in which he had grown up inculcates) with the cult of pleasure and the bodily hygiene of the citizen formed by Islam. The German philosopher illustrates this difference by an the anecdote that recalls the first thing the Christians did when they took back Cordova: “Here one despises the body, one rejects hygiene as sensuality (the first Christian act after the expulsion of the Moors was to close the public baths, which in the city of Cordova alone numbered two hundred and seventy).”
Now, though, the tradition that reveres the body seems to be disappearing from those Islamic lands ravaged by the moral order that the semi-literate, sick with resentment, impose. Cairo and Egypt have been transformed from paradise into hell; to be convinced of this, it is enough to see the bodies of livid women, suffering from the heat, burdened by their scarves or their black veils (a contrast that attracts the sun’s heat, in a country where the sun is the tyrant of the day). Maltreated bodies in a megalopolis where sixteen million people bustle about, breathing the most polluted air, between the gas from old unregistered cars and the clouds of steam spit out by the cement factories, billowing fumes that are joined in season by the bitter, heavy smoke from the rice husks that the peasants of the region burn after gathering the harvest. Living in Cairo, your lungs become just as fogged as those of an inveterate smoker, though your lips will never have touched a cigarette or the mouthpiece of a hookah.
Add the noise pollution, caused not just by the continuous mass of car horns and the rumbling of motors (of cars as well as air conditioners), but also by the vehement calls to prayer, semi-polemic calls diffused by the ubiquitous and parasitic loudspeakers that would disturb the sleep of the dead. Unchecked access to technology corrupts one of the beautiful aesthetic contributions of Islam, the one that exalts the voice, one of the vectors by which the word can be celebrated. Besides the aggressions the body undergoes in this polluted urban atmosphere, we see in these untimely exercises of the voice one of the symptoms that aggravate the sickness of Islam. What a difference there is between that noise and the unison that the choir of muezzins modulates with their bare voices, sweet tones emanating from chests, from throats, from tongues, from palates, from physically present lips, sent out from the clerestory that crowns minarets! Going from one method to the other, the listener passes from the highest emotion to the most odious of aggressions.
Such an aesthetic loss stems from the way bodies are mistreated: they are no longer surrounded by the care the cult of beauty, one of the attributes of ancient Islam, requires. For the body to blossom, it must move in an architectural space, metaphor for geometric and musical harmony, as much in relation to concord as to dissonance. It is important, too, that the body come into physical contact with objects that in turn honor the principle of beauty; that is the reason Islamic civilization has been one of the great cultures of the so-called minor arts: profusion of objects produced through work in wood, leather, stone, ceramics, fabric, cotton, wool, linen, silk, so many beautiful things designed to exalt the body in its movements: what shipwreck has pushed them out of sight? To the bottom of what sea-depths have they fallen? If I were a cleric and a censor, I would return the message to the sender: and I would tell these semi-literate people sick with resentment, so ready to accuse and excommunicate, that with this shipwreck of the beautiful they abolish the aesthetic dimension that accompanies the ethics of Islam, and that they dishonor the famous hadîth which affirms that “God is beautiful and loves beauty.”
Cairo is the largest city of Islam, one of the vastest and most populated on the planet. It has multiplied all the defects of megalopolises; but it does not possess the highest virtue of them, that of anonymity, which enlarges the adventure of freedom and rescues you from the social control the community exercises over the individual. In short, Cairo combines the defects of the metropolis and the constraints of the village. What seems to save it, and make its present and its future impossible to suppress, is the energy that pervades it: everywhere it is overflowing with those who circulate in it. It is also the splendor of its site, between the Moqattam, the Nile, and the desert; and it is its venerable age, the centuries that have succeeded each other in it, and that have all bequeathed wonders for eternity: certainly for eternity, for the monuments remain standing despite the negligence and indifference of the humans who are their unworthy inheritors. Finally, it is the epiphanic potential Cairo holds, bringing the material of poetry to the visitor who finds himself immersed in it. 
Today, we are witnessing a curious inversion in the politics and economics of the body. Islam proposes a prudish city, whose inhabitants are sick with nihilism and resentment. While the Western body has freed itself from inherited constraints. This is an extravagant inversion of which Islamic devotees are not aware, since they are proud enough of their state to propose their virtuous society as a counter-example to the Western society that is supposed to be one of vice. Don’t they oppose their modest society to the foreign society that is that of immodesty? Don’t they sing the praises of discretion and dissimulation, and belittle the exhibitionism of the West? Don’t they celebrate the veiled, or reclusive, feminine body by lambasting Western nudity and promiscuity? They never realize that they are being proud of the very signs of their illness. And they are not embarrassed at cultivating their difference by insisting on what distinguishes their virtuous and pious society from that of the foreigner, marked by debauchery and atheism. In this East-West contrast, in the respective judgments that Islam and Europe make about each other, we are witnessing the inversion of the medieval stereotype. Never has misunderstanding remained so tenacious. Between amnesia (which obliterates the memory of tradition) and oversimplification (which believes that the moral person disintegrates in the freedom of the individual), humans formed by contemporary Islam are at best naïve, and let themselves be pervaded by the tricks of the unthinking, at worst hypocritical, arranging the scene of their transgressive desire in hidden alcoves, or in so-called shameful countries, far from the gaze of their own people.
. Abdelwahab Bouhdiba, La Sexualité en Islam, 6th edition (Paris: PUF, 2001).
 Norman Daniel, Islam and the West, (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1993-156.) 131.
 Gustave Flaubert, Correspondance, I, letter to Louis Bouilhet (March 13, 1850) (Paris: La Pléaide, Gallimard, 1973) 605-607.
 Sheikh Nefzawi, Le Jardin parfumé, translated by Baron R. (Paris: Philippe Picquier, 1999).
 Nietzsche, The Antichrist. (Pauvert, Paris, 1967) 103.
 I use the word “epiphany” in the sense that the Irish novelist James Joyce gives it, a meaning that revives in me the echo of the Sufi notion of tajalli, which describes the process of revealing the invisible in concrete things; it is a question of visions and revelations that transform the urban hours of the walker and establish poetry in the city.
The objective of all forms of Wahhabism is to make one forget body, object, space, beauty. These obscurations mean to impose a generalized amnesia, one of the symptoms of the sickness that has afflicted the disciple of Islam. It can be observed in many different areas and acts in various strata of society. Christian Jambet, one of the rare thinkers who have mastered both Western and Islamic philosophical traditions, in both its Arabic and Persian versions (he is a specialist in the Neo-Platonists of Persia), teaches at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales in Paris. Many of his students come from French-speaking lands like Morocco or Lebanon. When Jambet presents his students with thoughts from the Islamic Middle Ages, and especially when he evokes the hermeneutic tradition, very often his Muslim students, future administrators of “corporate capitalism,” protest and interrupt him, asserting that such doctrines cannot belong to Islam. By acting in this way, they reveal Wahhabite influence: forgetful of their own culture, they think they are the real guardians of the true Islam. These future executives of international finance are marked as well by that simplistic Islam, cut off from its civilization. And the diffusion of such an elementary Islam comes from Saudi Arabia and from its petro-dollars, and it prospers on the accumulation of failures whose detrimental effects I have outlined.
These failures reinforce the idea that it is possible to achieve modernity by following one’s own course and adapting the technical advances of the age to one’s own principles. Simplified to the extreme, these principles seem adaptable to the space of modernity. Wahhabite oversimplification and the aptitude for Americanization once again find themselves clearly united: the individual does not blink at the contradiction between belonging to a traditional society and the use of the material goods of modernity. No place is made in this scheme for critical thought, so the work of contradiction cannot produce the rupture necessary to insure the passage from a traditional structure to the adventure that modernity opens up.
These tendencies toward Americanization were united in Afghanistan, where the second conjunction between Wahhabism and militant fundamentalism occurred, still under the aegis of the United States, which did not seem shocked by the ideological content of the Islamist mobilization against the Soviet invasion. Their objective was to neutralize the USSR. To fight while reviving archaic religious sentiments that invoked Holy War did not seem to the Americans to embody a fatal potential for which they could be the future target. Military operations were conducted involving trusted allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The archaic soul combined with wealth to insure technical initiation into the most sophisticated weapons for the fundamentalists. In this spirit, an international community of warriors of Islamic origin was created, formed under the control of the CIA with Saudi money. And in this context appeared Osama bin Laden, who took part in these battles weapons in hand, before placing his personal fortune at the service of the cause and recruiting for the jihad everywhere in the lands of Islam, especially in the Arab countries. Many of the semi-literate, the potentially unemployed, and other militants, perhaps less frustrated but still children of resentment, possessed by revolutionary aims, responded to his summons. A dozen years of training and military exercise on the field of battle (1980-1990) were enough to form the international brigades of fundamentalism. Victory over the Soviets embedded in the fundamentalist milieu the idea that, through weapons and through the use of terror, it was possible to reach one’s goals.
After the war in Afghanistan, thousands of militants, marked by this ideology of battle, were suddenly available. Some returned to their country of origin, armed, experienced, to fan the flames, stir unrest, revive dissidence. Algeria’s misfortune was intensified by the influx of “Afghans,” those Algerians who had gone from the maquis of the Hindu Kush or the Pamirs to the maquis of the Aurès. When they disembarked in Algiers, their compatriots were surprised and impressed by their appearance, wearing an outfit that didn’t belong to local traditions: ample robes, turbans from elsewhere, full, uncut beards contrary to local custom. They had returned to their homeland with a new “habitus,” symbolizing an unknown violence, in a country that had not been unaware of the experience of violence and that was not peopled with angelic choirboys. Representing violence in violence, these “Afghans,” in the euphoria of the victory over the Soviets, decided to create the sinister GIA [Groupe Islamique Armé], in Peshawar in 1990, to transport their “skills” into their own country. They were the first to be convinced that military violence was the only answer to the interruption of the electoral process of 1992. When in 1993 the conflict between the leaders at the core of the GIA was exacerbated (between the “locals” and the “Afghans”), Osama bin Laden (who supported the movement and financed its support groups in Europe) decided in favor of the Afghans.
The dispersal of “Afghan” Arabs brought them to Egypt, the Sudan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Jordan. They were also attracted by the European wars that involved Islamic communities — Bosnia, then Chechnya. These wars came to an end or ran out of steam. The states targeted by political terror resisted. Some of these fundamentalists found themselves once more free, or harassed. After the asylum granted by a hospitable Sudan, they proceeded to a second fallback position in Afghanistan and its Pakistani borderland (around Peshawar). At that time, in May 1996, Osama bin Laden came to settle down in the region, having become persona non grata in the Sudan (he had been living in Khartoum since May 1992). He found shelter with the Taliban, pure products of the local (Mawdûdi) fundamentalist tradition reinforced by Wahhabism (the propagation of which is officially financed by Saudi Arabia through a network of religious schools that stretches its tentacles everywhere it can reach). The Taliban movement represented the extreme point of irredentism in the linking of a basic Wahhabism with the radicalism brought by the Egyptian tradition of fundamentalism within the totalitarian system developed by Mawdûdi. This tradition will be physically present on Afghan soil in the person of Ayman al-Zawahri. Mullah Omar is nothing but the spiritual son of these “hybrids.”
 Mohammed Mukadam, “Rihlat al-Afghân al-Jazâ’iriyyîn mina ‘l-Qâ’ida ilâ ‘l-Jamâ’a” (Journey of Algerian Afghans from al Qaeda to the GIA), Al-Hayat, (London-based Arab daily) November 23-30, 2001. This investigation should be read with prudence, for it seems inspired by the Algerian Secret Services, which opened their archives to the journalist.
[to be continued]