The Malady of Islam
by Abdelwahab Meddeb
translated from the French by
Pierre Joris and Charlotte Mandell
(French edition published by Editions Seuil in 2002
English edition [o.p.] published by Basic Books in 2003)
Table of Contents
I. Islam, Inconsolable in its Destitution
II. The Genealogy of Fundamentalism
III. Fundamentalism against the West
IV. The Western Exclusion of Islam
Islam: Inconsolable in its Destitution
The spectacular attack of September 11, which struck the heart of the United States, is a crime. A crime committed by Islamists. It constitutes the extreme point of a series of terrorist acts that have followed an exponential curve whose beginning I locate in 1979, the year that saw the triumph of Khomeini in Iran and the invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet troops. These two events had considerable effects that reinforced the fundamentalist movements and help the dissemination of their ideology. In order to understand the form this ideology takes, we have to go far back in time. We have to recognize exactly where the letter — the Qur’an and tradition — predisposes to a fundamentalist reading. We have to rediscover the exegetical and theological tradition in order to unravel the way this letter offers means and encouragement to those who retain from its meaning only what summons them to war. We have to discover where the tradition resists, where it is necessary to force it to permit a new interpretation that did not express itself where such a tradition grew. It is important to know if it is possible to read this literal text according to the conditions offered by the mental landscape of our times. We must also denounce the legerdemain and the sleight-of-hand that have perverted the heroic aspect of Islam, by generalizing the concept of the enemy in peacetime. The sectarians who are at the origin of this operation have universalized, generalized, anathema, excommunication and jihad, holy war, while the tradition has often been careful when touching upon these questions. It is a pressing matter to follow the course of such a genesis, which has ended up producing monsters who have forgotten the reasons of existence, and which transformed a tradition based on the principle of life and the cult of pleasure into a lugubrious race toward death.
On the very day that the two New York towers collapsed in a gigantic cloud of unbreathable dust, at the very moment when thousands of innocent people (whose ethnic, religious, and national variety is a sign of the city’s cosmopolitism) died with the world looking on, at that very instant television showed scenes of rejoicing coming from Palestine and Lebanon. These images — pornographic at a human level, and politically disastrous — in the light of what followed revealed their marginal truth; and the political authorities concerned managed to control the street and to restore it to some decency. But I know that from such images there arise a feeling and an emotion shared by many subjects belonging to the Islamic masses, and I try to understand through what trials or through what education an individual must have passed to be capable of rejoicing in crime.
There are internal and external reasons for this misery. In this book it is my responsibility to insist principally on the internal reasons, without, however, occulting or neglecting the external ones. It is part of the writer’s role to point out the drift of his or her own people and to help open their eyes to what blinds them. I insist, as the saying has it, to start by sweeping in front of my own door. This book, written in French, will be read by numerous readers knowing French and concerned in one way or another by the drama of their own Islamic origins. I address myself to all readers, but I have a special thought for those readers who, like me, have constellated themselves symbolically within the faith of Islam.
To each entity its sickness. This can become so contagious that it turns into a plague ravaging the minds and souls. Voltaire thus analyzed the sickness of intolerance that had kept up its ravages until the Calas affair, occasioned by the death sentence imposed on Jean Calas on March 9, 1762 by the tribunal of Toulouse. In response, the philosopher of the Enlightenment wrote his Traité sur la tolérance [Treatise on Tolerance], begun in October 1762, in the middle of the campaign to rehabilitate Calas; the book was published in Geneva in April 1763. In this book Voltaire recapitulates the horrors engendered by Catholic fanaticism against the Protestants after 24 August 1572, Saint Bartholomew’s day, when the reformed Christians were massacred in Paris and in the provinces. One of the reasons for the spread of fanaticism is the survival of superstition among the people; and the best way to heal this mortal illness is to subject the greatest possible number to the use of reason. The word “sickness” appears in Voltaire’s book when the author accuses the “convulsionary” Jansenists of cultivating superstition among the people that predisposes them to fanaticism. I hasten to quote this passage even if the reader recognizes in it the biting irony of the master from Ferney, the effect of which may seem inappropriate to the gravity of my subject:
If there still are a few convulsive fanatics in remote corners of the outlying districts, it’s only the basest part of the population which is attacked by this parasitic disease. Each day reason penetrates further into France, into the shops of merchants as well as the mansions of lords. We must cultivate the fruits of this reason, especially since it is impossible to check its advance.
Thomas Mann had to deal with the German sickness, which led him to write Doctor Faustus (published in 1947), an amplification and radicalization of Death in Venice (1919). In it the author denounces the excess of the promethean spirit, which brought so much harm to German thought and art and, as a consequence, to the German people itself. Mann intended to show in that book the flight from the difficulties of the cultural crisis into the pact with the devil, the craving of a proud mind, threatened by sterility, for an unblocking of inhibitions at any cost, and the parallel between pernicious euphoria ending in collapse with the nationalist frenzy of Fascism.
Thomas Mann was thinking about Nietzsche. In the same work, 2 pages later, he confirms the suggestion: it is indeed the author of The Birth of Tragedy who is the unnamed model of the personage of the musician he invented. Even if the German sickness did not spare Nietzsche, I am still led to use one of the concepts of his moral psychology to shed light on an internal state that favors the eruption of the sickness in Islam that I am here proposing to analyze. If fanaticism was the sickness in Catholicism, if Nazism was the sickness in Germany, then surely Fundamentalism is the sickness in Islam.
This is my thesis. That said, I do not, however, intend to claim that that there is a good and an evil Islam, that one has to honor the one and denounce the other. Nor do I insinuate that Fundamentalism is a deformation of Islam. Everyone knows that in Islam there is no institution that legitimates absolute doctrinal magisterium; but traditionally access to the letter was protected: one needed to obey specific conditions to make it speak or to speak in its name. However, unrestrained access to the letter was not prohibited, and is not a peculiarity of our times. History has often had to record the disasters such access provokes; only today, thanks to the effects of demography and democratization, the semi-literate have proliferated and the candidates who claim the authority to touch the letter have become much more numerous. The fact that they are so many reinforces their ferocity.
The Qur’anic letter, if submitted to a literal reading, can resonate in the space delimited by the fundamentalist project: it can respond to one who wants to make it talk within the narrowness of those confines; for it to escape, it needs to be invested with the desire of the interpreter. Rather than distinguishing a good Islam from a bad Islam, it would be better for Islam to open itself to debate and discussion, to rediscover the plurality of opinions, to set up a space for disagreement and difference, to accept that a neighbor has the freedom to think differently. Better for Islam if intellectual debate rediscovers its rights and adapts itself to the conditions polyphony offers; may the deviations multiply and unanimism cease; may the stable substance of the One disseminate itself in a shower of ungraspable atoms.
As far as external factors are concerned, we may concede that they are not the cause of the disease that gnaws at the body of Islam. But they are certainly the catalyst. Because of them, disease multiplies in intensity. If, by a miracle, they were to disappear, I do not know if the sickness in Islam would disappear too, but it would not find a climate favorable for the flourishing and propagation of its germs. What are these external causes? They are, to list them, the non-recognition of Islam by the West as representing an internal alterity; the way in which Islam is kept in its status of the excluded; the manner in which the West denies its own principles as soon as its interests demand it; and, finally, the habit of the West (and in our days, in the form of America) of exercising its hegemony in total impunity, following the politics of the double standard.
Here, in the old world, without wanting to justify crime, there are many who thought that the attacks on New York and Washington were an answer to an American policy based on partisan power. This opinion seems to shock the Americans themselves, as Robert Malley, former member of President Clinton’s National Security Council, reminds us:
“… in the Arab countries, in Europe and by a handful of American intellectuals, it was insinuated that American policy was the prime culprit: sanctions and strikes against Iraq, a pro-Israeli stance, the backing of repressive regimes, that is what is understood as explaining the terrorists’ choice of target. The United States as victim of its own policies? This was, understandably — and beyond the logical flaw of the argument — difficult to accept.”
With all due deference to American common sense, I have to begin by confirming that the three reasons specified as hypotheses are exactly those that feed the sickness in Islam and that help in its dissemination. I would also like to know what the “logical flaw” of the argument is supposed to be. And by whom it would be “difficult to accept,” except by the very conceivers and ministers of those policies. Malley’s reservations are nothing more than affirmations that no proof supports. I admit that the argument does not suffice to explain the attacks that brought down the Twin Towers and a large wing of the Pentagon; but it may constitute an a posteriori legitimation. The opinion was not expressed just by Muslims or Arabs, and I heard it proposed by the French and other Europeans. I do not think that it can be reckoned as a basic anti-Americanism (even if such a feeling may be part of it).
If a country, a people, a State wants to remain the leader of the world, it has to be impartial in its manner of governing. To be clear, I would say that the choice lies between an imperialistic policy founded on war and an imperial policy whose main care is to keep the peace. Now, an imperial policy commends its promoter as the arbiter of conflicts flaring up in the world, and by no means to be both judge and litigent. Take for example the successful sequences that buttress one of the last historical manifestations of such an imperial policy, namely what the Ottoman empire knew under great sovereigns like Mehmet Fatih (1451-1481) or Suleiman Kanuni (1520-1566), who saw themselves as continuators of the imperial structure developed along the rim of the Mediterranean since its creation by Alexander, its strengthening by the Romans, its continuation under the Byzantines and its attempted renovation during the Holy Roman Empire. It’s with that mindset that the Ottomans successfully managed the mosaic of conflicts among minorities and nationalities that have always existed in the countries that make up the Near East. Beyond the emotions felt at the moment, there were many who realized that the events of September 11 could constitute a response to a failure of American policies, which have seemed imperialistic rather than imperial in matters concerning Islam in some of its areas or that touch upon one or another of its sensitive symbols.
Who are those who died while spreading death in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania? Beyond their contamination by the sickness in Islam, they are the sons of their times, the pure products of the Americanization of the world: the same ones who turned the digital into child’s play and television into personal memory, without having troubled to transmute the essential archaism of their minds and their souls. Thus the technical and “aesthetic” success of the event. The terrorists used the technical means masterfully, and they accurately thought through the relays of the event’s diffusion as image. In fact, one wonders if the twenty minute delay between the targeting of the towers was not an invitation to the cameras to film “live” the banking turn that the second plane made before hitting its target at the point foreseen for impact. We witnessed the optimum use of today’s means, inviting this quasi-instantaneity between the event and its transmission across all continents. That is one of the effects of the universalization of technique and of the cathodic unification of mankind in the age of the Americanization of the world.
What I insist on, though, is that we witnessed technique rather than science. Since the seventeenth century the Islamic world is no longer a creator of science; since the middle of the nineteenth century it has tried, without success, to reconnect with the scientific spirit that once upon a time radiated from its cities. But during the post-colonial era (begun in the 1960s and corresponding to the first manifestation of the Americanization of the world arising in the aftermath of the war), Islam, along some of its fringes, was able to master technique, which implies more a mastering of the functioning of the machine than its invention, or even its production. With technique one is downstream from the scientific process, the initiation of which demands great mastery upstream.
Who are these terrorists but the children of the Americanization of the world (as we have said and as we will repeat)? Children who suffer from the open wound the Muslim subject feels from having been turned from a ruler into someone ruled. Children who refuse the state of submission in which they believe themselves to be, and who dream of restoring the hegemony of the entity to which they belong; of making Friday the universally adopted weekly holiday (rather than Sunday); of substituting the year of the Hegira for the year of the Common Era (whose Christian origin they keep stressing). This is not a caricature. I draw my conclusions from what I happen to have read of the ineptitudes they publish. But let us first see what specific historical process produced them. If indeed they are the result of the considerations that follow, it is important to specify at the outset that no rationale inherited from the past can justify their crime. Further: the process of explanation transcends the specific case of these monstrous figures whose vector is nihilism. The process I am trying to throw light on is meant to identify the anthropological conditions in which these terrorists were born, though these conditions did not by themselves condemn them to be the monsters they became.
 Here [translation changed].
 Mann, Thomas, The Story of a Novel: The Genesis of Doctor Faustus. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1961, p. 28.
 Robert Malley, “Surpises et paradoxes,” Le Monde, 31 Octobre 2001. (Tr. by PJ & AR).
 This concept will be made clear during certain stops that pace the itinerary this text travels. One can measure the universal spread of the American way by reading Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the next Millennium / the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures 1985-1986, translated by Patrick Creagh (Vintage International 1993). The OuLiPo affiliated writer was amazed in 1959 by many phenomena of daily American life that surprised many other European visitors who crossed the Atlantic, while 40 years later these same phenomena no longer surprise anybody, neither in Europe nor elsewhere, as they have been adopted by everybody.
(to be continued)