May 4, 2006 Special Dispatch No. 1157

Lafif Lakhdar: Religion Within the Limits of Reason

May 4, 2006
North Africa, Tunisia | Special Dispatch No. 1157

On March 17, 2006, the weekly magazine of the Israeli daily Haaretz published an intellectual profile of Tunisian-born reformist thinker Lafif Lakhdar, which was titled "The Roots of Jihad." In the interview section of the profile, Lakhdar, a veteran activist, [1] analyzes the roots and goals of Islamism and Islamist movements, and presents his vision of reform in the Arab and Muslim world.

Lakhdar, a former columnist for the Saudi-owned London daily Al-Hayat, was fired on the instructions of the paper's owner, Saudi Prince Khaled ibn Sultan, for describing the Saudi regime as "barbaric" on an Al-Jazeera talk show. [2]

In the Haaretz interview, Lakhdar argues that Islamist terrorism should be treated as a crime against humanity. In October 2004, he was one of three Arab intellectuals who asked U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the Security Council to establish an international court to try these terrorists, including clerics who issue fatwas calling for the killing of "infidels." [3]

Referring to the Muhammad cartoons printed by the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005, Lakhdar asserts that "every artist and every researcher should be free to write about all religions without any restriction."

In the interview, Lakhdar traces the roots of terrorism in Islam back to the period when Muhammad and his followers established the Muslim community (the Umma) in Medina. He says he advocates going back to the Koranic verses that said that Jews and Christians would be saved at the end of days - verses which were later abrogated. Lakhdar states that it is his belief that this abrogation itself should be abrogated. Moreover, he says, verses that incite to jihad should be removed from school textbooks, and modern sciences should be introduced into religious institutions "so that students will be able to understand the religious text in terms of modern logic." Religious jihadist incitement should also be eliminated from the Arab media, he says.

Regarding Hamas's victory in the Palestinian elections, Lakhdar says that he believes that peace negotiations with Israel are unlikely, since Hamas's jihad ideology "prohibits the ceding of even an inch of Muslim land to infidels." In his view, Hamas is now facing a dilemma it did not seek: Either it forgoes its charter in order to negotiate with Israel, or the Palestinian people will forgo Hamas.

The following are excerpts from the Haaretz profile, including the interview with Lakhdar, in the original English. [4]

An Arab Spinoza

Lakhdar, who is 72, conducts his struggle from an apartment in a poor Paris neighborhood, many of whose residents are immigrants...

Dr. Shaker Al-Nabulsi, a Jordanian researcher who three months ago published (in Beirut) a book entitled "The Devil's Advocate," the first comprehensive study of Lakhdar's thought, wrote an ironic article about Arab society, which worries about ill and aging singing stars but ignores the misery of an intellectual of Lakhdar's stature. The article likens Lakhdar to the "prophet of liberty," Thomas Paine, who fought for human rights and secularism in the American War of Independence and in the French Revolution.

Yigal Carmon, head of the Washington-based MEMRI Institute, which studies the Middle East media - the institute has translated and published several of Lakhdar's articles - likens him to Spinoza, who like him was persecuted and ostracized because he insisted on grounding his thought, including his critique of religion, on reason.

"If we were living in a normal world, the entire international Left would acclaim him," Carmon says. "He is an amazing person, deeply immersed in Arabic and French culture, an intellectual with broad, diverse and up-to-date knowledge, not only in philosophy, Islam and history, but also in psychology, and he is thoroughly humane. The French, or the Europeans in general, who are coping with problems of immigration, should have placed him at the head of an advisory council on integration, where he could explain, educate and serve as a role model."...

Lakhdar was born to a poor Muslim family of fellahin... He received no formal education, only Koran studies in the village, and he chose a religious university because it was tuition-free and offered free lodgings and a modicum of food. ("For two weeks during the religion lessons, I secretly read Darwin.") He then studied law, and afterward worked for three years as a lawyer.

In 1958, he represented an opponent of the [Tunisian] regime who was convicted and executed. The authorities then issued an order restricting Lakhdar's movement. In 1961, he fled Tunisia with the help of Algerian freedom fighters and spent nearly 20 years wandering the world using forged passports.

He became a socialist in Algeria ("First of all from the gut, because of the hunger - I didn't understand why others had and I didn't - and then I found philosophical justification for the message of egalitarianism"). He was close to Algerian President Ahmed Ben Bella, and was present at the meeting of Abu Jihad and Che Guevara, but in 1965 had to flee Algeria after Ben Bella was deposed in a military coup.

... In 1968, he was a guest of the Fatah leadership in Amman, which housed him in the same apartment as Yasser Arafat, rather than in a hotel, in order to protect him from Algerian intelligence agents. Over the years he has incurred the wrath of nearly every Arab regime, and thus the danger of death is nothing new to him. He has also been highly critical of the "progressive" national movements and of the Arab Communist parties, which supported dictatorial regimes of oppression and feared to confront the clerics...

Lakhdar was soon disappointed with the Fatah leaders, some of whom were influenced by the ideas of the Muslim Brothers. "Abu Jihad told me that there is no chance of overcoming Israel by force of arms, but 'if enough Palestinians are killed maybe the world will hear about us.'" He was far more impressed by Nayef Hawatmeh, founder of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. "Hawatmeh argued that the only justification for forming a fighting force is to topple the Arab regimes," he says. "He convinced me..."

He retranslated the Communist Manifesto into Arabic, based on the German source (he insisted that the cover declare that it is "the first genuine translation" and found a publisher only in the Israeli radical left), to which he appended a sequel of his own, "The Origins of the Arab Bourgeoisie." Some readers discerned a Koranic influence in his writing, to which he admits: "I integrate the poetic spirit of the early parts of the Koran, which are all poetry, with the logical, spare and synonym-less structure of the French sentence."...

Islam and Terrorism

Q: "Many Muslims are protesting the identification of Muhammad, and hence of Islam as such, with terrorism. Is terrorism in fact ingrained in Islam?"

A: "This is what the Islamists themselves say, like the spiritual mentor of Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who is not second in importance in Al-Qaida, but first in terms of religious law, as well as planning and thought. His mentor is Sheikh Abed Al-Qadr Bin Abed Al-Aziz (whose real name is Al-Sayed Imam Abed Al-Aziz Al-Sharif), who asserted, 'Terror is from Islam and anyone who denies this is a heretic.' He and others rely on a few verses from the Koran, and I will give you, as an example, only one of them, from the Surah of the Spoils of War [Surah 8:60]: 'Make ready against them all the power you can [gather], including steeds of war, to strike terror into [the hearts of] the enemies of Allah and your enemies.'"

Q: "On what, then, do Muslims who deny the identification of Islam with jihad and terrorism rely?"

A: "There are two Islams from the period of Muhammad. There is Meccan Islam [referring to Muhammad's period in Mecca], which is a 'Christian' Islam - that is, under Christian influence - and is essentially peace-seeking. The use of violence, even for self-defense, was prohibited. In this Islam, jihad was prohibited. This Islam was the basis for the mystical Sufi movement.

"When Muhammad was forced to move from Mecca to Medina, a second Islam - jihadist Islam - was born. And it is this Islam that the contemporary terrorists have adopted. To justify the passage from the 'conciliatory' peace of Mecca to the militant peace of Medina, Muhammad told the Muslims that jihad is permissible only for self-defense [Surah of The Pilgrimage - Surah 22:39]: 'Permission is given to those against whom war is made, [to fight], because they are wronged.' Muhammad was wronged - he was expelled from Mecca, and the purpose of the defensive jihad is to enable his return.

"Medinan Islam is terrorist Islam. Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradhawi says that terrorism in Islam is positive and should be welcomed. Here he is drawing in part on verse 12 in the Surah of the Spoils of War: 'I will instill terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers: Smite ye above their necks and smite all their fingertips off them.' Osama bin Laden, in a speech on the occasion of Id al-Adha [the Festival of the Sacrifice] in 2003, said that it is best to follow the blessed terror about which Al-Qaradhawi speaks."

Ways of Implementing Reform in the Arab World

Q: "Is there anything that can be done so that Meccan Islam will be strengthened and overcome Medinan Islam?"

A: "My answer is my plan for the reform of Islam, a reform of the Islamic discourse, of religious education, the religious media, the sermons in the mosques, and so forth. The plan is to remove from the textbooks all the violent and jihadist verses and leave them only in the source, in the holy writings."

Q: "Censorship?"

A: "To a certain extent, yes. In Tunisia, this has been done since 1999. The plan is that instead of the violent verses, schoolchildren will be taught the universal verses of peace which exist in the Mecca period. For example, Verse 62 of the Surah of the Heifer, which says [Koran 2:62] 'Those who believe [in the Koran], and those who follow the Jewish [Scriptures], and the Christians and the Sabians, any who believe in Allah and the Last Day and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.' And there are another two similar verses. The sages of the sharia all said that these are 'abrogated' verses. We have to abrogate the abrogation of these three verses and declare that it is the verses against the Jews and the Christians that are 'abrogated.'

"The plan I proposed includes the introduction of modern sciences in the institutions of religious education, as well as comparative history of religion and psychology and sociology of religion, so that students will be able to understand the religious text in terms of modern logic. And also courses in philosophy and human rights, in order to instill modern values into Islam, in which there are now only values of permitted-prohibited.

"Several Arab regimes have already begun to implement this plan, or parts of it. In Morocco, for example, philosophy is now being taught in high schools. In Algeria, a year after I sent an open letter to President Bouteflika, calling on him to eliminate sharia instruction in high-school education, a law in this spirit was enacted last October. And in October 2005, Libya, too, canceled the teaching of jihadist Islam and of the verses that justify violence."

Q: "Many are convinced that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is one of the major reasons for Islamic terrorism. Is this so?"

A: "Not at all. People who say this, including experts on whose opinions Western decision-makers rely, do not truly understand the theology of Islamic terror. What are the goals of the terrorism perpetrated by Al-Qaida? Zawahiri described this clearly in his book, 'Horsemen under the Prophet's Banner,' which he in essence wrote as his last testament shortly before the terrorist offensive of September 11 (he was certain that after the attack the United States would liquidate all of them)...

"The goal of Islamic terror, then, is to establish a state that will implement the sharia and divorce itself completely from the infidels - from their religions, their customs, their dress, their institutions, their sciences, and their values.

"But Al-Zawahiri is smart and is aware of the reality. 'Regrettably,' he writes, 'these slogans are not comprehensible to the masses of the nation, who do not find within themselves readiness to sacrifice for slogans they do not understand, even if the slogans [al-hakimiya, al-walaa and al-baraa' - meaning religious rule based on the sharia - Islamic religious law; forging ties with believers only; and total and immediate severance from the unbelievers] are one hundred percent correct.'" Q: "What solution does he propose?"

A: "...His [Al-Zawahiri's] answer: 'To our slogans [as listed above] we must add other slogans, which are understandable to the masses of the Islamic nation, and instead of viewing them as being of secondary importance, we must move them forward so that they take their place at the forefront' - on the same level as the three original slogans." Q: "What are the additional slogans he promotes?"
"'The slogan that the Islamic nation has understood well for 50 years,' he writes. 'This is the slogan of the call for a jihad against Israel.' You have to understand, for him this is a second-rank goal and its use is solely as a Machiavellian means: If we tell them that the goal is a Muslim state that will amputate thieves' hands, they will say no, but this goal is clear and simple.

"Another slogan that Zawahiri promotes is the liberation of the Islamic holy places in Saudi Arabia from the American military presence in the Arabian Peninsula, and in Jerusalem from the presence of the Israeli army. The liberation of Palestine is not the central goal of the terror, but the struggle for it helps the terrorists recruit Muslims for the jihad against the Jews and against the 'Crusaders.' In contrast to the Left, they hate neither American imperialism nor Zionism; they hate the Christians and the Jews. Not because of what the Jews and the Christians are doing to the Muslims, but only because they are Christians and Jews who did not accept the true faith, Islam."

The Muhammad Cartoons and Freedom of Speech

A: "...Culture should be free, and every artist and every researcher should be free to write about all religions without any restriction."

Q: "Does that include the Danish cartoonist?"
A: "Yes. It includes humor and satire. In the history of Islam you have the poet Abu Nawas, who joked about the Koran. He wrote, for example, 'Your Lord did not say woe to the drunkards / But woe to the worshipers.' That is a secular principle: separation between religion and politics, and between religion and artistic and literary creation, and between religion and scientific research. This is the greatest achievement of modernity. The clerics must not be allowed to intervene in these matters.

"As for the cartoons, one has to see which Arab and Islamic forces protested the affront to Muhammad and used it for their purposes. Syria was the first country to recall its ambassador from Denmark - the same Syria which in 1982 killed 30,000 'Muhammads' at Hama. Its protest intended to make people forget its responsibility for the assassination of [former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik] Hariri. Iran is the same Iran that prevents the Sunnis in Tehran from building a mosque. It protested in order to divert attention from its nuclear program.

"Saudi Arabia is the same Saudi Arabia that, as part of its plan to turn Mecca into a modern city, decided to demolish the building in which Muhammad married Khadija - a rare historic site - in order to build a public lavatory in its place. It protests in order to make [Muslims] forget its war against Al-Qaida.

"Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradhawi, who stirred up the Arab world against the cartoon in his television program on Al-Jazeera, did what all the Islamic movements did: He used the protest against the cartoon in order to show Muslims why it is necessary to break off relations with the 'infidels' and in order to foment an interreligious war..."

The Hamas Victory

A: "...Hamas asserts that Palestine is an Islamic waqf [inalienable trust]. This is undoubtedly an unattainable goal, but its role is to mobilize the Palestinians and the Islamic nation for a jihad against Israel and against its allies in the West...

"Contrary to the declared goal of Hamas, the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza can be realized, but its establishment will undermine the excuse for terrorism (the liberation of Palestine), so that Hamas will be left only with the three slogans [listed by Al-Zawahiri], which the Islamic nation does not understand."

Q: "Taking into account the Hamas Charter, is there any prospect that this movement will reach a settlement with Israel?"
A: "The Hamas Charter is taken from the theology of Islamic Jihad. When Hamas announced the possibility of a long-term hudna [cease-fire] with Israel, Western commentators, who are unfamiliar with jihadist theology, wrote that Hamas had become more moderate. That is a foolish diagnosis. Bin Laden recently offered the United States a long-term hudna - so has he become a moderate, too?

"Like bin Laden, Hamas took this straight from the jihad theology. What does this theology say? When the Muslim army is weak and is in an inferior position, it must ask for a hudna of three-four years in order to exploit the time to strengthen itself. This is the 'long-term' of jihad." Q: "Is it possible to persuade the Hamas leadership to conduct peace negotiations with Israel?"

A: "It is difficult. In such a case, jihad theology will view the Hamas leaders as heretics, because that theology prohibits the ceding of even an inch of Muslim land to infidels. After the Oslo accord, Rashad Al-Ranoushi issued a fatwa in which he declared Arafat and the PLO leadership infidels and [said] that all the sages of Islam view as a criminal anyone who cedes one inch of the soil of Palestine. But reality is stronger than the Koran, and I have no doubt that the more rational of the Hamas leaders will deviate from that religious law and accept Israel's existence."

Q: "So you also see a positive aspect in the Hamas electoral victory?"

A: "Yes. History has set an ambush for Hamas. The Hamas movement did not want to win; it wanted to be the second most important force, after Fatah, and to delay the implementation of the 'road map.' After the victory, the movement finds itself in a situation in which it must choose: either it forgoes its charter, and the jihad, in order to negotiate with Israel, or the Palestinian people will forgo it." Q: "Is there also a democratic lesson here - there is no need to seize power by force, there is the possibility of winning at the polls?"
"The Islamists are against democracy. For them, the legitimacy of government derives from Islamic religious law, not from elections." Q: "If Hamas loses the next elections, will its people give up power?"

A: "Giving up power is forbidden in Islam: The ruler rules until his death. Hamas will not be ready for an exchange of government as a result of an election loss, but in the end this will be decided by the balance of power that will prevail at the time; it will depend on the true power that will accrue to the winning side."

Q: "The president of the United States says that jihadist terror is the greatest threat to world peace. Do you agree?"

A: "Islamic terror is a great enemy of humanity, but so is rampant capitalism. The world is being managed without wisdom and humanity is in constant danger of ecological disaster, nuclear disaster, and biological disaster..."

[1] MEMRI has been following Lakhdar's works for several years. For more on Lafif Lakhdar, see, inter alia:

MEMRI Tunisian Reformist Thinker: Secularism is Vital for the Future of the Arab and Muslim World"Tunisian Reformist Thinker: Secularism is Vital for the Future of the Arab and Muslim World," May 19, 2005, Tunisian Reformist Thinker: Secularism is Vital for the Future of the Arab and Muslim World ;

MEMRI A Tunisian Intellectual on The Arab Obsession with Vengeance "A Tunisian Intellectual on The Arab Obsession with Vengeance," May 4, 2003, A Tunisian Intellectual on The Arab Obsession with Vengeance ;

MEMRI Tunisian Intellectual Al-Afif Al-Akhdar On the Arab Identity Crisis and Education, "Tunisian Intellectual Lafif Lakhdar On the Arab Identity Crisis and Education," September 21, 2003, Tunisian Intellectual Al-Afif Al-Akhdar On the Arab Identity Crisis and Education .

[2] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 439, "Liberal Journalist Fired from Al-Hayat," Liberal Journalist Fired from Al-Hayat.

[3] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 812, "Arab Liberals Petition the U.N. to Establish an International Tribunal for the Prosecution of Terrorists," Arab Liberals Petition the U.N. to Establish an International Tribunal for the Prosecution of Terrorists .

[4], March 17, 2006.The interview was conducted in Paris, where Lakhdar resides.

Share this Report: