September 21, 2003 Special Dispatch No. 576

Tunisian Intellectual Al-Afif Al-Akhdar On the Arab Identity Crisis and Education

September 21, 2003
North Africa, Tunisia | Special Dispatch No. 576

In three articles posted on the liberal Arabic-language website during June 2003, Tunisian intellectual Lafif Lakhdar [1] discusses the Arab identity crisis and education in the Arab world, in addition to other issues. The following are excerpts from the articles. [2] For more information on Al-Afif Al-Akhdar, see the Reform in the Arab and Muslim World section of MEMRI's website:

Why Do Other People Love Life While We Love Death?

"Why is it that our countries are among the wealthiest in natural resources… and the poorest in human resources? Why does the world's human knowledge double every three years… while with us, what multiplies several times over is illiteracy, ideological fear, and mental paralysis? Why do expressions of tolerance, moderation, rationalism, compromise, and negotiation horrify us, but [when we hear] fervent cries for vengeance, we all dance the war dance? Why have the people of the world managed to mourn their pasts and move on, while we have established, hard and fast, our gloomy bereavement over a past that does not pass? Why do other people love life, while we love death and violence, slaughter and suicide, and [even] call it heroism and martyrdom…?"

The Sources of the Arab Identity Crisis

"[The answer] to many of [these questions] lies in a contrast-ridden and explosive mixture of a collective narcissistic wound and religious narcissism that has caused us collective mental paralysis… In the head of almost every one of us [Arabs] is something of Dr. Jekyll and something of Mr. Hyde: a mind simultaneously demented and wretched.

"An [historic] narcissistic wound is a frustration that makes its victim despise himself, a blow that makes [the victim] see himself as nothing… It is symbolic castration that causes a crushing sense of shame and inferiority, and in our case, a constant [sense] of this… The Arabs experienced their defeats by European imperialism and Israel on both the conscious level and the collective subconscious level… as a national humiliation whose shame can be purged only by 'blood, vengeance, and fire,' as the Arab national motto [states].

"Collective religious narcissism is distorted thought that leads the believer in a miracle-based religion [i.e. the monotheistic religions] to think that his nation is 'the best nation created for human beings'… that Allah designated it to guide and lead humanity. How then is it possible that such a nation would imitate [other human beings] and learn from them…?

"Where did the Jews get the false claim that they are God's Chosen People, and the Muslims that they are the best nation created for human beings? The source of this false fantasy… is ethnocentrism. Primitive man imagines himself to be the center of the universe… and [imagines] that God created everything on the face of the earth for him. This ethnocentrism… led to the belief that since the language of the group that delivers mankind [i.e. the Arabs] is the mother of all languages, anyone not completely fluent in it is considered an animal and a barbarian, and that since its culture is the most divine, and since its religion is the only true religion, then the other religions are mere vanity….

"The criterion of peoples' progress from savagery and their natural state to civilization… is their transition from an ethnocentric [perception] to [a perception] of human harmony, [from a state] that is the foundation of racism — with a belief in inherent differences among ethnic groups, cultures, and religions — [to a state] in which the only distinctions [emanate] from the degree of historical advancement. Only thus can there begin a healthy transition from glorifying the individual and society to criticizing them… from blind faith and consensus to critical thought and disagreement… The Jews believed that the Temple stood at the center of the universe… [but] the wise among them 'forgot' the claims of their ancestors, while we remain sunk up to our beards in religious narcissism."

The Fundamentalist Answer to the Identity Crisis: A Return to Allah, Riding on a Belt of Explosives

" Al-Ahram 's religion column still misleads its readers through the myth [that]… Mecca is not only the center of the earth… but the center of the entire universe… [3] This 'fact,' a fantasy existing only in the imagination of those who believe it, demonstrates how the religious media form a pact with religious education in the struggle against the spirit of science… so as to prevent rationalism… from seeping into Islamic thought. Our hallucinatory religious narcissism tells us that our religion is the [supreme] religion, because our holy places are the center of the universe and because our nation is the most important of all nations… However, our repeated defeats… tell us that we are the last in line among the nations. This contrast-ridden discourse is the source of many of our psychological, social, and political ills, and of our grave identity crisis. Who are we? Are we the best nation that [Allah] produced for man, or the last in line among the nations? And why?

"The religious media and education provide an easy answer: Since we have given up our religion, Allah has given us up. Therefore, let us set out on a campaign of return to Allah; let us return to the Golden Age riding on a belt of explosives — and the first thing it will blow up will be our hopes for a better future…!

"Why are broad sectors of Muslims today alienating themselves from the realistic approach of the companions of the Prophet… who refused to obey a [religious] text that contradicted military reality and their interests… [Why do they alienate themselves]… from modern science that contributes to a constructive reading of the sacred text that adapts it to the demands of the hour…? [They refuse,] because their narcissistic wound has made them vindictive, attaching no importance… to realism and reason in politics… and [made them] into fanatics incapable of giving the religious text an historical reading… The [historic] narcissistic wound convinces them of their inferiority and throws them into a mortal melancholy bereavement, while the collective religious narcissism persuades them that they are the umbilicus of the world because their Jihad will continue until the Day of Judgment and because their willpower and reliance on Allah are stronger than [any] balance of power…" [4]

The Madness of Nazi Racial Purity and Fundamentalist Religious Purity

"Religious education systematically produces generations of people stricken by the madness of pure religious identity, such as the racial purity madness of the Nazis… Religious narcissism and national narcissism are subject to the same logic: turning the historic gap between cultures and nations into a gap natural and inherent in nature… [For Nazism, this meant] that the 'master' Aryan race had to destroy the 'inferior' races. In religious narcissism [this has meant] that Islam, the 'one true religion,' must triumph over the other religions that are 'false.'

" Muhammad ibn Abd Al-Wahhab [5] [who maintained that] 'Islam is the one true religion… and the other religions are false…' [6] [claimed that] Islam is even the absolute future of Djinns : 'It is essential that the entire world, men and Djinns alike, enter the framework of Islam… and if not — their fate will be Hell…' It is no surprise that this psychopathic personality [i.e. Abd Al-Wahhab], who destroyed the tombs of the companions of the Prophet and of Al-Hussein [the Prophet Muhammad's grandson] and killed Shi'ites in Karbala , including their women and children, is the one who wrote [these] words of hallucination… and fanaticism. What is alarming is [that his words] are learned by heart by elementary school children, with the aim of sowing among [the children] the inability to recognize reality, [to force them to] close up… and [to force them] into extreme distancing from the other, to lead them to Paradise bound in chains, to [infect them] with the madness of the purity of [Islamic] identity [and to lead them] to megalomania, fanaticism, self-segregation, and terror…"

Western Heresies: Coca Cola, Television, Science, Democracy

"Since the Arabs were transformed from a conquering nation into a conquered nation, Islamic religious law has closed in on itself, and has become Jihad law prohibiting resembling or imitating 'the infidels,' or interacting with them… [Ever since] Sheikh Ibn Taymiyya stated that 'conflict with the infidels is one of the goals of [Muslim] religious law'… [7] this 'obligation' has created a psychological barrier between the Muslim Arab and modern culture, and has led to an internalization of [the view] that the institutions, sciences, universal values, [and even] technology created by [the infidels] are like heresy. Everything imported by [the Muslims] from outside the Arab world requires a Fatwa permitting it — coffee, running water, Western-style hats, Coca Cola, television, the modern sciences, human rights, and democracy.

"[As mentioned,] this hallucinatory religious narcissism is created because of historic circumstances, such as the Prophet's wars with the Jews… European imperialism, and the establishment of the Jewish state. Both these recent events shocked the Arab Islamic psychology, and it responded to them with two sterile answers: the first is represented by Sufi Islam, which fled from conflict, and the second is represented by Jihad Islam, stricken with madness for vengeance upon 'the Jews and Crusaders'… at any price — even [at the price of] 'let me die with the Philistines.' The paragons of Jihad Islam [advocating] martyrdom are the Al-Qa'ida and Hamas organizations… whose true motive, concealed behind the hallucinatory goals, is vengeance and vengeance alone…

"Why did Germany and Japan not retaliate for their wounds after World War II… with responses similar to ours? [Because] religious narcissism was not internalized in their modern cultures… and secularism prevented hallucinatory responses to their wounds… They imitated the West, assimilating into it, while we fought with it, struggled against it, and became locked in on our own values… The amok-struck Islam, the Islam of 'conflict with the infidels' and military vengeance against them, has lost… its ability to unfurl the real problems [openly] and search for realistic solutions for them. 'The conflict with the infidels' — with their economics, statesmanship, establishment, sciences, values, and way of life — is the hard core of Islamic narcissism, of how it conducts its affairs as if still in the past, of its fanaticism, and of terror."

Liberating the Islamic Consciousness From the Necessity of Conflict with the 'Infidels'

"There are two options… for liberating the Islamic consciousness and subconscious from 'the necessity of conflict with the infidels'… One was realized in Iran, where, via its Islamic revolution, it implemented its religious narcissism down to the very last fantasy. It confronted the infidels in all things, banned their music, and locked institutes of study for four years in order to Islamicize knowledge… [and ultimately it failed].

"[In Iran], religious narcissism went [far] beyond [mere] implementation. The Muslims [of the Iranian revolution] were liberated from their longing for a Mahdi [8] state when they were disappointed in its manifestation. They did not find [the realization of] their dream in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This republic turned their land into a vast prison that shut Iran to Western civilization. [But] stolen water is sweeter: Iran's Shi'a are today the most Westernized and secularized people in the Islamic world…

"The second option [for liberating the Islamic consciousness] is less painful and less bloody, and is [done] through restoring the self-confidence of the Muslims sufficiently for them [to be able] to open up to the West. The more they open up… the stronger their self-respect and self-confidence will be. The high road to realizing this goal is for enlightened religious education to replace narcissistic religious education. Self-respect and self-confidence are required for [renouncing and] mourning [the ideals of]: the requirement to confront the infidels and to segregate ourselves from them; loyalty [to Islam] and to the [Koranic] Verses of the Sword [9] and of Jihad until the Day of Judgment; implementation of Shari'a law; contempt for the rational, for women, and for non-Muslims; yearning for the Caliphate state; liberating Palestine to the last grain of earth; and regaining Andalusia and establishing an Islamic regime in France within the next 50 years!

"What ensures that this enlightened religious education will put an end to the internalization of religious narcissism…? [Of one thing] there is no doubt: This education will not teach pupils texts that nourish hallucinatory religious beliefs such as the belief in Djinns and angels and the ability to form relationships and military alliances with them… Benighted texts used today in religious education must be replaced with rational texts, [such as] Mu'tazila , [10] philosophy, and contemporary reformists, so as to prepare [pupils] for independent thought, development, dialogue, and the brotherhood of man, as was done in the Tunisian educational system. Human rights and philosophy studies must be taught on a variety of levels of education… so as to open up the Islamic consciousness to universal values and critical thought… In this way, this education will be able to produce generations whose dialogue with the other will not begin with primitive commandments and end with all-encompassing [religious] precepts." [11]

The End of the Era of Allah's Rights, The Beginning of the Era of Human Rights

"Modernism is [a fundamental requirement] for joining the contemporary international community, the global economy, and the international institutions…. [This modernism] and its universal values guarantees every social agenda worthy of its name, and is the only way for Arab societies to join the modern age… and today it is the only option.

"Joining global modernism… requires [the Arabs] to cut themselves off from the norms, institutions, and values of the past that are not suited to the demands of the time and the needs of the people… The norms of our day require a transition from an economy ruled by Shari'a law to an economy ruled by proper market laws in the hands of [internationally] agreed-upon institutions. [These norms] require a transition from an autocratic regime to a state ruled by law; [from a perception] of the 'natural' differences between man and woman, and between Muslims and Muslims who belong to one of the 'groups that will not be redeemed' to [a perception of] equal civil rights and obligations; from persecuting minorities to respecting their rights;… from demands for traditional law to demands for the law of reason; from the era of the rights of Allah to the era of human rights; from a culture of hatred of the other to a culture of respect for the other and civilized discourse and economic trade with him; from religious fanaticism to religious tolerance;… from a culture of blind faith to a culture of questioning; and from a culture of absolute truth to a culture of relative truth."

Fundamentalist Leaders and Fundamentalist Education Versus Arab Society's Joining the Modern Age

"Two powerful elements fight against Arab society's joining the modern age: the benighted leadership of Islam and the benighted religious education. This leadership rejects the religious rationalism that makes sense out of the religious texts via commentary… The benighted religious education that prevails everywhere produces generations that memorize religious texts, robbing themselves of [any ability] to think about them on their own, and [making them] read only the aggressive impulse, irrational fear, internal failure, and religious and political capriciousness within it. These are the [true] Muslim terrorists and their audience, whose cultural, psychological, and civil misery precedes their material misery.

"A textual reading… that is irrational creates a psychological barrier between Islamic consciousness and modernism, and turns its victims into a 'blue-blooded' schizophrenic elite that hallucinates that it is surrounded only by 'Jews, Christians, and their secular agents' scheming against the Islamic nation and closing in on it from all sides — as per the view that the Muslim Brotherhood has been perpetuating via the media and education since 1928.

"In his book, [the no. 2 leader of Al-Qa'ida and Egyptian Jihad leader] Ayman Al-Zawahiri wrote: 'When the Jihad against the U.S. begins, there will be an earthquake that will shock the West; establishing the Islamic Caliphate in Egypt will make [Egypt] the leader of the Muslim world, with Jihad against the West… and turn history around, in the opposite direction — against the American empire and global Jewish rule…

"These psychological-religious trademarks are evident also in the words of bin Laden …: 'The Muslim nation was also promised victory over the Jews, as the Prophet said: The Day of Judgment will come only after the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them, until the Jew hides behind the stone and the tree, and then the stone and the tree will say, Oh Muslim, oh servant of Allah, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him — except for the Gharqad tree, which is the tree of the Jews.'"

What Little Osama Learned in Saudi Arabia's Fundamentalist Educational System

"In this way, the grown-up bin Laden echoed what little Osama learned in the classrooms of the text-focused Wahhabi seminary. The above tradition [about killing the Jews before the Day of Judgment] appears in the [Saudi] schoolbook ' The Hadith ' for the middle grades. The book explains to the pupils in this lesson…: 'The Gharqad is a large thorny tree that the Jews frequently plant in Palestine in our time'… The lesson goes on to explain the meaning of the Hadith :

1) "Allah's wisdom includes continuing the struggle between Muslims and Jews until the Day of Judgment.

2) This tradition proves the tidings received by the Muslims about the victory over the Jews that Allah will ultimately grant them…

3) The Muslims will be victorious because justice is on their side, and the just man will always triumph, even if everything is against him.

4) The victory that Allah will grant the Muslims will occur when their intentions are genuine, their words united, and they cling to the religious law of their God, uphold His commandments, and bear [the trials] with patience.

5) Material power is not enough to achieve victory, and we must rely on Allah…

6) The Jews and the Christians, the enemies of the Muslims, will never be pleased with the Muslims, and we must beware of them…

"This typical lesson from the Saudi curriculum brainwashes the pupil of any suspect rationality that might infect him. No. 3 on the list [shows how] the irrational religious studies inculcate the [principles] of irrational policy in the [children's] tender minds: It is enough for truth to be on your side for Allah to grant you victory, even if the balance of power is against you. No. 6 sows among the children the seeds of the culture of hatred for the Jews and the Christians, and the seeds of a persecution complex and the obligation to 'beware of them'…

"In every Arab country but Tunisia, this benighted religious education differs in intensity but is the same in quality. The common root is the absence of religious rationality [which originates in] the Khawarij , [12] the Hanbali , [13] and the Wahhabi [schools of thought]… The medieval-style religious law that eradicates the personality of the individual in the Arab world recognizes none of his basic rights and forces him to abolish the supreme value [in man] — that is, his mind — so that his response to the religious text is 'we hear and obey' and the mind is sent on a long vacation."

Stop Defining Jews and Christians as Infidels

"Throughout the world, religious education has absorbed modern innovations to varying degrees — except for the Arab world, which remains locked before these [innovations]… Why do we teach children [a verse such as]: 'Banish [wives] from your beds and beat them' [14] instead of [a verse like]: 'God created for you, from among yourselves, wives so that you will trust them, and let love and compassion exist between you?' [15] Why not consider the [Koran] verses and traditions that cast women in a negative light and thus contravene human rights [as] cancelled by women's human rights…? Alternative education must redefine the non-Muslim, especially the Jew and the Christian, in a positive light, so that they will no longer be considered 'infidels' whom [Muslims] must confront; rather they should be considered as those who must be made partners in values… via economic, scientific, and cultural cooperation… as globalization demands…

"Religious rationalism can start with the 'universal' Koran verses that refer to equality for all religions… [for example]: 'The believers [Muslims], the Jews, the Sabbais, the Christians, the Zoroastrians, and the idol-worshippers — Allah is the one who will decide among them on the Day of Judgment' [16] ; 'These are the Muslims, the Jews, the Sabbais, and the Christians. Anyone who believes in Allah and in the Day of Judgment and acts righteously — has nothing to fear and must not be sad.' [17] [The first chapter speaks of] rejecting the law that decides regarding the fate of members of different religions until the Day of Judgment and places the right of decision in the hands of Allah, not in the hands of man. [The verses both] equate all believers [i.e. members of different religions] in a positive way…

"The jurisprudents of the Middle Ages… claimed that these verses were abrogated by the verses setting Islam as the religion of truth, surpassing the [other] religions that are 'false and bring disaster upon their believers'… [but] the demands of our time oblige us to consider the 'abrogating' verses as themselves abrogated and abolished. This is because they are circumstantial and their decisions lost their validity when the circumstances under which they came into being disappeared. [In his book] " Al-Manar," Rashid Ridha saw the Koran's Verses of the Sword' as abrogated… whose validity was restricted to the Jews, Christians, and idol worshippers [even] in the period in which they emerged. [Even] the Caliphs, during Islam's golden age, considered these verses [abrogated] when they employed Jews and Christians as ministers and advisors under their rule." [18]

[1] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 518 " Arab Statesmanship's Fatal Flaw: Backward Political Decision-Making," Arab Statesmanship's Fatal Flaw: Backward Political Decision-Making and MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 499 "A Tunisian Intellectual on The Arab Obsession with Vengeance," A Tunisian Intellectual on The Arab Obsession with Vengeance.

[2] "How Our Narcissistic Wound and Religious Narcissism Combine to Destroy our Future"; " Why Religious Narcissism is the Golden Collar [Obstructing] Our Assimilation Into the Modern Age"; and "Irrational Religious Education is the Obstacle to the [Arabs'] Joining the Modern Age."

[3] Al-Ahram (Egypt), May 28, 2003. (Footnote in original.):

[4] / June 16, 2003. All subheadings in this translation by MEMRI.

[5] Muhammad ibn Abd Al-Wahhab (d. 1792), after whom Wahhabism is named. He headed the fundamentalist and militant revival movement in what is today Saudi Arabia, drawing many principles from the doctrine of 13th century cleric Ibn Taymiyya (see Note 5).

[6] Muhammad ibn Abd Al-Wahhab, Al Tawhid, pp. 33-34, Lesson 13, published by the Saudi Ministry of Education, Riyadh. (Footnote in original.)

[7] Ibn Taymiyya, (d. 1328) the spiritual father of Wahhabism, which is the Saudi kingdom's official stream of Islam.

[8] According to the Prophet Muhammad, Al-Mahdi (the guided one), will appear when the Muslim believers are severely oppressed in every corner of the world to fight the oppressors. He will unite the Muslims, bring peace and justice to the world, and rule over the Arabs.

[9] The "Verses of the Sword" or "Verses of War" are numerous verses scattered throughout the Koran that discuss the Muslims' war against idol-worshippers and against the other monotheistic faiths, i.e. Judaism and Christianity.

[10] A rational-philosophical stream in Islam of the 9th and 10th centuries. Its followers were completely annihilated by the Hanbali adherents (see Note 9).

[11] June 15, 2003.

[12] The Khawarij were a rebellious group of Muslims, mostly non-Arabs, in the late 7th century. They advocated a more egalitarian form of Islam.

[13] The Hanbali school of thought in Sunni Islam was founded by Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855). Hanbal's followers were reluctant to give personal opinion on matters of law, rejected analogy, were fanatically intolerant of views other than their own, and excluded opponents from power and judicial office. Their unpopularity led to periodic bouts of persecution against them.

[14] Koran, Al-Nisaa: 33-34.

[15] Koran, Al-Rom: 20.

[16] Koran, Al-Hajj: 17.

[17] Koran, Al-Maada: 69.

[18] June 23, 2003.

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