January 10, 2007 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 315

Tunisian Reformist Abdelwahab Meddeb: It's Up To the Arab to Take the Courageous Step Of Questioning His Faith

January 10, 2007
North Africa, Tunisia | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 315

Reformist author Abdelwahab Meddeb was born in Tunisia in 1946, and has been living in Paris since 1968. He is the editor of the international French-language literary journal Dédale and professor of comparative literature at the University of Paris X in Nanterre. Meddeb has written several books, including La Maladie de l’Islam, [1] which aroused considerable interest around the world and has been translated into English, Arabic, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Turkish. The book discusses the relationship between Islam and the West in light of the history of Islamic thought, and in connection with today's violent political Islam. Meddeb argues in the book that Islam is afflicted with the illness of fundamentalism.

In September 2006, Meddeb published a book titled Contre-Prêches [2] (Counter-Preaching). The book was based on his weekly radio program, which is aimed at the large French-speaking community in North Africa and has been aired by the Moroccan station Radio Mediterranee Internationale since March 2003. Contre-Prêches is a collection of 115 essays on a variety of topics, including Islam, antisemitism, the veil, multiculturalism, and the fall of dictators.

The following is a review of Meddeb's views on these topics, as presented in La Maladie de l’Islam and Contre-Prêches:

"Islamic Society Today Has Become a Prudish Society with an Aversion To Sensuality"

Meddeb argues that Islam has declined over time: "Islamic society used to be a society that delighted in pleasure, [a society] based on love of life. [Today], it has become a prudish [society] with an aversion to sensuality... The tradition of exalting the [human] body seems to have [completely] vanished from certain Islamic lands, which have been devastated by the order imposed [upon them] by half-literate people afflicted with resentment...

"Today, we are witnessing a strange reversal in the attitude towards the body. The society ["cité"[ advocated by Islam [is one] whose members are afflicted with nihilism and resentment, whereas the Westerners have freed their bodies from traditional constraints... Those who adhere to Islam are not aware of this curious reversal, since they are so proud of their condition that they commend it to the 'depraved Western society' as a model of a virtuous society..." [3]

Meddeb is particularly critical of Wahhabi Islam, which in his view "makes [Muslims] forget their bodies, [all material] things and places, and [all things of physical] beauty." He says that "the rejection of all this inflicts the [Muslims] with general amnesia - which is one of the aspects of their malady." [4]

About Islamist terrorists, Meddeb says: "No criminal is more despicable than one who not only fails to feel any guilt after [committing] his [crime], but also harbors the illusion that this [crime] will bring him... divine reward. This conversion of bad into good not only spares him guilt, but also turns an unhappy person into a happy soul... " [5]

"The Current Antisemitism in Arab Countries is Directed Against Imaginary Jews"

According to Meddeb, one of the chief symptoms of the malady of Islam is resentment. This resentment is particularly strong, he says, regarding the West, and particularly regarding the Jews. It affects even secular Arab Muslims: "Preachers and even 'secular' editorialists view the disasters that have befallen their community through [the prism of] acute xenophobia: They invent an imaginary conspiracy and attribute it the other, who fulfils the role of the enemy. [Both] the faults of the collective and the shortcomings of individuals are attributed to the evil and malignant foreigner... What better way to rid oneself of responsibility after ridding oneself of guilt? [According to this view,] the Muslims' misery is caused by the West... and by Israel, whose success is a source of vexation [for the Muslims] in light of their own failure, which they are unable to acknowledge...

"Anti-Judaism is blended with anti-Zionism and turns into a kind of antisemitism, without [the Muslims] even realizing that this [antisemitism] is imported from the West... In the general confusion, a theological debate is confused with a political one, which is itself permeated with racist perversion. The wound inflicted by Israel on the Arab conscience remains exposed to every [kind of] putrid infection. No one is spared, not even the most open and least extremist minds, such as Sheikh Tantawi, one of the authoritative and reasonable voices of official Islam..." [6]

Meddeb notes that Islam has fought Judaism from the very beginning of its history in Medina: "...Faced with the newly-formed [Islamic] community, the Jews had to choose between converting and resisting. The Islamic anti-Judaism led to the massacre of the Jews in Medina, under the leadership of the Prophet. This initial anti-Judaism must be mentioned in order to distinguish it from European antisemitism, which has in recent years found fertile ground in Islamic countries...

"[European] antisemitism is rooted in the notion of a Jewish conspiracy aimed at taking over the world. This delusion inspired The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Arabic translation of which is now widely circulated...

"One must bear in mind that in the Islamic tradition, anti-Judaism was aimed at Jews who were in an [inferior] position, in two ways: they were exiles, excluded from sovereignty, and they had the inferior legal status of People of the Book: a minority [tolerated] under Islamic rule. Current antisemitism, on the other hand, is aimed against Jews who have renewed their sovereignty in Israel, at the price of almost completely leaving the Arab and Islamic societies. This antisemitism is [therefore] directed against absent Jews that no one is familiar with, and whose ancient presence has been forgotten. [In other words], this hatred is directed against imaginary Jews - and nurtured by TV footage showing ferocious military power cold-bloodedly killing unarmed brothers reduced to throwing stones.

"This is why the current struggle against antisemitism in Islam must restore the memory of the once-friendly co-existence between Jews and Arabs, without concealing the events that occurred in the beginning of Islamic [history]..." [7]

Giving examples of the once friendly relationship between Jews and Arabs, he quotes Ibn Arabi (born in 1164 in Murcia and died in Damascus in 1240): "Owing to a similarity in sounds, Ibn Arabi connected the word 'Jew' (Yahudi) to the word hudan, which means 'good guidance'. Thus the Jew was associated with a pious man who does not deviate from the path of righteousness."

He further cites [8] "the numerous Jewish masterpieces from the Middle-Ages that were written in Arabic." A few of the authors he mentions are Moses Ben Ezra, Yehuda Halevi and Maimonides.

"The Testimony of Al-Husseini, Mufti of Jerusalem, Confirms the Nazi Extermination... It Should be Published in the Arab and Iranian Press"

Meddeb describes an antisemitic Friday sermon he recently heard at the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo: "...I believe the speaker was the current [spiritual] guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Muhammad Mahdi 'Akef. He was pounding his words like a political propagandist, yelling his advice and his threats from the heart of the mosque... He was condemning the passivity and cowardliness of the Mulsim countries and masses, while praising the Iranian president and his courageous stand, in particular with regards to Israel... A few days later the press published an announcement by the same 'Akef condoning the Iranian president's denial of the Holocaust. According to ['Akef, the Holocaust] is nothing but a myth intended to legitimize [the existence of] Israel...

"I remind all those who doubt the reality of the Holocaust that there is a direct Arab Muslim testimony to its [truth], namely the words of the Mufti of Jerusalem, [Amin] Al-Husseini, who was invited [to Germany] by the Nazis in light of his short-term alliance [with them] and owing to his anti-British attitude... In his memoirs, he recalls a conversation with Himmler in the summer of 1943. [The latter] told [him] that three million Jews had already been exterminated as part of the 'Final Solution,' according to a methodical and industrialized plan... This excerpt from Al-Husseini's memoirs should be published in the Arab and Iranian press..." [9]

"The Only Solution is to Acknowledge that All Koranic Verses Regarding Women's Inferiority are Obsolete"

Another main aspect of Islam's illness, according to Meddeb, is the inferior status of women. Meddeb states that this discrimination is unfortunately rooted in the Koran itself. He asks: "All those who want to... follow the founding scriptures are faced with a conundrum. What can they do in the face of a [Koranic] verse which explicitly establishes the superiority of men over women, [namely] verse 34 of Sura 4, which reads: 'Men have authority over women because God has favored one over the other...'

"The only solution for the women and men who [wish to follow] the Islamic faith while adapting to the modern [principle] of gender equality... is to acknowledge that all Koranic edicts regarding [women's inferiority] are obsolete, and that they are rooted in [historical] circumstances rather than in [immutable] principles...

"Nowadays, many women claim to be returning to their Islamic origins. This can only imply that they accept their subservient [status]. They cannot avoid this. We are told that women who don the veil are responsible for their choices and wish to take part in the 'Islamization' of the modern world... This phenomenon is another knot in the chain [that binds them]. The only way to get rid of this knot is to cut right through it. Only then will it be possible to save [the Islamic] faith in a healthy manner - without nurturing the kind of schizophrenia that is impossible to live with: seeking freedom while reinforcing the state of subservience.

"As for the veil - must we mention it again? Yes, it is necessary to harp on [this issue], since this phenomenon is becoming universal, and since the Arab satellite channels take part in propagating [this custom] by spreading feelings of guilt. Let me say out loud that [the veil] is the embodiment of all the laws which legitimate gender inequality... Muslim women, if you want to be modern, burn your veils!" [10]

"I see the veil as a sign of the inferior status of women and of an offense against women. To these young girls who claim to wear it out of their own free will, I say that they are [actually] under the influence [of an Islamic authority]... They demand that we respect their [right to] be different, but in fact they are only embracing the inferior legal status imposed upon them by the Koranic law...

"To those young girls who wear a veil, I say, first of all, that their attitude is outdated... As a child in Tunis in the 1950s, I saw women taking off their veils [even] in my traditional social circle. Back then, this development seemed irreversible. [Imagine how] surprised I was to witness the comeback of the veil in Paris, city of enlightenment and liberties..."

As proof to the fact that the veil is not simply the expression of the "right to be different," Meddeb notes that today the veil is "identical from Jakarta to Paris" and does not display the variety that characterizes individual expression: "[The phenomenon of the veil], as we see it today, is the result of political action... The transformation in the meaning of the veil reflects the metamorphosis [of Islam]. There is a world of difference between the veil as a traditional [custom] and what I call the 'ideological' veil... Today, veils are identical from Jakarta to Paris." [11]

Multiculturalism Promotes Islamism; "Only in the Maghreb Can We Win the Worldwide Cultural Battle Against the Islamists - Thanks to the French Influence"

Meddeb believes that multiculturalism fosters Islamism in the West. Commenting on the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, he writes: "[Van Gogh] rejected the multicultural society. He saw it as a means of legitimizing the emergence and propagation of Islamism, which is extremist, radical, and impossible to assimilate [into Western society], and which is in danger of infecting one million [Muslim] subjects living in the Netherlands." [12]

Meddeb further writes: "Great Britain is now paying the price of its incomprehensible tolerance towards these sowers of dissension, trouble, and apocalyptic [doom]. Obviously, the democratic tradition of this country, which gave birth to the [principle of] Habeas Corpus, is admirable. But [this principle] should not be implemented so scrupulously that it [undermines] other people's right to live." [13]

Meddeb points to the special role of the Maghreb in the struggle against Islamism: "As a result of the French influence, the entire northern Mediterranean region can become a laboratory of European thinking. Only here can we win the global cultural battle against the Islamists." [14]

"Unless Muslims Take a New Direction, One Can Reasonably Assume that Arab [Civilization], Constrained by the Framework of Islamic Faith, Will Join the Great Dead Civilizations…"

Meddeb believes that Islam has developed into an unproductive religion, and that Arabs today should rid themselves of the influence of Islam: "Imagine a meeting of representatives of the various civilizations: European, American, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, African, Arab, and Muslim. Each [representative] would be asked what his civilization could contribute to the humanity's present and future. What could the Arab Muslim offer? Nothing, except for Sufism, perhaps... Unless they take a new direction, one can reasonably assume that the Arab [civilization], constrained by the framework of Islamic faith, will join the great dead civilizations..."

"It is up to the Arab to take the courageous [step of] questioning [his faith] until he feels that Islam is a disease, until he reduces this useless and all-pervasive [influence] to the size of an insect, until he de-Islamizes his Arab identity. Then the lock may begin to break, and the doors [to freedom] may begin to open." [15]

Meddeb argues that reform begins with the willingness to accept criticism, especially from the European countries in which many Muslims reside: "...It is not up to Europe to adapt to Islam. It is up to Islam to learn how to accept criticism - even the most offensive criticism - without reverting to bloody acts of revenge. Muslims must understand that [even] the harshest criticism against Islam is justified in the light of the flagrant contradiction that exists between the developing world and the static morals [of Islam]." [16]

"What is Happening Around the World Teaches Us That It is Possible To Confront A Dictatorship And Triumph Over It"

Meddeb refers to Condoleezza Rice's statements, cited in The Washington Post, regarding the need to promote democracy in the Middle East. Rice rejected the claim that Islam is incompatible with democracy, and said that it reminded her of the attitude that prevailed in Alabama during her childhood, when it was widely believed that blacks could not develop intellectual abilities. Meddeb mentions Rice's statements to show how condescending it is to believe that Arab Islamic countries cannot be democratized. [17]

"[In fact], it is surprising to see how easily the dictator's [i.e. Saddam Hussein] establishment disintegrated, for when the dictator was in power, he terrorized the country and seemed impossible to remove. He functioned perfectly well and recruited numerous enthusiastic agents to keep his country in line... I can only wonder at the evident fragility of tyrants, once they are deposed, since on the eve [of their fall], they are [still] wrapped in mystique which rendered their image and person sacred." [18]

Meddeb holds that it was right to show the humiliation of Saddam Hussein on TV in the Arab world, since this put an end to a myth: "... I believe this was an education for the Arab masses who still worship dictators. They were forced to witness his degradation, and to see him dug out of his dark hole... without offering any resistance... [It was important for them] see him... transformed into a submissive victim so that the myth could be shattered. Such a fall... should be the lot of any dictator who forces the people to venerate his image..." [19]

Regarding the process of democratization in Iraq, Meddeb writes: "Never have the Arabs witnessed such an event - a member of a minority was elected president of a society which has an Arab majority, and which considers itself Arab. Here is Jalal Talabani, a Kurd heading the Iraqi state..." [20]

Meddeb also regards the fall of the Lebanese government on March 28, 2005 as a milestone for democracy in the Middle-East: "The fall of the Lebanese government is heartening because it was caused by popular pressure and set precedence in the Arab world. On the symbolic level, this event deserves to be inscribed [in the book of] great events in political [history]... We live at a time when the democratic process is in motion. What is happening around the world teaches us that it is possible to confront a dictatorship and triumph over it."

"The Syrian Regime Failed to Realize that the World Has Changed"; "Democracy Is Indeed in Full Swing"

"But this process does not move forward if it is not fueled by the people's desire to overcome the obstacle which keeps them [in a state of] lethargy. The truth is that all dictatorships survive owing to the consent of the masses, [owing to the masses'] willingness to be subjugated..."

"It is the sacrifice of Rafiq Al-Hariri that triggered the popular protests [in Lebanon]. The Lebanese people refused to be intimidated by the attacks and the political message they conveyed. Syria had accustomed us to these methods, but the [Syrian] regime failed to realize that the world has changed. Its old methods had the opposite effect [to the one intended]...

"Democratization is indeed in full swing [now]. Elections have been held in Iraq. Two sectors have received recognition - a religious sector, the Shiites, and an ethnic sector, the Kurds - who had known nothing but total rejection for years. A new path is being carved out for the Middle East, in which all former practices - so beloved by Syria - seem obsolete and counter-effective... " [21]

*Nathalie Szerman is Director of MEMRI's North African Reformists Project.

[1] Seuil, Paris, 2002. The book was also published in English: Malady of Islam, Basic Books, New York, 2003.

[2] Seuil, Paris, 2006

[3] La Maladie de l'Islam, pp. 135-139.

[4] La Maladie de l'Islam, p. 141.

[5] Contre-Prêches, p. 362.

[6] La Maladie de l'Islam, pp. 129-133.

[7] Contre-Prêches, pp. 104-105.

[8] Contre-Prêches, pp. 106-108.

[9] Contre-Prêches, pp. 458-459.

[10] Contre-Prêches, pp. 263-266.

[11] Contre-Prêches, pp. 56-58.

[12] Contre-Prêches, p. 249.

[13] Contre-Prêches, p. 401.

[14] Die Zeit, September 21, 2006,

[15] Contre-Prêches, pp. 42-43.

[16] Contre-Prêches, p. 250.

[17] Contre-Prêches, p. 114.

[18] Contre-Prêches, p. 38.

[19] Contre-Prêches, p. 134.

[20] Contre-Prêches, p. 328.

[21] Contre-Prêches, pp. 314-317.

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