Abdelwahab Meddeb, born in Tunisia, now lives in France, where he teaches, writes and hosts a media show lending Arab-Muslim culture a Europhile glow. One of an accelerating flow of migrants fleeing Africa’s multiform poverty for refuge in Europe, their haven of freedom and affluence, Meddeb, having achieved the integrationist dream, should be happy in his earthly paradise.
But the dreamer feels insecure. In a Europe waging political, military and economic wars against several Muslim countries, and fearing blowback in the form of suicide bombs and Taliban insurgents, the demonisation of Arab Muslims as fundamentalist terrorists can turn the immigrant dream into a security nightmare at any moment.
Meddeb blames this insecurity not on European prejudice, but on his fellow Muslims. Muslims, he says, inhabit a sick, cursed society, because they have carelessly allowed a violent minority of fundamentalists to hijack their common image. The disease, then, is fundamentalism, the tendency of believers in one God, or one Allah, to want to impose their faith by violence. Its symptom is terrorism, the use of violence, murder and the threat thereof, as prime arguments for God, against unbelievers.
Europeans today, like Americans, have used their media arsenal to link terrorism with Islam. This places a terrible obstacle in the way of Meddeb’s dream of Arab-Muslim integration into Europe. His task is to conjure away the European stereotype of Arabs as terrorists, and of Islam as a religion of unreasoning violence. For, beyond simple integration, Meddeb wishes Europeans could see Arab Muslims as cultural kin sharing a superior faith – monotheism - that makes them an integral part of Western civilisation, which to him is the only real civilisation, period. Occidentalisez-vous is his fervent plea to fellow Muslims. Get Westernised!
To accelerate the integration of Arabs and Muslims into Western society, Meddeb wants to cure the fundamentalist disease, to exorcise the assassins’ curse. The task would be easier if he could deny that according to holy writ, the Muslim Allah himself calls on believers to practice murder to push their faith. But the injunction is inscribed in the Koran. Since Muslims believe their book is eternally true, the inconvenient incitement to violence cannot be changed.
Unable to defend the Koran against its own words, Meddeb does the next best thing. He points out that the violence of fundamentalist Islam is not unique. It’s a trait Islam shares with the other monotheistic religions. Before Muslims took up cudgels and suicide bombs on God’s behalf, Christians before them, and Jews before Christians, exalted the idea of murder in God’s service. Meddeb cites examples: Moses the Jewish prophet, angry at his backsliding followers on the exile road, ordered the massacre of 3,000 in a single day. The Biblical prophet Joshua, after the capture of Jericho, ordered the mass extermination of women and men, old and young, not forgetting beasts. ‘Thus, as far as violence is concerned, the prophet of Islam stands directly in the Mosaic tradition. The notorious verses of the Sword enjoining the killing of pagans, and the so-called War Verses, calling on Muslims to fight to the death against Jews and Christians, have an altogether ‘Biblical’ resonance. And it is these verses that today feed the murderous fanaticism of Islamic fundamentalists.’
But if violence is the shared property of all monotheists, why has the violence of Muslim fundamentalists come to be specially identified as terrorist violence? Meddeb’s answer is that Judaism and Christianity have somehow grown beyond their bloodthirsty fundamentalist origins. Today they inhabit a Kantian universe, the secular west, in which religion, leached clean of its youthful toxins, provides the cultural ground on which a civilisation of universal peace can grow. It’s onto that ground that Meddeb urges his fellow Muslims to migrate, to rejoin their long-lost Jewish and Christian brothers, leaving behind their bloody past and the benighted rest of the world.
Meddeb thinks Arab Muslims would be welcome in the West if they didn’t carry the cultural baggage of fundamentalist violence. To help Islam present itself in a cleansed state, ready for a three-way love fest with the two older monotheisms, Meddeb aims to isolate, marginalise, and eliminate the fundamentalist strain. For such chores NATO can use drones, long-range missiles and large-scale military invasions with or without the fig leaf of United Nations resolutions. But Meddeb has only metaphysical weapons – ideas - at his disposal. His biggest ideas, believe it or not, are literary criticism and historical perspective.
Meddeb says that unlike their healthier Jewish and Christian brethren, Muslims are still caught in an archaic time frame dominated by literal interpretations of outmoded religious texts. He acknowledges that violence did wonders for Islam in times past, since Islam owes its historical expansion to the vigorous practice of jihad, holy war. Divine violence made sense in the seventh century, because - and here Meddeb slips into unintended humor - it was practiced by well-armed Muslim armies against unarmed populations. Now, though, it is invoked against European and American enemies possessing vastly superior firepower. A jihad under such circumstances makes no sense. It’s time to junk holy wars.
Here Meddeb overlooks an insight that, applied to his beloved Europe, could have saved him a lot of confusion. Overwhelming military superiority against an unarmed world is exactly the position the West is seeking to consolidate today. In effect, when Meddeb says the West has left behind the unreasoning violence of its religious beginnings, he mistakes a gear switch for a total halt. Monotheistic faith is the religious form taken by the urge to dominate everyone and everything. The same urge, deployed in its intercontinental political form, was called imperialism - the drive to conquer all lands, to control all resources, and to exploit all peoples. Now, the same drive has shifted and taken a new name, globalization - the unreasoning urge to take over everybody else’s economies and resources. Because these three urges to total power are based on injustice, they cannot hope to work through persuasion. So they have always relied on massive doses of brute force and fear, shock and awe; in a word, terrorism. The violence of Muslim fundamentalists today is a small-bore caricature of the tremendous institutional violence that the armies of Europe and America used in the days of imperialism, and continue to use today, against the peoples of the world. The fact Meddeb overlooks, in his hurry to embrace the West, is that the largest national and international armies at work today are the leading terrorists of our world.
But how does Meddeb propose to get out of the jihad impasse? He suggests starting with a split vision, reading the Koran not as one book, but as two. The first, an outdated, violent Koran, should be jettisoned. The second, a modern, peaceful Koran, should be endorsed. Muslims living in Europe can start by dropping all reference to the Sharia. Worldwide, Muslims should stop preaching death to infidels, and embrace instead the mystical flavor of Sufi Islam, compatible with a civilised, European life. Imams can lead by searching Islamic scripture for passages whose inclusive, humanistic message can counter the venomous, exclusive thrust of fundamentalist Islam.
Letting his literary training overcome his prudence, Meddeb admits that the notion that the Koran is the word of God is, from a purely philosophical viewpoint, just fiction. He thinks it’s time to interpret scripture as a special kind of poetry. This would help readers move away from precise, literal meanings, toward the deliberate ambiguities and obscurities typical of poetry; for he sees precision as negative. He blames the violence of fanatics on the culpable clarity of holy texts: ‘la clarté du sens…predispose les esprits à être réceptifs au message intégriste.’ The clarity of meaning draws impressionable minds to the fundamentalist message.
So let poetry, living on nuance and uncertainty, replace prophecy, with its furious focus on one truth and one alone. Let history, which re-examines old words in their context before judging their relevance in a changing world, replace fundamentalist theology. After that, Islam can rejoin the other monotheistic societies, so that together, Islam, Christianity and Judaism can once again be a civilising light unto the rest of the world. So says Abdelwahab Meddeb.
According to Meddeb, there was a high time in history when Islam was a creative cultural and scientific force. Nostalgia for that time deepens his despondency when he contemplates the present decline of Islamic culture. The whole Muslim world, he says, translates only 330 new books a year; a tiny European country like Greece publishes a thousand. A UNDP document produced by Arab specialists says that the GDP of all Arab countries, petrodollar giants included, is less than that of a single poor European country - Spain. In the Arab world, technical productivity has stalled. And, Muslims are absent from the major intellectual adventures of humanity today. Arab Muslims with anything to contribute to world progress must go into exile, because ‘l’excellence arabe s’exerce dans l’expatriation.’
Meddeb’s argument can be summed up thus: From 750 to 1250 AD, Islam was a world leader in philosophy, mathematics, science - making pivotal contributions to civilisation, alongside Judaism and Christianity. But since then, Islam has declined, and lost its ability to innovate, because fundamentalist thinkers have enshrined the Koran as definitive, unchanging truth. Science and human fulfillment are, by definition, open to future innovation. A philosophy that declares itself the definitive truth dies as a vehicle of human progress. Islam, in short, wilted when it let fundamentalists rise to central prominence. It should now distance itself from them, so as to ‘rejoindre la civilization’. It’s that aim that gives Meddeb’s book its title, ‘The Challenge of Civilization’.
Literary critics and historians might find Meddeb’s proposals intriguing. He wants literature and history to rescue humanity from theology. Theologians will be less thrilled, especially the many imams and ayatollahs whose material and spiritual wellbeing depend on the willingness of multitudes to believe that the Koran is the word of God, true for all time. Meddeb skirts dangerous territory here. Scholarship, based on reason, cannot serve religion which is based on faith. To subject holy writ to scholarly criticism is to highlight the precise issue monotheistic violence is designed to evade. It suggests that holy scripture is just another literary genre.
No self-respecting believer can live with that insight. Literary texts, as products of human intelligence, are open to criticism. Scripture, on the other hand, is, by the nature of the trade in holiness, defined as divine truth, and so exempt from criticism. The definition of fiction as truth lies at the heart of monotheistic belief. Touch it, and you shake the pillars of uncritical belief.
That is the indissoluble connection between monotheistic faith and fundamentalist terrorism. Belief in a single, all-purpose, all-powerful controller of everything makes no sense, in nature or in philosophy. But belief in divine power is able to dispense with sense. Where the rational tendency to doubt stands in the way, believers throughout history have won their arguments not through logic but with violence.
Monotheism has always needed massive violence to establish itself in society. It needs the soft psychological violence of miracles, stage-managed, or simply reported, and unverifiable. It needs the more complex violence of indoctrination - the controlled injection of selected falsehoods into children’s minds in the guise of education. It needs relentless propaganda, the bombardment of adults excitingly packaged half-truths and untruths presented as obvious reality. Above all, against opponents, it needs the hard violence of physical assault, backed up with the institutional violence of torture and the threat of violence as daily reality.
Monotheism rides on terror. It is only logical if its most fervent defenders are terrorists.
This may sound odd, until we trace the belief in one omnipotent God to its origins. Meddeb thinks he has done this, by asserting that the inventor of monotheism was the Jewish prophet Moses. But all he does is to demonstrate how blind, intellectually, he is. He is spiritually blind in two connected senses. First, he has eyes only for Europe, and, all he’s willing to see there is positive.
He is delighted with the 18th century European Enlightenment, because he thinks that was the high tide of civilisation, even though that was also the time when Europe was busy massacring humanity in Australia, the Caribbean, and North and South America. He is dimly aware that the West he adores turned Africa into a hunting ground for captives over centuries, but he manages to fit that also into a scenario of universal civilisation. He knows that the business that took the French to Haiti, Madagascar, Vietnam and Algeria was the barbaric one of exploitation and empire, not civilisation. No doubt he has heard about water boarding and Guantanamo, and he knows that Al Qaeda, before it got appointed public enemy to the West, was an American CIA ally recruited, trained, funded, and equipped to carry out terrorist missions against the Soviets in Afghanistan. But Meddeb is unwilling to contemplate what all this information, critically analysed, may mean. So whenever he bumps into evidence of industrial-scale Western terrorism in the world, he resorts to rationalising the utterly irrational.
Meddeb’s blindness is selective when he looks at Europe, but it is total when it comes to Africa. That is what prevents him from seeing that the key to the riddle of monotheism and violence lies right here, in the cultural and intellectual history of Africa.
African history covers millennia of settled life before nomadic armies invaded the continent. The normal demographic pattern was a combination of settlement with movement, and the basic unit moving across and around the continent was a modular social group, the family, that could grow and combine with others to create clans, which again combined to create tribes, accretions of which, coming together, formed nations and federations of nations.
Anthropologists studying African society have focused on blood-based kin relationships and identified a typically African social unit, the extended family. As a rule, they’ve missed the presence of a second, parallel type of basic social group - an equally extensible family based not on blood but on values. Both types of family relationships can be found throughout Africa in all historical time, but the clearest traces from antiquity come to us from the Nile valley, where the oldest recorded cases of monotheism also occurred.
It’s common knowledge that ancient Egyptians, no matter how distant in blood terms, called each other brother and sister. That’s a simple indication of the widespread acceptance of the family as key social module. Less well known is the custom, among intellectuals, especially teachers or mentors, of recognising two sets of kin, one biological, the other intellectual. In hieroglyphic texts the distinction might take the form of phrases like ‘sa.i n ht.i’ meaning son of my body, or my biological son, as distinct from ‘sa.i n ib.i:’ son of my heart, that is to say, my intellectual kin.
Family-type groups based not on blood but on values or goals were known as ‘Shemsw’. The word, from the ‘verbshem’, to travel, can be translated as followers, or companions. ‘Shemsw’ were individuals who chose to belong to a group going along a particular social, intellectual or spiritual path.
The nature of the system of kin relationships was such that each family originally brought its household deities to the clan. Clans coalescing into tribes also brought their gods and goddesses to the common pool of divinities. The system of associations of ‘Shemsw’ meant that in addition to being a collection of homes for biological families, ancient Egyptian society contained many intellectual kin-groups, small and large, each pursuing a chosen line of work and study or worship.
Because it allowed groups of friends to focus on shared values and work, the ‘Shemsw’ culture generated multiple innovations in different fields: architecture, agriculture, irrigation, weaving, arts, music and medicine. Codified into the politics and administration of Egypt as a federation of 42 original states, it was the foundation for a religious culture that recognised the presiding spirits of numerous groups, letting each group choose its favorite deity, and taking care not to impose the god of any one group on all others.
The idea of replacing such a system of free thinking and innovative individuals and groups with one uniform way of thinking, one uniform behavior pattern, one God for all, seemed properly retrograde and unintelligent to the scribes and functionaries of ancient Egypt. For that reason, monotheism, though long known as a concept that appealed to particular individuals and groups, was not elevated to the status of an exclusive State religion, except, notably, in the brief reign of Akhenaten.
Gods are ideals - psychic projections humans use to achieve long-term goals. Monotheism, from this perspective, is the projection into the universe of a powerful desire to control everything and everyone. In ancient African society, such an urge was considered pathological. For society at large, it brought the risk of unnecessary conflict.
The natural pattern of religious practice was poly-centered. The balance of this social system was threatened if one group attempted to monopolise spiritual power, meaning the right to tell everyone else how they should live. That was the challenge posed by the 14th century BC pharaoh Akhenaten, decades before Moses, so impressed with the power of the sun that he tried to turn all Egyptians into worshipers of a single, all-powerful God.
Given the multi-ethnic, multi-polar nature of Nile valley society, such a project made no sense. There were thinkers like the Shemsw Hepy, companions of the Nile, who could point out that powerful as the sun was, on its own it would only produce deserts. They preferred to see life as a combined result of the workings of sun, water, air, and numerous other forces. Still, like all fanatics, Akhenaten was slow to appreciate other points of view, quick to impose his own. He destroyed the temples and images of gods and goddesses he did not like, and generally tried to reshape the entire society in the image of one jealous, violent God.
After Akhenaten’s death, the Egyptian intelligentsia went back to old ways, reminding the reigning pharaoh as high priest not to impose his favorite among the 42 main deities on everyone, but to maintain their peaceful social coexistence in a state of reasoned balance, ‘Maât’. They had good arguments on their side. The old system allowed the majority of believers - people who chose to entrust their lives to an outside power - to coexist with magicians and manipulators - people who wished to grow powerful by manipulating the hidden powers of a baffling universe. Besides these two types, there were others whose vocation was not to fear or worship the unknown, but to study reality, to measure it, and to record their knowledge, thus gradually bringing the unknown inside the boundaries of the known.
One cluster of like-minded groups in particular, the Shemsw Jehwty, the Shemsw Maât, and the Shemsw Asar, was particularly creative, because it organised itself as a series of families living together, sharing a common devotion to the pursuit of knowledge through observation (maa), research (jer), experimentation (djanwti), recording (sesh), study (sba), criticism (sipt), and renewal (whm meswt).
The scholars Chancellor Williams, Cheikh Anta Diop, and Théophile Obenga have over the past few decades pointed out that the intellectual history of Africa contains enormous reserves of information, some of which could help us make sense of the present and work out strategies for the future. To individuals like Meddeb, too far gone in their infatuation with Europe to notice that there was an intelligent world before Europe awoke, this information is hidden.
African intellectuals need to understand that souls like Meddeb are blind and lost, in their ignorance of, and their indifference to, Africa’s intellectual history. The information exists. Some of it puts in clear perspective the burning issues of our day, including monotheism, unipolarity, imperialism, globalisation, and the culture of terrorism. We can retrieve it by going directly to the languages in which the concepts and images were developed.
Knowledge thus retrieved would change our perception of Africa, and our self-perception as Africans, enabling us to leave the suffocating hold in which European domination has locked us, to begin life as a new type of beings - conscious, self-defining, innovative Africans.
Intellectually, most Africans living today are less awake than the ancestral scribes who, in the 14th century BC, after Akhenaten’s death, quietly repaired the damage done to society by fanatical monotheists given power. Most of us living now are marching gladly, and blindly, on the monotheists’ road. This brother here is a Muslim, that sister over there is a Christian, and some of us are Ethiopian Jews. We have for leaders a Nelson, a Robert, a John, a Paul, an Abdoulaye, a Moussa and an Ellen. It is hard, in these times, to remember that monotheism was long ago recognised among our ancestors as a social bomb, a big terrorist one. It’s likely that when we wake up, one of our first acts will be to throw off the heavy, destructive freight of monotheistic ways of thought and action. Then we may even have the good sense to remember the way of the Shemsw.
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