By Abdelwahab Meddeb
January 25, 2013
In Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, as in Chittagong, the country's second largest city, following meetings with writers, poets and academics I understand that it is necessary to create a network of liberal Muslim artists and intellectuals to protect our countries against the tidal wave of Wahhabism and Salafism. The latter is transforming Islam and leading its people toward close-mindedness and fanaticism.
It is amazing to discover how similar the problems are from Morocco to South Asia. The whole horizontal stretch of civilisation running above the Tropics to which we belong is being contaminated. It teeters under the onslaught of a devastating standardisation.
This situation has nothing to do with chance; it is the outcome of a carefully articulated policy that has shown its consistency, its rigour, its impetus. It has produced effects that transform reality, ever since the first oil crisis in 1974, which flooded Saudi Arabia with petro-dollars, a part of which has been used methodically to the propagation of Wahhabi doctrine across the world.
From that moment, Islam started changing from Indonesia to the Maghreb. In terms of cult practices, it is currently undergoing standardisation and universalisation that bears the hallmark of the simplified Wahhabi doctrine, rejecting theological complexity to favour the constancy of religious practices.
To counter these perils, if it is not already too late, one must focus on the four points that have been the favourite targets of Wahhabism:
1. Vernacular Islam revolves around the institution of saints, a mode of religious practices which activates the mechanism of what the ancient Greeks called tragedy, involving a process of catharsis (the purgation of passions) that enables the individual or the community to release the excess of tensions they are submitted to.
2. This brand of Islam integrates pre-Islamic features that go far back in time; with vim and vigour, it recycles ancient and antique elements that in Bangladesh, where I am writing from, are Indian. It is connected to the Hindu and Buddhist heritages, and proclaims solidarity between the Aalim and the Pundit, the Sufi and the yogi. In the same way, in Tunisia, this substratum is of Mediterranean essence, fusing and interlocking ancestral elements of Berber, Jewish, Latin and sub-Saharan African heritages that are framed by Islamic belief.
3. The second point has to do with the doctrinal and juridical approaches that set the norm in the way it should be adapted and articulated to positive law, to common law. The Wahhabi tidal wave intends to suppress the Hanafi memory in Bangladesh and the Maliki memory in Maghreb. Despite their operational shortcomings, these memories are the repositories of complexities, of exchanges of ideas that Wahhabi simplification cannot bear because it focuses all its energies on orthopraxy to the detriment of questioning.
4. My third point is about the necessary return to the theological and Sufi heritage that implies speculation and questioning. To get closer to it, one must transcend the four Sunni rites as well as the Sunni/Shia divide. It is also necessary to break free from the constraints of "ijm," the consensus that froze the whole set of beliefs, and restore "ikhtilaf," the disagreement between Ulema. This last produces a polyphony that opens wide the doors of "Ijtihad," the interpretation effort that brings about debate and promotes the diversity of viewpoints, making relative the access to truth. "Ikhtilaf" is the key word that resonates in the legal treatise of the philosopher and qadi Ibn Rushd (Averroes), the title of which is programmatic, Bidâyat al-Mujtahid wa nihâyat al-Muqtaçid, which could be translated as: "Here starts he who has striven towards interpretation, there stops he who has renounced to do so."
At this point, it is urgent to widen one's references and draw from the philosophical and poetical references that have accumulated over the centuries in the major languages of Islam, mostly in Arabic and Persian. In the most notable passages of these texts, one finds the beginnings, the foreshadowing, the harbingers of the lessons of Enlightenment that answer in an efficient fashion the problems that are ours today. For instance, one can find a way to tackle the question of The Other or of the relation of Self to The Other.
Here, in Bangladesh, there is a problem in the relation between the Muslims and their others, the Buddhists. Recent news remind us of the invasion of Buddhist sites that burned down temples and destroyed statues of Buddha or decapitated them. It happened on September, 29 last year in Ramu and the villages near Cox's Bazaar, by the Bay of Bengal. Eleven wooden temples were burnt down, including a three centuries-old one. The violence then spread to Patya, closer to Chittagong, where Buddhist presence is denser. It was then the turn of Ukhia, Teknaf in the south-east of the country, not far from the Burmese border.
This attack on cross-community harmony has profoundly hurt the feelings of liberal Muslims here. This denial of Buddhist otherness prompted Kaiser Haq, one of the eminent poets whom I met in Dhaka, to write a protest poem restoring the glory of the Buddha. During a public reading, I alluded to the many Buddhist references that are to be found in the Islamic tradition, in al-Biruni, Ibn Hazm, Shahrastani, Ibn Nadim, Massudi. All these 10th or 11th century authors are much more open to otherness, more curious of The Other, better equipped to listen to diversity, more relevant in their understanding of the stranger's beliefs, of the singularity of their rites and their representations than our contemporaries, the Wahhabis and Salafis that mean to impose their fanatic and exclusive vision. After such reminder, Kaiser Haq's poem became completely obvious and reinforced the convictions of the audience in the diversity of their opinions.
5. My fourth point is the necessary linking of our rhetoric with modern and postmodern thought as expressed since the 18th century, by Rousseau and Kant, Karl Popper and Jacques Derrida, John Stuart Mill and many others, a thought that advocates openness and liberty, that uses the weapon of the deconstruction of the heritage, the latter needing constant reassessment. It is the integration of such thought that restores complexity, redirects us towards questioning and guards us from simplistic answers. Such are the conditions that point the way to infinite quest.
In honouring these four points (loathed by the Salafis), we will give ourselves the means to build an alternative rhetoric that will counter the Wahhabi rhetoric, refute it and reject its project. It is a counter discourse, in the words of Prof. Imtiaz Ahmed, a colleague from Bangladesh with whom I took part in a public debate in an amphitheatre packed with an attentive audience made up of liberal people as well as of middle of the road Islamists and some Salafis. The discussion that followed our exchanges was constructive and candid.
The ground for the alternative way in which the product of our exchanges could prosper has been prepared, and it could be made much easier by the creation of a network linking liberal Muslims from Indonesia to Maghreb.
Abdelwahab Meddeb is an award-winning writer and poet and a leading French intellectual.