In an Open Letter To the Muslim World, a French Muslim Philosopher Says Islam Has Given Birth To Monsters & Needs Reform
This denial of the right to freedom vis-à-vis religion is one of the roots of the evil from which you suffer, oh my dear Muslim world; it is one of those dark wombs in which, in recent years, monsters grow, and from whence they leap out at the frightened faces of the whole world. For this iron religion imposes excruciating violence on all your societies; she too closely confines your daughters, and your sons, in the cage of good and evil, the lawful (halal) and the illicit (haram), chosen by none but imposed on all.
In an essay published October 3, 2014 in the French newspaper Marianne, Abdennour Bidar, philosopher and author of Self Islam, a personal history of Islam (Seuil, 2006); Islam without Submission: a Muslim Existentialism (Albin Michel, 2008), and History of Humanism in the West (Armand Colin, 2014), wrote that believing Muslims cannot avoid a discussion of the causes of jihadi excesses by merely denouncing terrorist barbarism. He says that in the face of the dogmas and political manipulation to which it is being subjected, the Muslim world must be self-critical, and must act to reform itself. The following is his essay:
“Dear Muslim world: I am one of your estranged sons, who views you from without and from afar – from France, where so many of your children live today. I look at you with the harsh eyes of a philosopher, nourished from infancy on tasawwuf (Sufism) and Western thought. I look at you therefore, from my position of barzakh, from an isthmus between the two seas of the East and the West.
“And what do I see? What do I see better than others, no doubt precisely because I see you from afar, from a distance? I see you in a state of misery and suffering that saddens me infinitely, but that makes my philosopher’s judgment even harsher. Because I see you in the process of birthing a monster that presumes to call itself the Islamic State, and which some prefer to call by a demon’s name – Da’esh. But worst of all is that I see that you are losing yourself, losing your time and your honor, in your refusal to recognize that this monster is born of you, of your irresoluteness, of your contradictions, of your being torn between past and present, of your perpetual inability to find your place in human civilization.
“What, indeed, do you say when faced with this monster? You shout, ‘That’s not me!’ ‘That’s not Islam!’ You reject [the possibility] that this monster’s crimes are committed in your name (#NotInMyName). You rebel against the monster’s usurpation of your identity, and of course you are right to do so. It is essential that you proclaim to the world, loud and clear, that Islam condemns barbarity. But this is absolutely not enough! For you are taking refuge in your self-defense reflex, without realizing it, and, above all, without taking responsibility to self-criticize. You become indignant and are satisfied with that – but you are missing an historical opportunity to question yourself. Instead of taking responsibility for yourself, you accuse others: ‘You Westerners, and all you enemies of Islam – stop associating us with this monster! Terrorism is not Islam! The true Islam, the good Islam doesn’t mean war, it means peace!’”
“The Root Of This Evil That Today Steals Your Face Is Within Yourself; The Monster Emerged From Your Own Belly”
“Oh my dear Muslim world, I hear the cry of rebellion rising in you, and I understand it. Yes, you are right: Like every one of the great sacred inspirations in the world, Islam has, throughout its history, created beauty, justice, meaning, and good, and it has [been a source of] powerful enlightenment for humans who are on the path through the mystery of existence…Here in the West, I fight, in all my books, so that this wisdom of Islam and of all religions is not forgotten or despised. But because of my distance [from the Muslim world], I can see that which you cannot… And this inspires me to ask: Why has this monster stolen your face? Why has this despicable monster chosen your face and not another? The truth is that behind this monster hides a huge problem, one you do not seem ready to confront. Yet in the end you will have to find the courage [to do so].
“The problem is that of the root of the evil. Where do the crimes of this so-called ‘Islamic State’ come from? I’ll tell you, my friend. And it will not make you happy, but it is my duty as a philosopher. The root of this evil that today steals your face is within yourself; the monster emerged from your own belly. And other monsters, some even worse, will emerge, as long as you refuse to acknowledge your sickness and to finally tackle the root of this evil!
“Even Western intellectuals have difficulty seeing this. For the most part they have so forgotten the power of religion – for good and for evil, over life and over death – that they tell me, ‘No, the problem of the Muslim world is not Islam, not the religion, but politics, history, economics, etc.’ They completely forget that religion may be the core of the reactor of a human civilization, and that tomorrow the future of humanity will depend not only on a resolution to the financial crisis, but also, and much more essentially, on a resolution to the unprecedented spiritual crisis that is affecting all of mankind.”
“I See In You, Oh Muslim World, Great Forces Ready To Rise Up And Contribute To This Global Effort To Find A Spiritual Life For The 21st Century”
“Will we be able to all come together, across the world, to face this fundamental challenge? The spiritual nature of man abhors a vacuum, and if it finds nothing new with which to fill it, it will tomorrow fill it with religions that are less and less adapted to the present – and which, like Islam today, will [also] begin producing monsters.
Despite the severity of your sickness, you have in you a great multitude of men and women willing to reform Islam, to reinvent its genius beyond its historical forms, and to be part of the total renewal of the relationship that mankind once had with its gods. It is to all these, both Muslims and non-Muslims, who dream together of a spiritual revolution that I have addressed my books– to whom I offer, with my philosopher’s words, confidence in that which their hope glimpses.”
“Al-Qaeda, Jabhat Al-Nusra, AQIM, And Islamic State – They Understand All Too Well That These Are Only The Most Visible Symptoms Of An Immense Diseased Body”
“But these Muslim men and women who look to the future are not yet sufficiently numerous, nor is their word sufficiently powerful. All of them, whose clarity and courage I welcome, have plainly seen that it is the Muslim world’s general state of profound sickness that explains the birth of terrorist monsters with names like Al-Qaeda, Jabhat Al-Nusra, AQIM, and Islamic State. They understand all too well that these are only the most visible symptoms of an immense diseased body, whose chronic maladies include: the inability to establish sustainable democracies that recognize freedom of conscience vis-à-vis religious dogmas as a moral and political right; chronic difficulties in improving women’s status towards equality, responsibility and freedom; the inability to sufficiently free political power from its control by religious authority; and the inability to establish respectful, tolerant and genuine recognition of religious pluralism and religious minorities.”
“Could all this, then, be the fault of the West? How much precious time will you lose, dear Muslim world, with this stupid accusation that you yourself no longer believe, and behind which you hide so that you can continue to lie to yourself?
“Particularly since the eighteenth century – it’s past time you acknowledged it – you have been unable to meet the challenge of the West. You have childishly and embarrassingly sought refuge in the past, with the obscurantist Wahhabism regression that continues to wreak havoc almost everywhere within your borders –the Wahhabism that you spread from your holy places in Saudi Arabia like a cancer originating from your very heart. Or, you followed the worst of the West – with nationalism and a modernism that caricatures modernity. I refer here especially to the technological development, so inconsistent with the religious archaism, that makes your fabulously wealthy Gulf ‘elite’ mere willing victims of the global disease – the worship of the god Money.
“What is admirable about you today, my friend? What do you still have that is worthy of the respect of the peoples and civilizations of the Earth? Where are your wise men? Have you still wisdom to offer the world? Where are your great men? Who is your Mandela, your Gandhi, your Aung San Suu Kyi? Where are your great thinkers whose books should be read worldwide, as they were when Arab or Persian mathematicians and philosophers were referred to from India to Spain? You are actually so weakened behind the self-assuredness that you always display… You have no idea who you are or where you want to go, and it makes you as unhappy as you are aggressive… You persist in not listening to those who call on you to change by finally freeing yourself from the dominion over all of life that you have granted to religion.
“You chose to consider Muhammad a prophet and king. You chose to define Islam as a moral, political, and social religion that must rule as a tyrant in the state as well as in civilian life, in the street and in the home, and in everyman’s conscience. You chose to believe that Islam means ‘submission’ and to impose that belief – while the Koran itself declares that ‘there is no compulsion in religion’ (la ikrah fi Din). You have made the cry for freedom into the reign of coercion. How can a civilization so betray its own sacred text? I say that in Islamic civilization, the time has come to institute this spiritual freedom – the most sublime and difficult of all [freedoms]– in the place of all the laws invented by generations of theologians!”
“Numerous Voices That You Refuse To Hear Are Rising Today In The Ummah To Denounce This Taboo In This Authoritarian Religion That Cannot Be Questioned…. And there are so many families in which this confusion between spirituality and servitude is implanted from such an early age, and in which spiritual education is so meager, that nothing concerning religion may be discussed.”
“Numerous voices that you refuse to hear are rising today in the ummah [Islamic nation] to denounce this taboo in this authoritarian religion that cannot be questioned… to the point where many believers have so internalized a culture of submission to tradition and to the ‘masters of religion’ (imams, muftis, sheikhs etc.) that they don’t realize that we are talking to them about spiritual freedom or personal choice vis-à-vis the ‘pillars’ of Islam. All this is a ‘red line’ for them – so sacred to them that they dare not allow their own conscience to question. And there are so many families in which this confusion between spirituality and servitude is implanted from such an early age, and in which spiritual education is so meager, that nothing concerning religion may be discussed.”
“But this [taboo] is clearly not imposed by the terrorism of some crazy fanatics who have been accepted as part of the ‘Islamic State.’ No, this problem is infinitely deeper. But who is willing to hear? In the Muslim world, there is only silence on this matter; in the Western media, they only listen to all those terrorism experts, who exacerbate the general myopia day by day. Do not delude yourself, my friend, by pretending that by finishing off Islamist terrorism we will settle all Islam’s problems. Because what I have described here – a tyrannical, dogmatic, literalist, formalistic, macho, conservative, and regressive religion –is too often the ordinary Islam, the everyday Islam, that suffers and that causes suffering to too many consciences, the irrelevant Islam of the past, the Islam that is distorted by all those who manipulate it politically, the Islam that always ends up strangling the various Arab Springs as well as the voice of all the young people who are demanding something else. So when will you finally bring about this revolution in societies and consciences that will make spirituality rhyme with liberty?
Never yet has the right to say ‘I choose my Islam’ or ‘I have my own relationship with Islam’ been recognized by the ‘official Islam’ of the dignitaries, who fight to impose [the view] that ‘the doctrine of Islam is unique’ and that ‘obeying the pillars of Islam is the only right path (sirât ul-Mustaqim)
“Of course, there are pockets of spiritual freedom in your great territory: families that hand down [to their children] an Islam of tolerance, personal choice and spiritual depth. There are places where Islam still gives the best of itself, a culture of sharing, honor, pursuit of knowledge, and spirituality in search of the sacred place where man and the ultimate reality called Allah meet. In the land of Islam, and in Muslim communities worldwide, there are strong and free consciences. But they are condemned to live their freedom without the recognition of real rights, facing the peril of community control or sometimes even of religious police. Never yet has the right to say ‘I choose my Islam’ or ‘I have my own relationship with Islam’ been recognized by the ‘official Islam’ of the dignitaries, who fight to impose [the view] that ‘the doctrine of Islam is unique’ and that ‘obeying the pillars of Islam is the only right path (sirât-ul-Mustaqim).
“This denial of the right to freedom vis-à-vis religion is one of the roots of the evil from which you suffer, oh my dear Muslim world; it is one of those dark wombs in which, in recent years, monsters grow, and from whence they leap out at the frightened faces of the whole world. For this iron religion imposes excruciating violence on all your societies; she too closely confines your daughters, and your sons, in the cage of good and evil, the lawful (halal) and the illicit (haram), chosen by none but imposed on all. It traps the wills, it conditions the mind, it prevents or hinders every personal life choice. In too many of your countries, you still tie together religion with violence – against women, against ‘bad believers,’ against Christians and other minorities, against thinkers and free spirits, against rebels – so that religion and violence ultimately merge in the most unbalanced and fragile of your own sons – in the monstrous form of jihad.
“You Must Begin By Reforming The Entire Education You Give To Your Children, In All Of Your Schools, All Of Your Places Of Knowledge And Power; You Must Reform Them According To Universal Principles”
“So, I beg of you, don’t pretend to be amazed that demons such as the so-called ‘Islamic State’ have taken your face. Monsters and demons steal only those faces that are already distorted by too much grimacing. And if you want to know how to not bring forth such monsters, I will tell you. It’s simple yet so difficult: You must begin by reforming the entire education you give to your children, in all of your schools, all of your places of knowledge and power. You must reform them according to [the following] universal principles – even if you are not the only one violating or disregarding them: freedom of conscience, democracy, tolerance, civil rights for [those of] all worldviews and beliefs, gender equality, women’s emancipation from all male guardianship, and a culture of reflection and criticism of the religion in universities, literature, and the media. You cannot go back, and you can do no less than this. For it is only by doing so that you will no longer give birth to such monsters. If you do not do so, you will soon be devastated by [these monsters’] destructive power.
“Dear Muslim world: I am but a philosopher, and as usual some will call the philosopher a heretic. Yet I seek only to let the light shine once again –indeed, the name that you have given me commands me to do so: Abdennour, Servant of the Light. If I did not believe in you, I would not have been so harsh in this letter. As we say in French, ‘He who loves well, punishes well’ – and those who today are not tough enough with you, who want to make you a victim, are doing you no favors. I believe in you. I believe in your contribution to build the future of our planet, to create a world that is both humane and spiritual!
“Salaam, peace be upon you.”