Dominique Eddé: ‘Islam is a civilization, Islamism is a kind of wildfire’

Dominique Eddé: ‘Islam is a civilization, Islamism is a kind of wildfire’

Photo Sarah Moon

Shortly after the attempt on the life of writer Salman Rushdie, Lebanese essayist and novelist Dominique Eddé spoke with L’Orient-Le Jour about the fight against terrorism and the difference between Islamism and Islam. Since 1975, Eddé has been a tireless critic of the occupation and repression of Palestinians, US policy in the Middle East and of Arab regimes. Following in the footsteps of Edward Said and his work on“Orientalism,” she never stopped pointing out the mechanisms of ignorance and bad faith that have created racism towards Muslims and Arabs.

In the name of the same struggle against ignorance, she challenged, during the 2006 Israeli military campaign in Lebanon, the one-dimensional views on Hezbollah held by its adversaries (“Lettre à des Israéliens," op-ed in Le Nouvel Observateur, Aug. 3 2006) by pointing out the need to address and understand the organization in all its dimensions (political, social, economic etc.) While Eddé kept this stance during subsequent events, she did so without making any concessions regarding the party’s ideology or its attempts to silence dissent.

The question of otherness, considered as essential to peace, is also at the heart of her work. In her book dedicated to Said, who supported Rushdie and spoke out against Khomeini’s fatwa in 1989, she points out the fundamental difference between Islam and Islamism, specifying that the former is threatened by the latter. In her book, she also advocates for secularism as well as the fight against anti-Semitism and other forms of obscurantism in the region.

In this interview, she reiterates her plea for nuance and invites us “not to accommodate one enemy on the pretext of fighting another.”

Once the initial shock had passed, the attack on Rushdie generated contradictory and, sometimes, vitriolic responses in Lebanon, the native country of his assailant Hadi Matar. What is your reaction to this attack and its context?

With a terrible mixture of dread and despondency. We live in a country whose tragic dimension is out of all proportion to its size and its population. I don’t really subscribe to the adage that words are stronger than weapons. I believe that we have to avoid using weak words, because they can contribute to the strength of weapons. And also because humiliation has reached unbearable levels in Lebanon. On Aug. 4, 2020 we all went into mourning, we were all crushed. Since then, there has been a great temptation to decide once and for all that it’s all over, nothing can be done. But here’s the thing, if we have nothing left to lose, might we not have something to gain?

What do we have to gain? Vision, perhaps. We gain in vision when we stop needing to keep up appearances. Words also gain power when they stop being used to cushion, calculate and equivocate. When we learn that Rushdie’s attacker was originally from a Shiite village in southern Lebanon — he wasn’t born there, never lived there, but went for a visit in 2018 and returned “changed,” in the words of his own mother — it makes your blood run cold. Can we decently go on saying nothing, or holding some things back, when we know that it was also in southern Lebanon, under Hezbollah’s control, that, 18 months ago, Lokman Slim was shot once in the back and five times in the head? When, right now, public figures like Dima Sadek and Hasan Shaaban are receiving death threats — the former for giving her support to Salman Rushdie, the later after having covered a protest in southern Lebanon — while the journalist Radwan Akil can calmly state on television that he approves of Khomeini’s fatwa? It’s true that his newspaper, an-Nahar, has distanced itself from his position. But in the following terms: “The approval of calls for murder is incompatible with our policy, it does not represent us.” Do you think that’s enough? I don’t.

How is it that, after 33 years, the fatwa put out by Ayatollah Khomeini could find a self-proclaimed executioner?

The return of the repressed is happening everywhere right now. A lack of visibility, and hence of a future, foments hatred and rejection of the other. Putin’s war is a reflection of this morbid fascination with the past. In the case of Islamist terrorism, we’re dealing with a denial of historical time. Those people have a fantasy that time can be restarted from zero, tailored to their needs. Reality is swept away, swallowed up by anxiety and boundless desire. Where the only answer to ignorance is a kind of pathetic “virility.” Hence the need to demean women, to appropriate and use them through their total submission. Anything that might undermine or contradict that psychotic delirium must be turned to dust. I’m not just thinking of Afghanistan, I’m also thinking, for instance, of Syrian embroiderers from rural areas who would tell me that, as soon as they were married, their husbands threw their books on the fire.

While Islam is a civilization, the Islamism that has become increasingly dominant since the 1980s, in both official and unofficial forms, is a kind of wildfire. It’s a mass phenomenon that has gone up in flames. In Crowds and Power, Elias Canetti said, “Fire joins what was separate, and in the shortest possible time”.[1] This is exactly what this is about: keeping the fire going, maintaining the density of the mass of flames formed by the community of “believers,” who are manipulated and blinded. The climate of combustion and fear binds the different parts together into a single body. Fear freezes, unlike panic, which leads to scattering and fragmentation. When a fatwa is sent out calling for the death of an “apostate” or a “blasphemer,” it dissuades any attempt to create a space inside the solid mass. Canetti also says, “For the person struggling with it the crowd assumes the character of fire. It originated with the unexpected sight of flames or with a shout of ‘fire’ and it plays like flames with the man who is trying to escape from it.” The young man who tried to murder Rushdie reminds me of a lost flame that was hoping to be adopted by the fire. The flame burned alone under the cold, impassive eyes of the governors of the fire. In the same way that perversion can be related to childhood trauma, so all this relates to Islam, but it is not Islam.

In Edward Said, his thought as a novel, you go further. You wrote: “It is nonsensical to say that the Islamic State has nothing to do with Islam. To say that Islam sees itself in the Islamic State is more nonsensical still. What we are dealing with here is not an equivalence, but a lack of equivalence.” Could you elaborate?

Let’s start with the main thing, which still seems to escape more than one Western commentator: Islam is a religion and a culture with a thousand and one facets, a thousand and one nights, just like its architecture and gardens with their infinite perspectives. Islamism is a disease of Islam, a sickness, just as pneumonia is a disease of the lung. You can’t treat pneumonia while ignoring the lung and you can’t save the lung — which is not a disease — by ignoring the sickness. What are the origins of this infection? In this regard we need a gigantic effort to identify the many historical, theological and political factors involved. Lebanese people of my generation remember that we celebrated the lifting of the veil in houses in Baalbeck in Nasser’s day. So you can see that the lung wanted to breathe in a different way.

Why did Nasser and the secular movements fail? In this regard all the powers, East and West, need to recognize their own tremendous failings. In what the Americans wrongly call “culture wars,” we hear the same quantities of stupidities and cop-outs from either side. In a country like France, you have the so-called Indigènes de la République, who reproduce an inverted version of the same simplistic, brutal logic of good against evil (they’ll tell you, “An indigène — black, brown, Arab — is necessarily in the right compared to a white person”), and on the other hand you have intellectuals who reduce over a million and a half individuals to a single solid lump! These are often the same people who unconditionally support Israeli policy, which is a policy of apartheid. The ones who actively supported the Gulf war in 2003 and who, despite the disaster that followed, have never apologized. As Edward Said so rightly said just after 9/11, we are dealing with the “shock of ignorance.” The day after the attempt to murder Rushdie, Bernard Pivot, who once reigned over the French literary scene, said in a tweet: “On 16 February 1996, I had Salman Rushdie on my programme, with a police presence right up to the roofs of the television centre. Over time his protection must have fallen away. But Islam’s hatred of him never weakened.” “Islam’s hatred.” Two words to describe a phenomenon of unfathomable complexity. That speaks volumes.

What can be done to stop the gap widening further?

It’s very important to see a groundswell of dissidence. Not to leave the field to the human rights groups alone. In this regard the intellectuals of the Maghreb are more advanced than we are, in the Mashreq. After the attempt on Rushdie’s life, a petition that was launched in Tunisia gathered hundreds of signatures in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. Generally speaking, the Arab intellectual world, particularly on the political left, has been caught between a rock and a hard place. The impunity of Israeli policy, supported by the guilt of the Western powers, has created a kind of self-censorship among those in our part of the world who were inevitably concerned with the fate of the Palestinians. The well worn argument that “now is not the right time, it will hand weapons to the enemy,” was very damaging among the activists of my generation.

As I see it, now is always the right time. We don’t fight less well against Israeli policy when we also fight against Islamism. Ideas always have to cope with hybrid, ambivalent, composite data. When reason gives up on that kind of complexity it ceases to be reason. Politicians may accommodate one enemy on the pretext of fighting another, but that is not for writers and thinkers. If we want to retain a minimum of consistency in our simultaneous approach to cultures and memory, we have to be willing to risk an immediate result that is uncomfortable – marginalization, even ostracism. Thinking about peace is seen as an attack by those who find their peace in war. And those people are far more numerous than we realize or than even they know. The Syrian philosopher Sadiq al-Azm did not shrink from the task. He dared to undertake a critique of religious thought, which is in fact the title of one of his books. He was one of those people who broke ranks to move ideas forward. The scale of his courage has not been recognized. At the time of Khomeini’s fatwa of 1989, al-Azm said that Rushdie had merely “reprised and novelised in satirical style” the chronicle of the tenth century historian Tabari, who is also known for his commentary on the Quran.

What emerges from the impasse we’re in is that, from a strictly religious point of view, there’s an absolute necessity to historicize Islam, to let it breathe, to contextualize the contradictory texts that make up the Quran, which were gathered together after the Prophet’s death. The issue of the interpretation of the Quran is unavoidable if we want to take on modernity. It calls for reform. In a way, Islamism is to Islam what fascism or extreme nationalism are to national identity. As Romain Gary put it, “Patriotism is the love of your own people. Nationalism is the hatred of others.” But where does one end and the other begin? That’s where the problem lies.

In many countries the violence you refer to is legally established. In 2019, a study by the Pew Research Center identified 79 countries, including Lebanon, where blasphemy and/or apostasy are punishable by law, sometimes by the death penalty. Might the global upset following the attack on Rushdie lead to greater awareness of the situation of the many people who are threatened by those laws?

I’d like to think so. In particular, I think of Ashraf Fayad, a young Palestinian poet who, having only just escaped the death penalty, was sentenced in 2015 to eight years in prison and 800 lashes in Saudi Arabia. As this interview was being translated, we heard, with immense relief, that he has been released. In the meantime, a 34-year-old Saudi woman, Salma el Chehab, has been sentenced to 34 years — her age! — for using Twitter and for following and retweeting dissidents and activists. Also in Saudi Arabia there is Raif Badawi. He was accused of apostasy and insulting Islam and suffered a thousand lashes and 10 years in prison. His crime? He had said that “Muslims, Christians, Jews and atheists were all equal.” He was freed in 2020 but is not allowed to leave the country to join his wife and children for 10 years (unless he receives a royal pardon). The Iranian Youcef Nadarkhani was sentenced to death for converting to Christianity. He was imprisoned, then released, then imprisoned again, facing new charges. Dozens of Pakistanis have been sentenced to death for blasphemy. We shouldn’t forget that blasphemy has always been seen as a threat to religious authorities. Even today, in Europe, one can be fined for public blasphemy in Italy. In the Middle Ages unbelievers were executed with great ceremony and as slowly as possible. The clergy would hold up the sacrificed head to the masses as a promise of reward in the afterlife. Reward for having obeyed. For a religious authority blasphemy is the equivalent of an act of dissidence for an autocratic ruler. That’s why, in the present day in Russia, the prisons are full. It’s always the same terror when power forces freedom to its knees in the name of the dogma it exploits. Let’s not forget that, among Christians, evangelists are also doing huge harm and represent a danger and a potential source of terror. No religion is safe from the manipulation that produces monsters.

How can we strike the right balance between the universalism of certain fundamental rights and respect for pluralism, when the great models of integration (from secular assimilation to the different varieties of multiculturalism) no longer seem to be operative?

The non-negotiable aspect of universal rights is grounded in the fundamental human right to believe or not believe, to invent, imagine, dream and love as we choose, as long as none of these practices and dreams affect the right of others to do the same. This is certainly not a matter of imposing so-called Western cultural norms on another part of the world. It’s about agreeing on a vital human minimum. Again, as soon as a crowd feels threatened by the presence within it of one person who sees blue where the rest see red, humanity as a whole, in the guise of that one individual, becomes threatened by the crowd. At a time when the human species faces the threat of losing control of the air we breathe, the water we drink, the land we farm, it seems to me fairly obvious that our identity as human beings — as long as humanity exists — is more important than any national or community identities we may have. This is why secularism and the rigorous separation of religion and politics is a more appropriate response than ever, the one that best takes account of cultural diversity. These two ideas should not be seen as conflicting. We need to understand that, logically, they must protect each other. We must preserve multiculturalism at all costs, it is the guarantee of the difference that is itself the guarantee of life. On the other hand, it can’t be used as an alibi for forms of domination that are no better than colonialist and imperialist domination.

On this point though I would like to make an important observation. This is about the deafness and arrogance of a certain Western position towards cultural difference. Let’s take another tragic case of Islamist terrorism: the beheading of the teacher Samuel Paty, which caused us the same horror as the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, Rushdie, the Bataclan and many others. You will note that I haven’t yet mentioned the terrifying number of attacks committed by Islamists against Muslims. But in the case of the caricatures, we are within our rights to make two simultaneous observations: yes, the right to caricature should not be subject to any official censorship. But that does not mean it is above criticism. Was it a good choice to take as an example of the right to freedom a caricature of the Prophet squatting with his balls hanging down and a yellow star in his arsehole? No! It certainly was not. Particularly as there were Muslim students in the class. Since all lives are now linked at the planetary level, our survival relies on our making an enormous effort to recognise systems of representation other than our own. A year ago, a French minister proclaimed to me, “It’s not Israel that’s your problem in Lebanon, it’s Hezbollah!” “Why can’t it be both?” I replied, with some irritation.

You have always argued with the idea of the “clash of civilizations” popularized by Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington, and at the same time you never stopped trying to raise the danger of Islamism, notably in Arab societies. In the age of the “war on terror,” how can we raise awareness of the complexity of situations and ensure that the many dissident voices are heard?

First of all, by making an effort at every level not to sacrifice nuance for short-term benefit. It’s nuance that allows the other to exist. Nuance can even be the part of yourself that may not necessarily agree with … you. In literature it’s what makes the difference between a phrase that flattens meaning and a phrase that stirs it up. In the media, and particularly on social networks, the fight is made appallingly hard by the triumph of opinion over thought and by the omnipotence of money. That said, resistance in times of war or chaos has always been the work of a minority. The more that resisting minorities all over the world can join forces, the more weight they will have. How much? I don’t know. But they will have weight. I’d like to add that resistance doesn’t just happen in public. It’s also a private matter. We can’t get rid of racism with slogans — in the best case scenario we move away from it through the constant watchfulness that is a form of hygiene for thought. Of course efforts must be focused on education as a priority. I have just learned that Chinese schoolchildren are spied on by intelligent pens when they do their homework. That shows that the challenge facing us all is to save human intelligence from its mechanical clone. I would like to use a phrase that doesn’t seem at all political but which covers all the issues we’ve been discussing: respect for human privacy. If human beings were to lose their right to a private existence, it would be a disaster on the scale of the loss of shadow. It would mean the reign of unchanging light 24/7. A nightmare.

Like Rushdie you greatly admire the work of Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. What resources do you find in their works for understanding the world of the present and putting up resistance?

They both wrote about the beauty and horror of a world without God. Without the support of sentimentalism. Without the easy satisfaction provided by verbal indignation. With the support of humor, irony and consciousness. They are both unique and incomparable and they had a very sharp sense of human vanity. Neither had any illusions about the notion of progress. They were both pessimists who didn’t give up. For me, this combination is the driving force of resistance. I have great admiration for Conrad, but I have a particular weakness for Chekhov. There is more space in his world for moments of suspended time and for love, even if love is disabled along the way. Of course there’s something “irresolvable” in the vision of both. That irresolvable element is the foundation of literature itself. It’s the guarantee of the unreachable nature of truth. In their characters the conflict between the temptation to cheat and the duty not to is played out in extreme solitude. Their worlds both had the same morality: do what you have to do. Which sums up what I’ve tried to say here. The moment comes when, whatever reasons you may have to despair, fear cannot and must not have the last word.

This interview was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on Aug. 20th. It has been updated to take into account the release of Ashraf Fayad Translation: Trista Selous.

Shortly after the attempt on the life of writer Salman Rushdie, Lebanese essayist and novelist Dominique Eddé spoke with L’Orient-Le Jour about the fight against terrorism and the difference between Islamism and Islam. Since 1975, Eddé has been a tireless critic of the occupation and repression of Palestinians, US policy in the Middle East and of Arab regimes. Following in the footsteps of...