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Ghaleb Bencheikh: ’A Muslim, With a Deep-Seated Passion for Liberty’

Translated Wednesday 21 December 2011, by Isabelle Métral and reviewed by Bill Scoble

Having signed a petition against religious fundamentalism following an arsonist’s attack on the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris, Islamologist Ghaleb Bencheikh refutes the declarations of Islamists whose aim is to ban all iconic representation of the Prophet Muhamad and makes a plea in favour of the principle of secularism as being the best guarantee for ’the coexistence of the various conceptions of the sacred’.

HUMA: In the petition against religious fundamentalism that you signed after the arsonist’s attack on Charlie Hebdo following the publication of a satirical drawing of Muhamad, you declare yourself in favour of the ’right to blaspheme, i.e. the right to criticize sacred dogmas.’ What were your reasons?

BENCHEIKH: Before signing it I had one passage of the original draft scrapped, which ran like this: "An arsonist’s attack in all likelihood was committed by Islamists." Either you know for sure or you don’t. So this passage was replaced by the following sentence: "Whether this was done by Islamists or by Far-Right provocative activists, a newspaper cannot be punished for its freedom of expression." So much for the facts.

Now, why did I sign it? The reason is that I am getting seriously annoyed at the bipolar conception of the world as being divided between freedom-lovers and Muslims. I am both a Muslim and a man passionately committed to the freedom of expression— to Freedom, in short. In a secular, open, democratic society, under the vault of secularism, no one can invoke his or her brand of the sacred to gag another person. And should one deem oneself offended, vilified, provoked, the best resort is to go to court. The fact is that the Law, as it now stands, does not recognize the notion of offense to religious belief. Now in a democratic State, statutory laws emanate from the people and if you are not satisfied with them you must have them changed .... except that in some countries like Pakistan the law on blasphemy has led to inadmissible abuse: a citizen can be convicted on the charge of blasphemy for a mere trifle. Let me add that an ethical attitude should be observed on principle, in virtue of which the metaphysical, spiritual root-beliefs of others should not be challenged. Things would be easier if there were that kind of respect. But if not, the rule is not to resort to violence, or take the law into one’s own hands and seek revenge.

To my mind, our Western societies are coming to a fork due to the collision of various conceptions of the sacred: for some people the sacred will be freedom of expression, for others the motto will be: ’hands or pens off my prophet’ and so on. The question therefore is: given all this, how can we function as one society? I believe this requires some intellectual exertion, a probing into the concepts of secularism, democracy, and the republican pact, which is not now the case.

HUMA: In your opinion secularism offers the best guarrantee for the ’coexistence of the various conceptions of the sacred’ ...

BENCHEIKH: I do think so. But unfortunately the plain concept is no longer sufficient. For some of our fellow-citizens an epithet is required: ’open’ or ’exclusive’, ’positive’ or ’negative’, or the adjunction of terms like ’with intelligence’ or ’indifference’, with the ’militant’ or ’tolerant’ attitude and so on.

But there is nothing better than secularism in the correct meaning of the word, which, to me, is the sort that has no ideological impedimenta, for otherwise it is sure to compete with the established ideologies, the peaceful coexistence of which secularism aims at making possible. Secularism might in fact be summed up as follows: the law guarantees the freedom of religious worship as long as religion does not claim the right to dictate the law. Eventually secularism is the umbrella under which we all take cover. Secularism makes it possible to regulate belief and non-belief. It is a principle, but not a State philosophy, as some like to present it.

HUMA: Some Islamists invoke the texts of Islam to oppose any iconic representation of Prophet Muhamad. What do you say to them?

BENCHEIKH: Texts must be interpreted within their context; they should not be used as a pretext for a new context. The ban on iconic representation [aniconism, or the absence of icons, as it was called] was justified then, for Judaism as well as for Islam, those times and societies being idolatrous. In order to institute the pure, radical, intransigent monotheism firmly, it was necessary to minimize, or even eradicate, all attempts at using any kind of representation, whether scriptural or sculptural, as a mode of intercession — even to God. That was why statuaries were then forbidden. But there is clearly no explicit mention in the texts and even less in the Quran’s verses [which are the first reference] of the prohibition of representation. And there have been Muslim dynasties throughout history under which iconic representations were to be found in miniatures, even of the Prophet: under Ali’s Shi dynasty and certainly his son Hussein’s.

HUMA: How do you explain that the publication of a drawing of Muhamad was enough to crystallize so much hatred?

BENCHEIKH: This is due to the tragic regression, the return to an archaic, obscurantist situation, now passé. Also to the loss of the cultural heritage, and intellectual debility. Dante’s Divine Comedy, for instance, presents the prophet of Islam as a great heretic, a troublemaker, and a schismatic, to be placed in the eighth circle, the ninth hell of the Inferno. This did not prevent well-read Muslims from reading the Divine Comedy. Arabs, for one thing, learned it by heart when it was translated into their language. Neither did this prevent cultivated Muslims from seeing the illustrations of a Giovanni da Modeno, or a Sandro Boticelli, or a William Blake, or a Gustave Doré, or a Salvador Dali who illustrated it. This did not shock them horribly. They saw it as a kind of artistic expression.

Today this would just be impossible. What does this imply? That we have entered an era of nervous retreat and withdrawal into one’s own culture due to a lack of education, acquired knowledge, and culture. In Muslim countries this is also due to the wreckage of the school system, the choice of systems that have proved, if not totally, at least partially incapable of dictatorship, and the fact of yielding to the sirens of Islamists...

HUMA: And how do you account for it in a country like France?

BENCHEIKH: In this country this is due to social issues. To the situation of men and women who have fallen into the proletariat, into the margins of society, into its ghettos, that are underprivileged, that have dropped out of school. Religious tradition has become a refuge and a politico-communitarian claim on the part of youths that have fallen into the clutches of doctrinal quake predicators, self-proclaimed Imams that come and tell them just anything. And likewise to the blatant inadequacies of the school system, the shortsighted governments that have succeeded one another, and attitudes that have ostracized a large fraction of the nation.

HUMA: The question of the relation between politics and religion is once more brought up by the evolution of the Arab uprisings. The victory of the Ennahdha Islamist party in Tunisia, the announcement of the institution of Sharia law in Lybia have been a cause of anxiety. Do you share this anxiety yourself?

BENCHEIKH: Personally, just as I responded passionately and enthusiastically to the demands of dignity, social justice, and democracy during the Arab spring, I now feel deeply concerned. Vigilance is essential in order to prevent Islamist-style confiscations from swooping down and cracking down on the Arab peoples’ desire and demand for emancipation.

HUMA: Can the separation of Church and State also become the rule for Arab countries?

BENCHEIKH: To disconnect the spiritual from the temporal, to govern the city not by imposing a divine or authoritarian rule, but with a purely human, rational approach is the hallmark of progress and civilization. I do not see why it could work in other countries and not apply to Arab countries. Nothing in the Arab genome or in the Islamist tradition intrinsically opposes it. And this for many reasons — firstly this one: supposing there were one religious tradition that were best suited for accommodating a secular space or ideal: this would surely be Islam. For it is a tradition that has no clerical structure, no sacramental life, no central authority; men and women speak to God directly, without intercession or mediation. Simply, this absence of papal sovereignty or central authority, despite being an immeasurable source of happiness, has now become a source of inextricable difficulties, for anyone can say and do just anything. Besides, absolutely all the arguments that militate in favour of the collusion between the temporal and the spiritual can be disproved intellectually and de-constructed theologically.

HUMA: Can you give examples of this?

BENCHEIKH: The caliphate has no sacral value, no theological foundation consecrates it; it is a human achievement that was initiated by a human and brought to an end by a human [vide the treaties of Sèvres and Lausanne in 1923-1924.] You might of course object that ’there is no equivalent for Caesar’s dime for Islam. As Matthew says in chapter 22: you must give Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and you must give God what belongs to God. We can only smile at this, for why ever should God mention Caesar in Araby in the seventh century? But more seriously, this calls for another interpretation. Nobody invoked Caesar’s dime in the troubled days that followed the passing of the 1905 act, when the papal encyclical Vehementer nos in February 1010 excommunicated all the Catholic deputies who had boldly voted for it. It took a tremendous intellectual and theological effort firmly to establish the separation between the two orders - this was especially the achievement of Protestant theologians like Paul Tillich, Karl Barth and Urs Van Balthasar who worked jointly with their Catholic counterparts Karl Rahner and Yves Congar. What was possible at a given time for one religious tradition will surely be possible for another provided its intellectuals take its march towards progress to heart.

HUMA: So you agree with Muhamad Arkoun on this question, that Islamic thought must simply be freed from its doctrinal enclosure.

BENCREIKH: As concerns the governance of human affairs in the city, there is of course the usual objection that ’the Prophet was the head of a State.’ But what kind of State? In Medina there was simply no State, no council of ministers, no armed division, no judicial or penitentiary system, no schools ... but a community of believers that was itself undergoing a mutation from a tribal state to a state that agregated individuals that believed in one God. To be sure that God supernaturally ’dictates’ laws within the frame of monotheistic faith. Except that after the prophet’s death interpretation remains a human task: why should a given jurisprudence at some time in history be engraved in marble once and for all when it had no atemporal or meta-historical value? And if by some extraordinary chance one still insists on basing one’s commentary on scriptural reference and propping it up by quoting the Kuran, one can still read there: "O you who believed, obey God, the Prophet, and those in charge of order among you." In other words, there definitely are two orders, the temporal and the spiritual, which coexist separately. But once more the government of human affairs in the city has no need of a theological foundation. It is a parameter outside the bounds of religion.

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