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Ghaleb Bencheikh « We Need a Radical Re-Examination of the Core of Islamic Thought”

Translated Sunday 12 October 2014, by Isabelle Métral

Ghaleb Bencheikh, a specialist on Islam and host of “Islam”, the Sunday morning France 2 TV program, is president of the World Conference on Religion and Peace. The son of a former rector of the Grand Mosque in Paris, he denounces fundamentalist theses and obstinately and passionately pleads in favour, not just of the mere grooming, but of a radical reform of Islamic thought - a formidable and multiple task, involving as it does the questions of religious pluralism, the separation of religion and politics, equality between men and women, and desacralizing violence.

Ghaleb Bencheikh was interviewed by l’Humanité last October 3rd.

On September 25th, following the assassination of Hervé Gourdel, a score of self-styled “French Muslim” personalities expressed their indignation at the murders committed in the name of Islam. To Ghaleb Bencheikh, this public declaration is indispensable, but it is not enough: he takes apart, dissects, demolishes the jihadists’ corrupt discourse and calls on Muslims to break free from doctrinal manacles.

HUMA : Following the assassination of Hervé Gourdel, together with other Muslim personalities, you signed a call entitled “We too are ‘dirty French people’”, which condemned murders committed in the name of Islam. What were your motivations? According to some, Muslims should not be expected to exonerate themselves again and again of the exactions committed by terrorist gangs.

BENCHEIKH : There are two contrary responses to this. One consists in saying that “whenever an abominable act, a revolting crime of that kind, is committed, it must be loudly and publicly condemned”; the second attitude consists in saying “We are innocent of this, we’ve got nothing in common with those lunatics, theirs is a murderous ideology; if I start exonerating myself every time such abominable acts occur, I only implicitly confirm that they’ve got something to do with me.”

Now personally, as a citizen and a man of faith, I am convinced that when murderers act in the name of a religious tradition, the followers of that tradition must condemn their acts. And it seems to me that during all these years this has not been done regularly. If suspicion on the part of our fellow citizens has reached such levels, the reason is that we did not say this right from the start, when the Armed Islamist Group (GIA) in Algeria committed murders, or Boko Haram in Nigeria, or Jamaat Islamiya in Egypt… It just was not enough to say: “That’s got nothing to do with us, Islam means peace.”

But condemnation is not enough. The next, indispensable step is a basic reflection on theological issues.

HUMA : Precisely, the idea is aired here and there in France that violence is justified in the Koran, in the sacred texts. Besides, terrorist groups themselves commit their exactions in the name of the Islamic notion of jihad.

BENCHEIKH : Let’s be clear about this : some passages in the text here and there sound bellicose. For instance “Fight all non-believers that come your way…” The problem is that these passages have been taken out of their contexts, when they should be interpreted within their contexts and can never be used as pretexts within new contexts. And anyway the interpretations that have been made of them are only human constructs. How can any human construct be held sacred when what has been done by men can be undone by men? Not to mention the fact that this century we live in is the twenty-first, not the seventh.

But to come back to the notion of jihad, I would like first to emphasize the overcautious, pusillanimous attitude of the religious hierarchy, theologians, leaders who did not react when the language of their own religious tradition started being misappropriated. They should have said at the time: “Hold, jihad is no holy war, for war is nowhere else sanctified, and least of all in the Koran!” Etymologically, jihad only designates an attempt towards a specific goal. Either a minor attempt, as is the case for a large range of activities – making bundles, cutting wood, slogging along, harvesting, building… Or the greater, saving attempt at self-discipline, reining in one’s desires, controlling one’s passions, mastering one’s compulsions. Those jihadist criminals took the word exclusively to designate a warlike, aggressive ambition.

HUMA : How can Muslims fight the murderous ideology masquerading behind the Islamic religion?

BENCHEIKH: Where’s the logic in bemoaning the beheadings if you accept that Muslims are turned into cretins as they are by the Saudi Wahhabi and also by the more than rampant Islamism in Algeria, Morocco or elsewhere….When women are forbidden to drive on any pretext, when intolerance rules and all synagogues, temples, churches are banned as in Saudi Arabia, when there is no consideration for otherness elsewhere… It’s not to be wondered at that criminals can follow suit and prove higher, more radical bidders.

The only way out of this impasse is subversion; to kick the anthill, break taboos that are only human constructs, to break out of the prison of dogma, thaw out the deep-frozen ideology, break free of the multiple doctrinal confinement that has stifled us for four, five, six decades. We need a radical reform of Islamic thought; grooming it or tampering with it will not be enough.

HUMA : The objective, in your view then, is that Islam be quite at home in today’s world?

BENCHEIKH: It is. The question is how? By opening theology to other fields of knowledge that are meaningful and relevant. Let’s stop saying “God said that…” and then full stop. Let’s start examining the assertion. Let’s give up the belief that referring to the Koran is enough. It isn’t: The rational, modern, critical approach to the texts demands a radical questioning of the validity of the point under consideration. Let’s move from the tenets of belief to issues of human knowledge. The shift has so far been incomplete.

HUMA : You’ve been calling for this shift for quite a long time now. Do you see any encouraging signs in that direction?

BENCHEIKH: There definitely are some, but they are weak, they have not been consolidated into one or several schools of thought. Personalities will be found in South Africa, in the United Kingdom, in the US. In the Arab world too, but they are scarce, and unfortunately the wall of silence around any Arab metropolis does not allow them to be heard. In France their influence (Editor’s Note: the reformers’ influence) remains confined within restricted circles. Let’s hope a crisis will be our salvation.

HUMA : The main terrorist group that is plaguing Iraq and Syria calls itself an « Islamic State » and proclaims its ambition to set up a caliphate. Doesn’t this bring grist for the project of radical reform: to divide politics and politics?

BENCHEIKH: A State should not have a denominational label. Its administration needs no religious denomination. The notion of an Islamic State does not make sense. Are we to be told one of these days that we are going to get an Islamic highway code?

Secondly, as concerns that “caliphate”, well, the caliph is “the successor to…”, namely the successor to the prophet. The caliphate has no sacral value. It so happened that after the prophet’s death, the question of his succession had to be settled, so a number of men gathered to this effect and designated Boubakeur to be the first caliph. After that, the caliphate fell under the dynastic, hereditary rule: that, too, is a human construction, the decision of one man. We’ve had Ommeyad, Abassids, Fatimids, Ottomans… And that’s how something that started with one man was to end with a man, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Muslims did not die as a consequence of the abolition of the caliphate, their spirituality survived.

Thirdly, how can one say « I am going to rule in the name of God”? Penetrate God’s intention? There certainly is a passage in the Koran that says: “And those that have not arbitrated, or judged, according to God’s prescriptions, are non-believers.” But that was in a specific context, concerning the relations between Jews and primo-Muslims. That very passage was taken out of its context and brandished! The truth is that whatever prescriptive passage will be found in the Koran was just part of the common law at a given time in the history of that time’s community. It is meaningless to give it an a-temporal status. In the name of the Koran delegation is given over to men to produce laws that are a rational emanation of men, to be applied to men. And even though I might be tempted to refer to the Koran to legislate on a recent situation I could not. The Koran will not tell me anything about nuclear arsenals, or insurance law, or social networks, . To be sure, the separation of politics and religion need not be founded on religious arguments. Supposing one had to, it would be possible to find scriptural references in support of this principle.

HUMA : A coalition of Western countries recently decided to stand up to the threat of the “Islamic State" by means of a military intervention. In such a context, many fear this will give added force to the thesis of the “clash between civilizations”.

BENCHEIKH : There is no such a thing as a clash between civilizations, for these are not indivisible entities that can clash. Certainly not Islam and the West. Otherwise, what do we make of Muslims in the West? Are we going to place Cyprus in the West or in the East? And what about Morocco, Singapore, Malaysia? Historically, that does not really make sense either. The Mediterranean region is one civilizational region that, spiritually, has been a fertile soil for the Abrahamic Judeo-Islamic-Christian monotheism. The divide does not follow the borders of civilizations. It cuts across their areas, dividing those that support progress, benevolence, forgiveness, dialogue, humanism, democracy, the basic human rights and liberties, and those that are in favor of confrontation, racism, extremism.

The situation we now find ourselves in, has endogenous factors and extrinsic causes. The former are specific to the Islamic countries. The apex of the historical Muslim peak was followed by regression, decadence, decline, intellectual resignation, a deep lethargy due to colonization, then a very painful post-colonial awakening, and deep fractures due to the independence and liberation wars. We are now witnessing the replicas of those earthquakes. Vide the lack of democratic legitimacy of those regimes, their autocratic, kleptomaniac, dictatorial rule. And one surrender after another, one comes to this stultifying religiosity.

There are extrinsic reasons, too, both as a result of international relationships and within Western societies. Since Mac Mahon and the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Middle-east has been dealt with in the most irresponsible manner; promises were broken, ehtics offended. And what we are now confronted with in the Levant and in Iraq, are also replicas of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Worse still, not only does the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remain unsolved and UNO resolutions consistently ignored, but a terribly devastating war was waged in Iraq (Editor’s Note: in 2003), that had no international legal foundation, under a shamelessly fallacious pretext. And this led to ten years of Maliki rule, and negligence, vengefulness, anti-Sunni spite.

Within Western countries, especially in Europe, the social fabric among Muslim is not harmonious. There are still those that keep the yearling market going in Deauville, but there are also the new proletarians. The famous March for Equality took place thirty one years ago. The slogans were the republican motto “Liberty Equality, Fraternity”, laïcité, an end to racism and discrimination; we want housing, jobs, access to nightclubs and so on. None of the marchers ever made it to an election platform; none of them had their demands satisfied. And so that generation and especially their children withdrew from the public scene, huddling defiantly together, and fell an easy prey to the doctrinaire preachers that approached them with a religious discourse.

That was how religion became some sort of landmark for them, and then, unfortunately, their haven. Hence the multiplication of hijab or beard or Afghan dress cases. All those extrinsic factors churn out recruits for jihadist groups, and reinforce the pseudo-thesis of the “clash of civilizations”.

- See more at: http://www.humanite.fr/ghaleb-bencheikh-nous-avons-besoin-dune-refondation-de-la-pensee-islamique-553588#sthash.CS5S2fXu.dpuf

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