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The Malady of Islam
By Abdelwahab Meddeb
Basic Books
HC, 241 pg. US$24/C$37
ISBN: 0-4650-4435-2

Curing Islam's sickness

By Steven Martinovich
web posted October 13, 2003

The Malady of IslamSince September 11, 2001 a veritable industry has sprang up devoted to exploring the problems of Islam, or perhaps more accurately the problems that some interpretations of Islam have created. Many commentators have opined that before the Islamic world is able to join the Western world in shaping the world's future it must undergo a process that Christianity was forced into centuries ago. They argue that Islam must become more moderate and allow secular forces to play a predominant role in societies where they co-exist.

In his powerful and at times unfocused The Malady of Islam, Abdelwahab Meddeb argues that a confluence of factors, both external and internal, are responsible for Islam's marginalization. The Tunisian novelist, who currently resides in France, takes aim at fundamentalism and lays the blame for its spread in the Islamic world both at Muslims themselves and the Western world for enabling the process.

Meddeb's version of Islam is that of a faith with a rich tradition of knowledge, faith, beauty and tolerance, one that he argues has been replaced by a version of the faith promoted by "semi-literate" followers that believes only in the letter of the Qu'ran. That devotion to the letter didn't allow the Islamic world to experience its own Enlightenment which resulted in European civilization separating itself intellectually and culturally from the rest of the world. Islam, Meddeb says, cut itself off from conversing with the rest of the world.

"The Qur'anic letter, if submitted to a literal reading, can resonate in the space delimited by the fundamentalist project: It can respond to one who wants to make it talk within the narrowness of those confines; for it to escape, it needs to be invested with the desire of the interpreter. Rather than distinguishing a a good Islam from a bad Islam, it would be better for Islam to open itself up to debate and discussion, to rediscover the plurality of opinions, to set up a space for disagreement and difference, to accept that a neighbour has the freedom to think differently. Better for Islam if intellectual debate rediscovers its rights and adapts itself to the conditions polyphony offers. May the deviations multiply and unanimism cease; may the stable substance of the One disseminate itself in a shower of ungraspable atoms."

Exacerbating the rise of fundamentalism in the Islamic world are external factors which are not the cause but they serve as a catalyst, intensifying "the disease" Islam is suffering from. He blames a process he refers to "Americanization" -- essentially a media culture that promotes superficial understanding -- which gives Islamic fundamentalism the perfect environment to grow. Meddeb also blames the West for failing to live up to its own lofty ideals, keeping Islam in the status of the excluded and forcing a global hegemony.

Meddeb's harshest criticism, however, is reserved for those in the Islamic world who have put Islam on its present course, those who have turned "a tradition based on the principle of life and the cult of pleasure into a lugubrious race toward death." He heaps considerable scorn on Saudi Arabia's support for Wahhabism and makes his displeasure with those scholars who wage battles against Meddeb's dream of a liberal version of Islam quite clear. It those two forces, he believes, that prevents Islam from embarking on a European style -- versus an American influenced version -- Enlightenment.

Free debate is the best antidote to fundamentalism, a lesson the Western world learned many years ago, and it's certainly gratifying to see Meddeb make it one of his central planks. Whether his complex solutions to the problems of Islam he's identified are possible to implement are another matter altogether especially when Meddeb's version of ancient Islam sometimes comes across as revisionist history. Nonetheless if The Malady of Islam spurs debate in the Islamic world then we can be at least satisfied that Meddeb's efforts haven't been entirely fruitless.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

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