Victims of Myths
‘This explosion almost seems to have occurred within Abraham’s heart,’ a sage Muslim from Baghdad said very calmly on the evening of the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center in New York.
This Muslim sage, whose fine features and white beard resembled those of many Muslim philosophers, did not hide his anger and disapproval about the entire operation. What troubled me, however, was his reference to the Abrahamic promise at this very place and time. I did not know then that the perpetrator of this attack had sent a terse message to his father, saying that he was going to die and become one of Abraham’s sacrificial victims.
This revival of Semitic myth – not to erase the dividing line between the Muslim Ibrahim and the Judeo-Christian Abraham but actually to widen it – turned office workers in Manhattan into additional victims of this religious promise. Hagar’s descendants, who were apparently excluded from the Biblical promise, became a certain death for these poor employees, who were nothing more than clerks – Americans in every sense of the word – concerned with the petty details of life. They built their lives around sentimental affairs and were preoccupied by the minutiae of their unassuming lives. They were low-ranking clerical workers whose lives were totally devoid of frippery; theirs were relatively hard lives spent in cheap apartments, where they watched television, read murder mysteries, and listened to pop music.
How ironic it is then that the victims of Abraham’s promise revealed in the Koran should be waiters in street-front cafés, clerks in supermarkets, construction workers, and secretaries.
The effects of flawed belief did not end here, because this Semitic myth has claimed other victims: wretched farmers in Afghanistan and people ground down by poverty and destitution in Kandahar and Kabul, people on whom was imposed an almost monastic life that lacks any genuine qualities of a real life.
In the first instance they are victims of the Taliban but by extension they are victims of the hasty comparisons, false analogies, and suspect distortions about religion that have rapidly come into vogue in our societies in response to the precipitate introduction to them of modernity. The result of these flawed analogies has been the rise of ideological religious thought replete with all the defects of an ideological structure based on a fantastical sanctification of the community that embraces them and the demonisation of its adversaries – not just the West, but other Muslims who do not share their ideology. These Afghans who were originally victims of their religious government later became victims of American aircraft, thus becoming victims of the victims of the same religious myth.
Islam of the Monsoon Lands
This Muslim sage’s sentence – a condensed version of an ancient historical legend – reminded me of Louis Massignon, the Orientalist whose expertise included the Islam of this region, which he gave a geographical label: ‘Islam of the Monsoon Lands’, referring to the lands that stretch from the Arabian peninsula with its incense to Indonesia with its spices. This region’s trade depended on the monsoons that carried its sailing ships to the heart of Asia. Massignon was the first to express – in his work ‘The Three Prayers of Abraham’ – the link between Islam and Christianity, because ancestral folk legends were alive in his memory when he discovered Islam through religious symbols comparable to traditional Christian ones in the culture of peasant farmers in Iraq.
Throughout his journey in the Arabian desert and even after he was taken prisoner in the rice fields of Iraq, Massignon had flashes of insight thanks to those ancestral folk legends without knowing – naturally – that they would one day be used the way that the leader and organiser of the September 11th attack, Muhammad Atta, did. Indeed, he did not even know when writing The Passion of Al-Hallaj that ethnic, national, and religious passions would reach such alarming proportions and that people influenced by this very legend would blow clichés and catchwords out of proportion and promote cultures that are all basically a form of primitive Manichaeism, or even that these cultures would foster a pejorative dichotomy that brands the enemy unequivocally and that these clichés would confine each individual to a predestined faction so that we now suddenly find that there are evil Arabs and Muslims and on the other side evil Americans or Westerners.
The evening of that explosive attack I grasped this matter directly both from political declarations and the comments of intellectuals, because at the time I was in Amman, attending a conference about East-West dialogue. This title, which appeared to be the background of this attack that wanted to torpedo everything, seemed, however, to be totally out of keeping with the event!
Dialogue and probable dangers
Intellectuals from the East and West held discussions while secret organisations sat plotting in closed rooms!
This was the first time I had left Iraq – to attend this conference intended for academics and writers from different regions of the world including Arab and Muslim scholars coming from the West. I was the only Iraqi, and the trip took me twenty exhausting hours both because of the blockade imposed on Iraq at that time and because of abusive treatment at the borders.
The proceedings of the conference began one day before the attack, and these intellectuals had begun to trot out their stale gibberish without any of them perceiving what lurked beneath life’s actual events, because thoughts they expressed conjured up a comfortable and neatly manicured world devoid of any struggle at exactly the time that reality was brimming with conflicts. Today, more than ever, I feel how big a difference there was between the prepared texts and reality. These written papers included a few perceptive ones but their language was not clear enough to attract attention and most offered almost nothing illuminating. The discussions depended more on many forms of dogma than on any profound research.
Most of the participants were either Westernised Arabs and Muslims or specialists in Oriental or Islamic studies from Europe and America. The debate proceeded with the phony vocal intonation, hand gestures, and spurious academic jargon that we always find among intellectuals. I turned my head, for example, to hear a man tell his companion, ‘You must admit that the East was a type of paradise, but Western authors treated it mercilessly; do you deny this?’ The other man responded, ‘No, no; the East never existed; it is only a cultural construct dreamed up by Westerners – that’s all.’
A third person objected, ‘Sir, you’re discussing discourse about Islam, but this discourse provides us information only about its Western authors, not about the Islamic world.’
The conference was held in a first-class hotel surrounded by a lush garden in the centre of Amman. That September was warm, but cool, refreshing breezes tempered it. Many participants were expatriate Arabs who came from large European cities. Their faces shone with good health; they wore fine clothes and smoked. I sized up their diverse personalities in short order, because they had experienced a rupture from their original culture and lived a complicated, personal type of diversity that was evident even in their names. Some had a European first name, for example, and an Arab surname. I was charmed by this hybridisation that has no parallels in our unitary culture. In fact, I discovered that they differed significantly from snobs in our culture. I mean that they were Westernised unconsciously; most of them had studied in the East in European schools that catered to a small elite of children of leading families that despised or rejected their local culture.
Discussion and debate – another world surfaces
As a matter of fact, the discussion and debate were restricted to the Westernised Arabs and the Westerners, and that made me feel frustrated and perhaps envious as well, because it was actually a discussion among Westerners. Whether these participants were Arabs or Muslims, they were part of Western culture; thus the West was debating with itself. The problems encountered by these Westernised Arabs differed completely from ours. Thus the principal value of their debate was represented by a balance, whereas I, coming from Iraq, was worried by the dominance of the state. I was clinging to – and attached in a special way to – individual freedom. Therefore the struggles between these Westernised Arabs and the Europeans did not interest me at all. These were struggles between affluent people, whites, Europeans – between two privileged groups. What I wanted was for us educated people to debate struggles in our countries more forcefully – the struggles that would produce violence of the type we witnessed the next day in New York. I felt, however, that our situation as intellectuals living in the Arab world was that we experienced struggles between numerous state authorities and Islamist extremist tendencies and with brutal state power that lacked any claim to popular support. Our condition was ignored.
Those days may have alerted me to the close connection between the intellectual and the exile; an intellectual is a perpetual exile, an exile from his own society. A destiny like this is always worrying and oppressive. Edward Said termed it the saddest and most melancholy in history. He was right about that, because exile, no matter where it occurs, is not merely a state of anxiety. It is a perpetual convulsion that shakes not only the exile but others as well. It forces you to question your existence constantly and to deny forever your claim to be a native – what Roland Barthes termed ‘la natalité’. I have realised that the concept of homeland and the idea of a highly valued home, which are stressed by expatriate writers, take a different form among exiled writers. When I definitively left Iraq years later, I realised that I had really been an exile in my own country, because I did not find any truly exiled authors in Europe. Whether Arabs, Turks, Africans, Indians, or Pakistanis, they had all become respected members of the middle class.
The only thing noteworthy about this conference was the choice of the authorities cited by this or that group. The Arabs awarded pride of place to the works of Franz Fanon – because these grew from the soil of the collective struggle of the Algerian Revolution – whereas the Europeans celebrated Edward Said’s and Foucault’s dazzling insights, which resembled an armed insurrection, perhaps because they were individual protests against detention, deportation, and surveillance.
Otherwise the whole conference was a Dadaist discussion conducted by intellectuals in the open air.
Gellner, Said, and the September 11th attacks
A lecture about Ernest Gellner by an Arab academic from a European university was announced for the evening prior to the September 11th attacks. I had previously read two noteworthy books by Gellner – Nations and Nationalismand Muslim Society – and therefore was eager to hear this Westernised academic, who dazzled me with his healthy face, stylish suit, and French cologne, which perfumed the whole room. I made a point of arriving before anyone else and sat down beside him before the lecture began. I realised then that my appearance must seem ridiculous compared to his, because I was skinny and wore shabby clothing that I had brought from Iraq, and my hair was dishevelled and hardly a match for his impeccable European coiffure.
I was extremely disappointed when I heard him repeat points made by Edward Said in a renowned, earlier critique of Ernest Gellner written just after Said’s latest revision of Culture and Imperialism. Gellner’s lighthearted arguments and proofs admittedly did not rise to the level of his brilliant scholarly work, but Edward Said’s writing, on the other hand, was a harsh attack that included a patently journalistic exposé of power. Said also reiterated numerous criticisms that Talal Asad had directed against Gellner’s book Muslim Society without adding anything to them. These same critiques are still repeated by some academics. There is, they claim, no such thing as ‘Muslim society’; there are societies. There is no such thing as a Muslim individual except in a devotional context, because individuals differ inside any culture’s framework. Therefore what does ‘Muslim society’ denote – Tunisian Islam, or Saudi Islam? Such phrases originated in anthropological works and are rehearsed by renowned authors.
Yes, I agree that the word ‘Muslim’ is saturated with clichés that make the rounds and that some readings reduce Islamic peoples to the lowest common denominator, but on the other hand is it possible to rule out any generalisations whatsoever based on individual experiences? We truly differ from each other but share many obvious characteristics.
After the events of September 11th I was keen to hear what my scholarly colleague would say about Gellner, especially since Gellner’s main thesis about Islam could serve as an excellent focus for a discussion of the attacks in Manhattan. Gellner termed Islam a scripturalist and mystical religion distinguished also by an intense longing for puritanism. This puritanism’s intensity and literalism are diminished only by authority of the Sunnah, which balances the local precedent of Medina, the ruling powers, and religious scholars. In social or political crises, however, the text returns to prominence, and extremist or sectarian ulama arm themselves with the text to revive puritanism or an original innocence. I knew that this theory had been subjected to intense criticism by Geertz, Halliday, Talal Asad, and Sami Zubaida, but what interested me then was that this very incident fitted reasonably well with Gellner’s view.
It seemed, however, that these momentous events were even then far removed from the consideration of academics.
A health food bar and a polluted world
On the evening of the September 11th attacks, the dining hall was noisy with the guests, and my fellow participant who had read the paper about Gellner stood at the health food bar, piling fruits and salads on a large plate. I was standing at the counter with ordinary food, learning for the first time that there is unhealthy food; since I came from Baghdad when the blockade was at its most intense, seeing an egg on a plate seemed miraculous to me.
I realised at that moment that writing is one thing and life’s realities are something else, because none of the participants changed a single letter they had committed to paper before the attack in Manhattan, perhaps because they had exhausted themselves writing their papers before they arrived. They had worn themselves out carefully putting their sources in alphabetical order, because an error of that kind would be considered an inexcusable defect. Indeed, academics attribute a greater importance to such formalities than to any earthly reality. All the same, political events were reaching alarming proportions, and Bush on the television was enumerating members of the Axis of Evil, including Iraq.
The Axis of Evil – Iraq and America
Perhaps because of the Axis of Evil that Bush declared, two American women participants sought me out. I remember how seeing young American female academics for the first time astonished me. I must say that they had previously attracted my attention by their physical presence; they were relatively tall, simply dressed, and spoke with a special grace. To their credit, their appearance differed markedly from that of the dapper academics who were so concerned with formalities. I was astonished to find them standing to watch the events unfold. So they asked me to accompany them out to the streets to learn what people thought. I was really delighted by this. Perhaps at a moment when it was awkward for us to meet, we had stumbled upon a way to reconcile our points of view.
This act of aggression – contrary to what some right-wing American newspapers said – discredited demagoguery and religious and ethnic chauvinism in the Arab and Islamic world. My two companions grasped this easily from the responses of street vendors, restaurant workers, and taxi drivers. Perhaps only a minority of them believed that Muslims had perpetrated these attacks, but there was absolutely no truth to reports that people reacted to this attack by dancing in the street. This is natural, because even if we admit that educated Westerners and educated Muslims differ not only in their adherence to different viewpoints but also in their contradictory ways of occupying the world, or by the way they depict two different worlds or two different, warring intellectual constructs, there is a profound chasm preventing the two sides from meeting or linking up. This gulf is intellectual and ontological, but does not separate two societies living in two historic circumstances or different political systems; what separates them are two distinct views of existence, being, life, and the soul. From a human point of view, however, what difference is there between American cowboys who find no work in Manhattan or Princeton and shepherds who eat cheap pickles in Kandahar? What is the difference between downtrodden men who find nothing to do except pray in dilapidated mosques and poor, jobless Americans who beg for a few dollars to play bingo and eat cheeseburgers?
Even though the language used in political statements was stern and radical at that time and it was impossible to steer an even course or to determine political action that would reconcile such different interests, this attack led to two positive developments.
The first was a Western attempt to learn about these societies from the testimony of their own people, and this is very important. For the first time we find a Western interest in the Arabic language and Arabic literature, especially in the novel, and this is very significant, because the humanities in the Arab world were devastated by Arab rulers, which caused them to collapse beneath numerous different pressures. The novel, however, is an individual work that has pretty much escaped the hegemony of rulers.
On the other hand, opening the West up to non-Western literatures has not been easy. We all know that for a long time the West succumbed and yielded to its own ideas about itself, and the works of Erich Auerbach and Ernst Robert Curtius represent this trend. European literatures have first of all been based on a canon of European literary works from Homer to Joyce and secondly on a constant return to the same topics. Thus European literatures have enjoyed an almost mystic unity starting from Middle Latin and continuing as they became self-sufficient literatures shielded from knowledge of the outside world or any influence from it. These theories have been subjected in recent years to intense criticism.
The second positive development was the release in the Arab world of a wave of criticism affecting much of what had been revered in the past: rulers, religion, and Islamic history. Many people felt a desire to acknowledge in public that we are not innocent, guiltless societies that Western authors have abused and that we need to air our faults, search seriously for beneficial solutions for the crisis of traditional thought – for its false steps and shortcomings vis-à-vis the age’s procession – and present a genuine critique of political, social, and cultural frames of reference in the Arab world. Indeed, there is a desire among many intellectuals to encourage acknowledgement of our mistakes and anything that promotes self-hatred, because societies that avoid this kind of soul-searching rarely dare to deconstruct themselves.
Everything inevitably falls to the ground in airports
What finally endures are things that develop in a feeble way, because the processes of thought and reality work differently. Reality can be observed in any of the world’s airports, but seeing and living it are two different things.
I really feel this continually, because if you are Iraqi you will never feel at ease. The threat is intrinsic and constant; it is a continual consciousness of humiliating treatment that diminishes you and your individual existence and that constantly subjects you to degradation.
It is not easy to sit in an airport where you are suspect, your appearance is suspect, and your name and your identity are too.
At times I sit humbly hour after hour in large waiting rooms on hard benches, guarded by a policeman at times and encircled at other times by suspicious eyes before I am led to an officer who interrogates me and examines my papers while I drag around my heavy bags, which for the most part are filled with books and a few basic items of clothing. Then I am forced to open my bags for them to be searched. I spend hours repacking them, because usually I had spent hours forcing their contents to fit in the smallest possible space thus allowing the suitcases to carry as many books as possible. Closing them can be difficult, and at times I marvel at how many books the suitcase contained only to find after repacking it in front of airport police that it has ejected a bunch of books it can no longer hold.
So I brood alone, racked by distress, while blond Europeans or my Westernised colleagues who carry European passports pass me by, giving me a fleeting glance as I sit there embarrassed, alone, exhausted, and humiliated. Then I repeat to myself the Iranian thinker Ali Shariati’s mantra: ‘I won’t forget but I’m able to forgive.’
Yes, I forgive this treatment, because I know that security after September 11th has definitely become problematic.
I do not know – perhaps these societies have a right to defend themselves – but I cannot stand to wallow beneath an unbearable burden of suspicion. Despite my understanding of the situation and my concern for any harm that might affect them, I think Westerners still hoard the West for themselves, even though its most important material or intellectual product is the dignity of man.
My dignity is admittedly most at risk here, but I feel the West will definitely open up to new intellectual technologies, concepts, and ways of understanding existence and history. Yes, it has its demons of Islamophobia, racism, and colonialism but is capable of overcoming them. The West continually researches its failings and devises theories to assist in understanding and destroying its demons. It digs deep into the worst of its past records. Thus the course of history is reduced to its basic elements, to changes and transformations in all arenas, and the course of history will inevitably affect all frameworks, standards, and laws. Similarly, fashions of Western modernity are continually advancing in Islamic societies, but this modernity lacks a tongue, as Olivier Roy once observed.
Only the bad things endure
It is evident today that modernity is no longer confined to the history of the Western mind as if it were merely a theatre in which the forces of management and of labour confront each other savagely, because the West is in constant change and will definitely be able to produce a shared, existential, multifaceted modernity with a human stamp. Indeed, I feel quite certain that Adorno’s bet on human universality will not be lost. Perhaps it will never win, but I do not think it will vanish or recede. All the same, I fear that the evil created either by Westerners or by some Muslims on September 11th will take a very long time to disappear, because bad stuff takes a long time to disappear, as a New York friend once observed in a jesting conversation.
Years after the Amman conference and the events of that September we met by chance at another conference in a European capital. After lunch I asked her with great interest if she knew of any bookstore that specialised in books about the Arab and Islamic world.
She pursed her lips and then joked, ‘What are you saying . . . Arab . . . Islam. . . . Don’t you know that these words are taboo in Europe?’
She laughed, and I replied in an equally sarcastic way, ‘Yes, I know; but I want you to understand too that I pride myself on being an Arab Muslim.’
‘Oh, you should pride yourself on being young and handsome instead of boasting of these other things.’
‘How can I boast of things that are not guaranteed to last, things that succumb to time’s tyranny, when I can guarantee I’ll be Arab and Muslim till I die?’
Then she laughed and responded teasingly, ‘Yes, you’re right. In personal matters, only the bad things endure!’
is a renowned Iraqi journalist and novelist. His book Baba Sartre about a group of existentialists in Baghdad became famous throughout the Arab World and elsewhere.
Translated by William Hutchins
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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