The Failure of Modern Islamist Thought

May 5, 2008


In an extensive January 2008 interview with the Qatari Al-Raya daily, eminent Syrian philosopher Sadik Jalal Al-'Azm discussed the state of religious thought in the Muslim world, democracy in Turkey and in Arab countries, Hizbullah and the 2006 war, and the role of the intellectual in Syria and the Arab world.

The following are excerpts from the interview:

The Ignorance of the Islamic Religious Establishment Has Grown Worse Since I First Wrote About It in the Late 1960s

Q: "... To what degree have your views changed since publishing [your] book Critique of Religious Thought?"

A: "My views have changed in the sense that I have taken new developments into account�

"In the book Critique of Religious Thought I described the thought in those days as impoverished. The title of the first essay in the book is 'The Scientific Culture and the Impoverishment of Religious Thought.' Now I see that this impoverishment has deepened and grown worse.

"In that period, between 1969 and 1970, there was [at least] an attempt by Islamic thinkers to deal with the problems and questions of modern science. They tended to base their discussion and argument on reason, reality, and the course of events. Now, I find that the religious thought that has emerged on Islam is in an even deeper state of impoverishment, in the sense that today we have arrived at issues like the fatwa of breast-feeding adults � and this was not issued by just any ordinary sheikh, but by the head of the Hadith Department at Al-Azhar University...

"In the period in which I wrote Critique of Religious Thought, it was difficult to find this type of fatwa. Therefore, it is possible to say that there has been a great deterioration and that we have moved away from basing our judgments on rationality.

"Other examples of this are [the fatwas] issued by sheikhs from Al-Azhar, like blessing oneself with the Prophet's urine, or the repeated mentioning of the hadith of the fly, and the spread of this superstitious manner of thinking in the Islamic environment. I believe that this represents an additional deterioration over and above the impoverishment that I spoke about between 1969 and 1970.

"In that period, when I discussed the impoverishment of religious thought, I dealt with a number of Islamic thinkers and clerics, such as the Mufti of Tripoli Nadim Al-Jasser, Musa Al-Sadr, and others. At that time I saw that they wanted to deal with modern science, the scientific revolution, and applied science; however, unfortunately, they were ignorant of everything related to modern science: What is the meaning of science? What are the ways of scientific inquiry? Often their only knowledge of physics, chemistry, or anatomy since finishing elementary school came from reading the newspapers. They wanted to oppose the societal influence of scientific development and technological achievements while at the same time acting with an almost complete ignorance in these matters.

"In my estimation this has grown even worse today. There is greater ignorance. There are opinions, especially in fundamentalist Islam, that completely reject modern science, the West, and all that it produces. If you take their thinking to its logical conclusion, they will become [like] the Taliban on this issue."

The Only Interest Khomeini Took in Outer Space Is How a Muslim Should Bow and Pray and How He Should Fast When He Stays There for a Long Period of Time

"They relate to problems with complete stupidity. For example, I read some of Imam [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini's fatwas. In one of them, he presents the matter of a Muslim going into space in a space capsule. He discussed how he should pray, and how he should figure out in which direction to pray in outer space. Of course in space there is no north or south, and space capsules orbit at high speed along a fixed course. Likewise, when a Muslim reaches space, he will get there in a Russian or American space capsule, since there are no Arab or Muslim space capsules at all.

"The problem is that Khomeini is not familiar with any of the achievements, the attainments, the sciences, or the technological knowledge relating to space. All that interests him is how a Muslim should bow and pray, and how he should fast when he stays there for a long period of time. After this discussion, Khomeini arrives at the conclusion to permit a Muslim to pray in any of the four directions. Obviously, this way of thinking betrays [his] complete ignorance, as the directions are a matter of convention; there are no four directions in nature...

"They are opposed to matters like test-tube babies, or innovations, for example, in the area of the genetic code (DNA) and genetic reproduction as well as other scientific breakthroughs and discoveries. They have no knowledge of the nature of these sciences, how the scientists arrived at them, and what were the experiments that preceded them. They are not in possession of a culture of science and they are radical in this matter. This is regarding the Shi'ites, but [there are examples] also among the Sunnis, [like] Sheikh 'Abd Al-'Aziz ibn Baz, the senior religious scholar in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia."

Saudi Mufti 'Abd Al-'Aziz Ibn Baz Declared All Those Who Say the Earth Orbits the Sun To Be Apostates

Q: "Excuse me, but I don't know if we can mention names. Perhaps this is a sensitive issue for some people."

A: "If talking about this subject is a sensitive matter then that is additional evidence of how disastrous our situation has become. Anyway, I will give my opinion, and you can do what you wish.

"In Ibn Baz's book, published in 1985, he completely rejected the idea that the earth is round. He discussed the question on the basis that the earth is flat. He completely rejected the idea that the earth orbits the sun. I own the book and you can verify what I am saying.

"And so, the earth does not orbit the sun, rather it is the sun that goes around the earth. He brought [us] back to ancient astronomy, to the pre-Copernican period. Of course, in this book Ibn Baz declares that all those who say that the earth is round and orbits the sun are apostates. At any rate, he is free to think what he wants. But the great disaster is that not one of the religious scholars or institutions in the Muslim world, from the East to the West, from Al-Azhar to Al-Zaytouna, from Al-Qaradhawi to Al-Turabi and [Sheikh Ahmad] Kaftaro, and the departments for shari'a study � no one dared to tell Ibn Baz what nonsense he clings to in the name of the Islamic religion.

"The fact that you tell me that this is a sensitive matter � this means that I cannot reply to the words of Ibn Baz when he says that the Earth is flat and does not go around the sun, but rises and sets, in the ancient manner. This is a disaster. The greatest disaster is that we cannot even answer them.

"... The official religious institutions, first and foremost Al-Azhar, the faculties of shari'a , the departments of religious rulings, and so on are in a state of complete intellectual barrenness. They produce nothing but rulings like adult breastfeeding, the hadith of the fly, blessing oneself with the Prophet's urine, and flogging journalists. The field has been abandoned to the jihadist-fundamentalist ideology, as it is the only one that raises thoughts that are worthy of being discussed and rejected. This is because of the barrenness of the major official institutions which are considered to be exemplary.

"They are filled with repetitiveness, ossification, regression, protecting [particular] interests, perpetuating the status quo, and submission to the ruling authority. If the state is socialist, the Mufti becomes a socialist; if the rulers are at war, the clerics are pro-war; if the governments pursue peace, the [religious authorities] follow them. This is part of the barrenness of these institutions. This [forms a] vacuum in religious thought that is filled by the [intellectual] descendants and followers of Sayyid Qutb, for example, and that type of violent fundamentalist Islam..."

Jihadi Movements Are More Interested in Islamist World Rule than in Resisting Western Military Presence

Q: "To what extent are the jihadi and Islamist movements in the Arab world influenced by foreign military presence in occupied Arab areas, whether Israeli or American?"

A: "Western military presence in the Arab world has been uninterrupted. It has always existed in one way or another. During the Cold War there were Islamist movements allied with the West to confront Communist expansion and the Soviet Union. In general, these movements, with some exceptions, are not known to have devoted efforts to rid the Arab lands of any foreign presence. This was, rather, something associated with the Arab liberation movements and the popular pan-Arab program under the leadership of Abdel Nasser.

"We lived through this in the 60s and 70s. In that period there was a partial victory by the pan-Arabists, though I do not think it was a total victory. The foreign presence remained in a number of Arab states.

"In the case of Afghanistan, for example, there was a direct and friendly Western-Islamic military alliance with the goal of fighting the former Soviet Union. Therefore, I do not believe the foreign military presence is a direct cause of the outbreak of the Intifada, the operations carried out by jihadi movements, or what occurred in Algeria, Sudan, Syria, and Egypt during that period.

"I believe that the Islamic jihadi organizations were deluded that they were capable of defeating the Soviet empire. They forgot or intentionally ignored the fact that this goal would have been impossible [to achieve] without the alliance with the United States and the West. They believe they actually brought down [the USSR], that Allah gave them the ability to do so and assisted them in carrying this out. If we assume for the sake of argument that this is true, then why are they incapable of defeating the American empire?

"Ideology plays an important role in the belief and behavior of these movements. They believe that it is necessary to return the rule of Islam to the Arab and Muslim states, like it was in the beginning. After this, [they want] to extend [Islamic] rule over the world. I believe that this motivation is stronger for them than the existence of American or English military bases here and there in the Arab world."

Q: "But isn't there a connection between the emergence of Islamic jihadi movements like Hamas and Hizbullah and the growing role of Al-Qaeda in the world, on one hand, and the two occupations � the Israeli and the American � on the other?"

A: "I do not deny that this factor had a role in the emergence of these movements and their increase in popularity, especially after the failure of the pan-Arab movement that had secularist leanings, though without adopting secularism as one of its principle slogans, as occurred in Turkey, for example. [The pan-Arab failure] increased the feelings of humiliation, marginalization, and a sense of failure that formed a sudden and unexpected vacuum, which was filled by the Islamist movements. A number of critics � myself included � grasped this phenomenon after the defeat in June 1967..."

"I Think the Caliphate Could Return when the Bourbons or Louis XVI Return to Rule in France"

Q: "To what extent do slogans used by Islamist movements � 'Islam is the solution' for example � play a role in recruiting people and winning their sympathies?"

A: "There is no doubt that in Muslim countries the slogan 'Islam is the solution' is attractive and brings people in. However I believe that this enlistment is superficial and sentimental, since when people deeply examine the substance of these slogans and the platforms it includes, they will begin to examine and discuss it anew.

"Likewise, they will raise pressing questions, for example: Is the meaning of 'Islam is the solution' the reestablishment of the Caliphate? And is the reestablishment of the Caliphate a realistic program? And so on.

"I think that the Caliphate could return when the Bourbons or Louis XVI return to rule in France, or the czars return to rule in Russia. In Russia there is a Czarist party that wants to establish constitutional czarist rule. If it succeeds, then perhaps the Islamists will succeed in reestablishing the Caliphate."

"The Islamists' Conception of Implementing Shari'a is [Really] Martial Law"

"As for these movements' understanding of implementation of the shari'a, it could be summed up in the penal code, that is, flogging, stoning, cutting off hands, feet, heads, and so on. But what would happen if [one of the Islamists], for example, or his son or relative, was sentenced to flogging, to having his hands cut off, or whatever. In this situation he would reject this penal code. Perhaps they would agree to a fine, jail, or some other punishment, but he would not agree to flogging, stoning, or the cutting off of a hand. Therein lies the problem.

"When the Islamists reach power, as they did in Sudan, for example, they are wary of implementing these punishments. When you carefully examine the slogan 'Islam is the solution,' you discover that the people are already apprehensive and have second thoughts about implementation of this slogan.

"Does it mean that you will go to the Christians and impose the poll tax (jizya) on them? In our countries, Egypt and Syria for example, there are Christians who were martyred in our wars against Israel, and now they are treated as martyrs, and their children are treated as the children of martyrs. What would happen to them if we implemented the shari'a? Would they be considered martyrs or not? Are they not martyrs who died for the homeland in the battles for the Sinai and the Golan Heights? How many Muslims in Egypt or Syria would agree to this? Incidentally, the previous supreme leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt explicitly called for excluding Christians from the Egyptian army on the grounds that they are dhimmis.

"I believe that the Islamists' conception of implementing the Muslim shari'a is [really] martial law. When military officers take over the government they declare a state of emergency and martial law. When Islamists come to power they declare the implementation of the shari'a � and in this way they are no different from each other. In my opinion, their most important role is to terrorize people."

"Forming Parties on a Sectarian Basis� Is No Less Dangerous than Forming a Party on a Racial Basis� This Means a Return to Nazism"

Q: "Is it possible to say that the religious movements are a product or a reaction to the inability of the Arab regimes, in the past and in the present, to establish a state based on citizenship? And, likewise, is it possible that these movements will establish such a state when they come to power?"

A: "First of all, a state based on citizenship is a long-term historical process. We cannot say that this regime or another failed in building it; however, it is possible to say that a given regime contributed to improving the general atmosphere towards establishing a state based on citizenship, or that another regime regressed or failed.

"Second, I believe the Islamists do not want a state based on citizenship where dhimmis would be equal to Sunni Muslims in the Arab states, or equal to Shi'ite Muslims in Iran, where you have to be Shi'ite to be considered a first-class citizen.

"In general, I believe that the contention that the inability of the regimes to establish a state based on citizenship contributed to the prominence of the Islamists is partially true. In any case, the question of citizenship is not important to the Islamist movements. Today, they talk about citizenship, but I am very doubtful regarding their seriousness, particularly because their parties are on a sectarian basis and so are limited by being Sunni, Shi'ite, and so on.

"When the Sunni majority establishes a party on a religious-sectarian basis, it becomes an example and encourages the rest of the sects to form their own special parties. Consequently, the idea of forming parties on a sectarian or religious basis advances the collapse of the idea of citizenship. I believe this is no less dangerous than forming a party on a racial basis, like in Germany for example, since this means a return to Nazism."

"If It Were Not for Turkey's Secularism, the Idea of Islamists Alternating in Power Would Be Impossible"

Q: "Is this true regarding Islamist movements that believe in participating in political activities and peaceful negotiations to arrive in power, like the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, for example?"

A: "The Turkish experience is a very important example. However, outside of Turkey, parties with a religious character consider their task to be re-Islamizing society. And if they came to power � whether through elections or a coup � they would cling to it in order to complete this task. I believe their words about the [peaceful and regular] transfer of power are tactical and hypocritical, and I don't ascribe any importance to them at all.

"Turkey is the only Muslim country based on secularism as an ideology and a belief. At the beginning of the Turkish Republic, it declared that it was a secular republic, meaning that it was religiously neutral. It is also the only country that created a party with Islamic foundations, but that is [at the same time] democratic and capable of reaching power through fair elections, and of ruling without bringing disaster to the state.

"If it were not for Turkey's secularism, the idea of Islamists alternating in power [with others] would be impossible. The precondition that allowed Turkey to produce the Justice and Development Party is its being a state that is secular at its root. This does not exist in any other country. Therein lies the importance of the Turkish experience."

Q: "What would happen if there was a similar party in the Arab world?"

A: "There is currently a debate over Turkish political Islam and the development that the Justice and Development Party underwent that allowed it to win power democratically. If it will lose in elections, it is prepared to step down and enter the opposition, and then perhaps return [to power] again. I believe that this model of political Islam does not exist in the Arab world."

Q: "Is this because the Justice and Development Party accepts the ground rules of democracy?"

A: "Yes, but this was achieved after lengthy birth pangs and through historical development until the party was convinced that its role in political life was conditional upon accepting the ground rules of democracy. The paradox is that the Islamists, who are in power in Turkey today, favor joining the Christian European Union, and the army, the principle defender of secularism, has reservations about this idea and works to thwart it."

The Intellectual's Role as the Conscience of His Society

Q: "Based on your contact with Syrian and Arab intellectuals and thinkers, are you confident about the future of culture in Syria and the Arab world?"

A: "I am very cautiously confident. On this question, I am pessimistic about Arab culture in general. Regarding Syria, there is substantial activity both in Syria and in the Syrian diaspora, despite the fact that the agents of cultural transmission and the means at their disposal are still very modest.

"I have sensed this cultural activity since the period known as the Damascus Spring. After many years of supervision and repression, the Syrian intellectuals felt they had an opportunity to express their views and take part in cultural and political activities, and it became evident that they were learned, up to date, and possessed a modern style of writing and presenting their ideas. Syrian intellectuals have a prominent and brilliant presence compared to the size of Syria's population and the conditions [under which they live]."

Q: "Given the political developments in Syria in recent years � the closing of forums and the arrest of a number of members of the National Council of the Damascus Declaration � is it time to announce the death of the honeymoon between the regime and the intellectuals, and say that the Damascus Spring has been revealed to be an eternal autumn?"

A: "There was a long honeymoon between the intellectuals and the regime. This connection was always mixed with problems and tensions. By the nature of things, serious intellectuals tend to criticize the authorities, and the authorities, for their part, do not like criticism � and especially not in the period of compliant populism that our country went through, where everyone was one single bloc [supposedly] marching in the right direction under one single leadership.

"There are times when the intellectual marches in this same direction, but he always has his position and his specificity. So one could say that this honeymoon was something unusual and difficult for our country, given that the intellectuals are very exacting on these issues. The question is not one of wanton hostility to the regime, nor of blind support [for the regime] or of blindly jumping on the bandwagon. Therefore I believe that a principled critical stand is the most important aspect of the intellectual's role as the conscience of his society."

"There Is a Kind of Obsequiousness and Deference to Traditions and Customs, Whether They Are Backwards or Not"

Q: "There are those who say the crises that we have gone through � whether on the level of the regimes or the [Arab] societies � are nothing but the product of our prevailing culture. To what extent is this true?"

A: "I think that sometimes when we speak in this way we attribute more responsibility to culture than is its due. Culture is not the primary mover [that determines] the life of society or what policies are followed. It is not the primary mover in the historic orientation of one Arab country or another. There are those who think this, but there are crises on another level [that are only] reflected in the prevailing culture in [these] societies."

Q: "Do you think that the crisis has to do with the rulers more than its being a socio-cultural crisis, and that this in turn is reflected in the Arab situation?"

A: "It may be that there a crisis of the rulers, or the economy, or a crisis of the elites, or some other type of crisis. But one cannot say that it is because of our culture that we suffer from all these problems."

Q: "Is the current crisis a product of the rulers or of culture and social tradition?"

A: "Both. That is to say, there are many impediments [to progress] to be found in [various] peoples' cultures and traditions. At the same time � especially in the current period � there is a reluctance to investigate these impediments, define them, examine them closely, and criticize them in order to overcome them and remove them. The tendency to do so has grown weaker at present, and there is a kind of obsequiousness and deference to traditions and customs, whether they are backward or not.

"When we simply look at the Arab world, we see that it consumes everything but that it produces nothing apart from raw materials. What can we expect from the Arabs? Look at the Arab world from one end to the other; there is no true added value to anything. There is a structure that seems not to encourage production and to not be for it. What do we produce? What do we export?

"[This is true] whether you are talking about material, economic, scientific, or intellectual production, or any other kind. Look at oil production, for example. What is the Arabs' relation to the oil industry? They own the oil, but they have nothing to do with its extraction, refinement, marketing, or transport. Look at the huge installations for prospecting oil, extracting it, and refining it. Look at the Arab satellite, what in it is Arab? I doubt the ability of the Arabs to produce a telephone without importing the parts and the technologies it requires, and perhaps even the technicians..."(1)

"No Society Is Fundamentally Endowed with a Natural Readiness for Democracy � Democracy Is a Cumulative Historical Process"

Q: "There are some in government circles, and even among the intellectuals and the regular people, who claim that Arab society in general is not equipped for democratic activity. As evidence for this they put forward some experiences that are not encouraging: Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, and others. Moreover, [this occurs also] on the level of associations, parties, and human rights organizations, that have long experienced fissures and divisions, the most recent of which was in the Damascus Declaration coalition in the Syrian opposition. Can our Arab societies � with their current constellations and structure � produce true democracy that will persist without bringing divisions, political crises, security unrest, conflicts, and civil wars?"

A: "We need to take as our starting point the fact that no society is fundamentally endowed with a natural readiness for democracy. Democracy is a cumulative historical process. It would be a mistake to adopt the opinion that [this is] impossible, and that since we are tribal and sectarian we need to do away entirely with the idea of democracy, say that it is not appropriate for us, and close the door before it. In China they say a thousand-mile journey starts with a single step.

"I am in favor of attempts and experiments. There are previous experiences from which we can benefit. I do not despair or throw my up my hands, despite being aware of the difficulty of this issue and the complications it entails. No [society] had a structure that was fundamentally appropriate and fit for democracy.

"We, like other people, can learn, and accomplish 20 percent, then 30 percent, then 40, 50, and more. It is a cumulative process that depends on the steps taken to educate people in schools and educational institutions and train them gradually for the practice of democracy.

"If we don't do this, we will be governed by the saying: as you are, so will you be ruled. If you are tribal, you will be ruled by tribes; if you are backward, you will be ruled by the backward; if you are clannish, you will be ruled by clans; and if you are sectarian, you will be ruled by sects, and so on. This is to fall into a cycle from which there is no escape.

"Or else there is [another] Arabic saying that would apply to us: the people are of the religion of their rulers. If the ruler is democratic, all of us will become democratic, and if the leader is a dictator, all of us become pro-dictatorship. As though we are condemning ourselves to a position of quiescence from which there is no escape. I reject this."

Q: "There are those who doubt the ability of the Arab mentality today to produce a stable and lasting democracy. Do you think the Arab mentality has the ability to create a democracy that will survive, last, and become a norm and an accustomed behavior in our countries?"

A: "It is difficult for the Arab mentality in its current structure to produce democracy, but I do not believe that this mentality is an eternal fixed [attribute]. I [would] accept a model that is 30 percent successful, though up to now we have not been able to accomplish this.

"There is sectarian democracy in Lebanon, it is a regime of quotas, and not a democracy based on citizenship. The political regime in Lebanon prevents a dictatorship through sectarian balances, but [it] has not achieved true democracy based on citizenship. Likewise, Iraq is going in the same direction."

Q: "What is missing from the Arab mind that would enable it to accept the other, or the compatriot, as he is? What is needed to solve this equation that is currently unsolvable?"

A: "The individual learns the answers to these questions by studying the difficulty involved in the [other] alternatives in the course of history. In this context we could cite the example of Iraq. In my opinion, if the Iraqis want to maintain the unity of their country and avoid a grinding civil war, they must learn historical lessons from what they are going through today.

"The Shi'ite majority cannot say that the meaning of democracy is majority rule and that's the end of it. They must say that it means majority rule with protection for the rights of minorities, and by this I mean political minorities, and not necessarily numerical, ethnic, or religious minorities.

"They say, We are the majority and therefore we will rule, and democracy is majority rule. But this is to stray from the truth. Democracy is rule by the majority with the protection of minority rights. Otherwise the state will face division, civil war, and ruin.

"This is an issue that the Arab mind needs to study: that it must accept the other, and it must accept the possibility of the minority reaching [power] if its alliances make it into the majority � [but this] without [the minority] discriminating against the majority or taking revenge on it after reaching power.

"In Iraq there are also many Islamic parties and movements from various schools [of jurisprudence]. Are they capable of implementing the shari'a in accordance with Sunni or Shi'ite belief? Not unless they are prepared to sink into a grinding civil war. What can you learn from this if you are not interested in a civil war or the disintegration of the state? You learn to be wise and build neither a Shi'ite nor Sunni state, but rather a state based on citizenship, truth, law, and social justice.

"This belief comes as a result of historical lessons, but there are those who learn quickly and others who never learn. In Lebanon, for example, they didn't learn, and they experienced a grinding 16-year civil war; but considering what is happening there now, one feels they learned nothing from it, especially regarding the sectarian issue."

Hizbullah's Victory in 2006 Was Pyrrhic; Today, Instead of Fighting Israel, They Fight Jumblatt and Al-Hariri

Q:"... You described Hizbullah's victory as a non-victory, both at the conference organized in the Al-Assad library at the last book fair, and in an interview you gave to the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar. Do you still hold this opinion?"

A: "Nothing has happened that would make me change my opinion, and especially not after I heard Hassan Nasrallah admit that had he known the kidnapping operation of the two soldiers would have led to this outcome, he would not have approved it. The expression 'Pyrrhic victory' [fits here] � that is, the price of the victory is so high that you feel that your situation after the victory is not better than before. Of course Nasrallah had enough courage and candor to admit this."

Q: "What about the description of the victory as a divine victory?"

A: "There are many considerations that stand behind this description, related to recruitment, beliefs, and so on. However, I think that in this way we deny something of the qualifications, capability, and intelligence of the heroes that fought and remained steadfast.

"Perhaps Hizbullah is stronger now � militarily and logistically � than it was in the past. But I believe that this faction is in an unenviable position, considering the diversion from the struggle against Israel to internal Lebanese games, and the wasting of the party's energy in the obscurity of insignificant politics in Lebanon. Today, instead of fighting Israel and its generals, they fight Walid Jumblatt, Al-Hariri, and other Lebanese politicians."

Q: "Perhaps [Hizbullah] is doing this because it feels threatened by the possibility of the president of Lebanon and the government trying to disarm Hizbullah?"

A: "I would avoid the word 'threatened.' This word is greater than the reality of the situation. When I am in Lebanon, I sense that others are very threatened by the Hizbullah's high level of weapons procurement, strength, organization, and training."

Q: "In your opinion, does Iran have final authority over Hizbullah?"

A: "There is no doubt that they [Hizbullah] take Iran and Syria into account. But I am not convinced about the question of them being completely loyal [to Iran and Syria]. I believe they have their own factional and national considerations. Saying that they are loyal to Iran is similar to what [they] say about the divine victory.

"There is no doubt that the one who finances, arms, and extends aid has weight, that their opinion [is taken into account], and that they have influence. This is only natural. It is like in the past when Fatah was influenced by Nasser's orientation, or like how the leadership in Syria influences the Palestinian organizations. This is part of the natural dynamic of political relations and alliances and the fractures that sometimes accompany them. At times Arafat would clash with Syria, and at other times he would say that Syria was the lung of the resistance."

After 1967, the Intellectuals Could No Longer Remain Silent

Q: "Why and for whom did Sadik Jalal Al-'Azm write?"

A: "I believe that for a university lecturer, writing is, fundamentally, part of scientific research. At first what I wrote was related to my studies in modern European philosophy. However, what drove me to write about politics and public affairs was the defeat in June 1967. If someone had brought up the subject of writing before and told me that in the future I would write some of the books that I ended up writing later, I would have told them they were crazy and said that under no circumstance would I engage in these issues. Perhaps I would have expressed my opinion as one who follows and takes an interest in public affairs, but I would not have engaged these issues were it not for the shock caused by the defeat in the 1967 war.

"Before the defeat in 1967, I wrote for those interested in philosophy. I used to write for intellectuals ready to adopt enlightened and progressive positions and to develop ideas, positions, and cultures on the basis of the Arab enlightenment movement (the nahda). But after 1967 my orientation was towards the active elements in our societies.

"At that stage all of us were struck with shock and frustration. So I began to write for the public, since all of us intellectuals wanted to say something. This was because it was not possible that a disaster on this level could occur without saying something as an intellectual..."

Q: "Are you really an atheist or a 'Damascene heretic' as some people have described you?"

A: (laughs) "Can you imagine a serious, learned intellectual in our Arab countries not being seduced by ideas like a critical attitude towards traditional religious beliefs, doubt and non- determinism, and the idea of using a scientific approach to understand religious phenomena? From the time of Qasim Amin to the present, there have been those who promulgate and publicize their reactions to subjects like these.

"Naturally the religious institutions and clerics look at this matter in terms of atheism, heresy, and so on. But at the end of the day, there remains something that is a matter of the conscience, and this is part of the freedom of conscience of every man."

Q: "There are a number of people whose approaches intersect or are close to yours, like Muhammad Shahrur, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, Gamal Al-Banna, and others. To what degree do you agree or disagree with them?"

A: "As far as the general contours, we agree on many things; however, concerning the particulars of opinions on specific subjects, it is possible that there are differences and sometime even criticism and competition. But the general contours are the same, and I consider this to be a critical, enlightened approach. We are badly in need of this..."(2)


(1) Al-Raya (Qatar), January 12, 2008.

(2) Al-Raya (Qatar), January 13, 2008.