Interview with Ibn Warraq
“The Religion Report”[This is a transcript of Stephen Crittenden’s interview of Ibn Warraq on “The Religion Report,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation. On Wednesday 10/10/01.]
Secularist Muslim intellectual Ibn Warraq – not his real name – was born on the Indian subcontinent and educated in the West. He believes that the great Islamic civilisations of the past were established in spite of the Koran, not because of it, and that only a secularised Islam can deliver Muslim states from fundamentalist madness. Little wonder that he chooses to keep his identity secret. We talk to Ibn Warraq this week.
Lyn Gallacher: This week on The Religion Report, we’re devoting the entire program to an exclusive interview with the secularist Muslim intellectual Ibn Warraq. Ibn Warraq is the pseudonym used by this author of two controversial books, Why I Am not a Muslim and The Quest for the Historical Muhammad. The name, Ibn Warraq, is one that’s traditionally been adopted by dissident authors throughout the history of Islam. And in this case, Ibn Warraq uses it because he fears for his safety. He believes that there are moderate Muslims, but that Islam itself is not moderate. And, he says it’s time for Western Muslims and Western politicians like George Bush and Tony Blair to stop denying Islam’s role in the violence of September 11th.
Ibn Warraq is speaking to Stephen Crittenden.
Stephen Crittenden: Ibn Warraq, do you think that Islamic leaders around the world, apart from the Taliban, have any sense that the attack of September 11 represents a big crisis for them – a big crisis for Islam – perhaps even more than it does for America?
Ibn Warraq: Well the problem is of course is that there is no such thing as a Pope in Islam, so who are exactly the Islamic leaders? There are all sorts of proclaimed Islamic philosophers and spokesmen, occasionally we refer to the Al-Azhar University in Cairo as a sort of authoritative voice, but really there is no hierarchy and there is no such thing as the Islamic spokesman. But the various Islamic philosophers, thinkers, spokesmen who are sort of trundled out on occasions like this are beginning to realise that something drastic has happened, and that a real re-thought of things has to take place, that is for sure. I have seen some incredible statements from people I never expected such statements from.
Stephen Crittenden: Like who?
Ibn Warraq: For example, the Mufti of Marseilles. Mufti is a sort of assistant to a judge who’s capable of giving a religious judgement. He said that if violent fundamentalists are acting, and I quote, ‘canonically’, and that ‘I denounce the hypocrisy of Muslim theologians who refuse to criticise the theology which underwrites all this violence.’ Others of course are just going along the same old way saying, ‘Well we mustn’t confuse Islam with Islamic fundamentalism’, blah blah blah, as though nothing has happened. And unfortunately these are the kind of people that the politicians seem to be listening to.
Stephen Crittenden: What do you think has happened? What do you think happened to Islam on September 11th?
Ibn Warraq: I of course didn’t think it happened to Islam on September 11th, I always knew that it was like that in any case. It just simply underlines what I’ve been trying to say for the last six years, and other people, more courageous and more informed than I, have been saying it for even longer. That is to say that what happened on the 11th is somehow within Islam, it’s essential to Islam in some sense. Maxime Rodinson,www.secularislam.org/reviews/rodinson.htm the great French Islamologue, said that violence is “existentially” Islam, that’s the word he used, meaning fundamentalism is somehow an essential consequence of Islam itself. And now I think, for the first time at least in France, there has been a complete breakthrough in the way we discuss Islam. Certainly in conservative newspapers, but also certain left-wing magazines like Marianne and the newspaper like Figaro, have started to criticise Islam in a very, very fundamental way. They published a very, very, long piece that I wrote with a friend, which took up almost the whole of the page. This is a broadsheet newspaper. And this is a quite, quite remarkable change; two years ago when my book came out, in the French edition it was practically boycotted. Now certainly the French press are running after me left, right and centre. But in England, unfortunately, the intellectuals, with a few exceptions, they’re beginning to speak up, the intellectuals are so Islamically and politically correct that they dare not use the word Islam in front of terrorism. They’re now following the lead of the politicians. I mean it’s quite ironical, both Bush and Tony Blair are the two leaders who have introduced religion into political life, and now they’re the ones to refuse to use the word ‘Islam’ when talking about terrorism. They just won’t understand what is happening; they will repeat the same old mistakes. If they cannot analyse the situation and see that Islam is the motivating factor behind all this, then how on earth are they going to tackle the problem? It seems completely incomprehensible to me.
Stephen Crittenden: There’s a great question here for the future of multiculturalism, and in Australia, Islam has not been militant, it is not an enemy of the nation of Australia, and suddenly the mood in the country has changed. What do you think the future is for multiculturalism in general?
Ibn Warraq: Well I agree, this is one of the things I mentioned in my book six years ago. Incidentally, I don’t want to seem to be smarter than anybody else. I was a teacher in London for five years in the ‘70s when multiculturalism was the rage, and I was very much for it because being from a minority culture, I realised the importance of looking at non-Western cultures in a positive way. But I now realise that we have gone too far, in that we have emphasised the differences which has been disastrous for the community. Not only have we emphasised the differences, we have accepted totally false representations of what the West is. Every ill in the world, including the Third World of course, has been attributed to the wicked West, and there’s been incredible nonsense written about colonialism and racism and so on, as though only the West was guilty of this. Of course slavery and the Muslims were deeply implicated in the slave trade, Islam was an Imperialist religion which destroyed Christianity in the Near East, yet nobody mentions those facts.
Anyway, coming back to multiculturalism, we cannot hope to have a civic society if we do not value the same things, if we do not pursue the same goals, and we cannot do this if we keep emphasising the differences. We must have a shared core of values, and it seems essential that we get beyond this divisive multiculturalism, which essentially means Western bashing, bashing the West, we will not get anywhere until we emphasise the things that we value, like separation of church and state, liberalism, democracy, the value of rationality, discussing our problems and so on. And yet our leaders have been incredibly remiss. They pour even more money into keeping people apart. It seems insane to me. Instead of teaching the new arrivals and new immigrants the language of the host community, mostly English in Britain of course, and in America and Australia, they’re spending thousands of dollars and pounds on encouraging language teaching in Punjabi, in Urdu, in Hindi, it seems completely daft; how on earth can these people integrate and become a part of the community if they do not speak the language of that community?
Stephen Crittenden: Here in Australia, I often wonder whether the sun and Bondi Beach might win over in the end, and possibly create, or assist in the creation of some kind of hybridised form of Islam here in Australia. Do you think Islam is capable of that kind of transformation?
Ibn Warraq: Yes, in the West it should be possible, provided that we do certain things. That is to say we’re not afraid of looking critically at Islam in the way that we have looked critically at Christianity, or any other religion, in the way that we have criticised the Bible, higher Biblical criticism has existed since at least the 17th century with Spinoza and so on, going on to the 19th century in Germany. And yet nobody dares to look at the Qur’an in the same way. Even in the academic community there is a kind of taboo about discussing the Qur’an scientifically. I’ll give you one example: my friend Christof Luxenberg brought out a book on the Qur’an written in German and showing that a large part of the Qur’an must have been originally written in Aramaic, and it is a solidly argued, brilliantly philological examination of the Qur’an. But it was boycotted, people refused to discuss it, even in university circles, they dismissed it out of hand and said, ‘Well we do not wish the hurt the sensibilities of the Muslims.’ I mean it’s incredible. So if we are consistent, if we remain critical in the way that we have remained critical of the Bible and so on, then the Muslims will be forced to look at their own religion in a critical way as well. We live in the free West, or in Australia for example, and New Zealand, where there is a democracy and freedom of expression. We should take this opportunity to remain critical, and that’s the only way we are going to help the Muslims in the West. As somebody once said, we’re not doing Islam any favours by shielding it from enlightenment values.
Stephen Crittenden: When you speak to young Palestinians or Syrians in the Middle East, they’ll often tell you that they just want a Western life, in fact.
Ibn Warraq: Exactly. But we don’t get the media focusing on going to these people and encouraging their viewpoint. Did you know that at the time of the event on September 11th that there were a certain number of demonstrations in favour of the Americans in Iran? Same thing happened in Pakistan, but you never see this.
Stephen Crittenden: Is one of the key problems that Islam faces, its Arabic tribal origins? Christianity was a cosmopolitan religion from the word go, Judaism was forced to become one. Is Islam a kind of attempt though at one level, to sort of transform the whole world into an Arabic tribe?
Ibn Warraq: Oh yes, that is the agenda of political Islam, if you like, if you can call it that. But within Islam generally, there has been this current that says that Islam is the perfect religion, the prophet was the last of the prophets, and it is the duty of every Muslim to bring this religion to the whole of humanity. There is a certain logic in that, it’s not my logic because I don’t accept their premise.
Stephen Crittenden: In fact you say somewhere I think that of all the major world religions, Islam is the least original. I know some people will find that offensive. I mean Islam sees itself as advancing the revelation that was granted to Judaism and Christianity, but what do you understand that advance to consist in?
Ibn Warraq: Well I don’t see any advance whatsoever. Unless people want to see its uncompromising monotheism as some sort of an advance, but that was implicit in Judaism.
Stephen Crittenden: But something interesting and amazing happened there in the Arabian desert; what was it that ignited the whole world, from Morocco to Indonesia?
Ibn Warraq: Well people have often wondered why it was so successful. It came at a time when the Byzantine Empire and the Persian Empire were at a low ebb, and it took full advantage in a military sense, and the conquered populations of course threw in their lot with the conquerors, very quickly. I have no particular theory to advance. You get the usual panoply of explanations from the Marxists to the Freudians. More recently in fact, you hear that Islam is the fastest growing religion and all that, and this is repeated ad infinitum, without any statistics or facts to back it up. There have been an incredible number of people converting in, of all places, Algeria, to Christianity, because they see Islam as a death-orientated religion. But of course since apostasy is punishable by death, this is not readily admitted. So although there is a kind of reaction against it, there is also this identity crisis, vis-a-vis the success of the West, ever since Napoleon invaded Egypt at the end of the 18th century, beginning of the 19th, Islam has had a kind of identity crisis. So there has been a tendency to go back to the cultural roots of their civilisation, and even now, I know people who call themselves Muslims and they are in fact atheists. I mean there are Muslim atheists, if you like, but Islam remains a source of identity, particularly at this time, because they feel completely rudderless without any sort of charismatic leader; most of them live under autocracies, if not outright dictatorships. So there has been a return through one’s cultural roots, but again, I don’t know what the attraction historically was, which resulted in the success of Islam throughout the world.
Lyn Gallacher: Secular Muslim intellectual Ibn Warraq speaking to Stephen Crittenden.
Stephen Crittenden: Can I go back to something that we alluded to, but I want to ask a separate question, and that is, we’ve done interviews on this program in recent days with Islamic scholars from America and elsewhere, who are very keen to support Islam and very keen, as I am, not to offend Muslims living here in Australia who are under a great deal of pressure at the moment, through no fault of their own. On the other hand, you are very critical of the kind of political correctness of those people. You call them ‘Western apologists’.
Ibn Warraq: Yes, I find it quite distressing that it’s implicit in such an attitude by the way is the kind of racism they think they’re getting away from, there’s a kind of condescension which says you mustn’t hurt the sensibilities of these poor Muslims, as though they are children who must be shielded from the adult world of criticism, which I find extraordinary. And the other thing I find quite extraordinary is that many of these scholars are in fact Western apologists, are in fact Christians; Christian scholars like Montgomery Watt, for example, who wrote the famous two-volume biography of the prophet, highly regarded in the Muslim world by the way, but not by everyone. Many Muslims in fact despise, really despise scholars like Montgomery Watt. They think, well if Islam is such a great religion, why haven’t you converted? Enough of this condescension, they say. One particular one, the Egyptian intellectual Hussein Amin, wrote a scathing review of Montgomery Watt in exactly these terms that I’m describing, and Hussein Amin said ‘I prefer the old Christian missionaries who at least were honest enough about their Christianity and who wanted to convert Muslims to Christianity, than to these Western apologists who are just totally dishonest in that way.’
Stephen Crittenden: This raises another question, and that is, Is one of the problems here in the West that we refuse to acknowledge, we’ve forgotten in fact, how much our secular democratic institutions, how much the freedom that we’ve won, actually came out of Christianity.
Ibn Warraq: Yes, actually, I mean you’re absolutely right there. In a sense, Christianity always accepted the separation of the two spheres. You know the famous saying in the Gospel according to St Matthew, ‘Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s.’ That is supposed to be an indication of the separation of the church and state. You are absolutely right; look at how secularisation took place in the West, surprisingly one of the forces for secularisation was Christianity itself. As soon as it accepted the idea of a contrary opinion, the moment that European opinion decided for toleration, it decided for eventual free marketing opinion.
Stephen Crittenden: Could I ask you, is the separation of church and state impossible for Islam? And I’m thinking, we’re aware of a nation like Indonesia, or like Turkey, where a strong army keeps Islam in its place, but that’s not what I’m talking about, and that’s not what you would mean by separation of church and state either, would you?
Ibn Warraq: Well I think it is possible, but it’s a hard job for the country concerned. I mean Turkey is the only one which has an absolute separation built into its constitution. The others make some sort of a reference to Islam or Islamic law in their constitution, saying that the law of this country is inspired by the sharia or by the Qur’an and so on, but I don’t see why it shouldn’t be. I mean it’s quite obvious that in fact many of the countries were going towards a kind of secular state, even a country believe it or not, like Iraq was essentially a secular state, it was a dictatorship of course of the most awful kind, but there was no kind of concessions made to the religious parties, or to religious demands. Same thing with Syria, there’s no intrinsic reason why a country with a majority of Muslims should not head in the path towards secularism. In fact Pakistan ironically, was founded by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who was an atheist. This is not recognised, no Pakistani would admit this, and then of course the first leader after Jinnah’s death was Liaquat Ali Khan, and who was on the verge of introducing a secular constitution when he was assassinated, and we believe the assassination was by somebody linked to one of the religious parties. And I’ve seen interviews with various women’s groups, various intellectuals in Pakistan over the last ten years, who say that the people of Pakistan have never been for the Mullahs, for these obscurantist elements, and they essentially have a kind of relaxed attitude to Islam and the thought is Islam, the religion, should be reduced to the private sphere. And I think Bangladesh was also going in a secular way. But then of course the greatest change for all these countries has been the revolution in Iran. That has helped to put the clock back by 50 years. You know, you had all sorts of secular movements, for example, women in Egypt very courageously in the ‘20s burnt their veils publicly, and then you had students, people forget this very quickly, burning the Qur’an publicly in Baghdad in the ‘50s. But politicians, each time politicians have given in to the religious fundamentalist lobby. And people had great expectations for the Benazir Bhutto when she took over in the late ‘80s, and yet she sort of made pacts with the religious groups, you know, they said they would leave her alone and they would not question her authority because she was a woman, if she didn’t attack their power. Well it was a complete disappointment to all the feminist groups, all the women of Pakistan when she did nothing to advance their cause. People had a high expectation, and she talked about democracy, but unfortunately she’s caved in each time.
Stephen Crittenden: Do you think that the events of September 11 may possibly drive a wedge between Muslims living in the West and Muslims across the Muslim world?
Ibn Warraq: Yes, this is going to be definitely a watershed. I think I already mentioned the change amongst the, certainly among the “Western whites”, if you like, the intellectuals and their willingness to criticise Islam. But there is a group of us for example that’s the secular-minded Muslims, or ex-Muslims, or Muslims, or free thinkers of Muslim origin, we’re having a big meeting in New York in the middle of November. There’s a growing number of us who have got together, and we’re drawing up a constitution and we want to pursue the Muslims living in the West. You’re not betraying your own culture, on the contrary you are dignifying humanity by being critical of the religion of Islam. And that living in the West, they should take advantage of the freedom of expression that the West gives them, to look critically, instead of withdrawing into a kind of sullen silence, they should take this opportunity to openly look at their roots, at the problem of interpreting the Qur’an for example, at the position of women, the need for separation of state and church and so on. So I think it is a great opportunity for Muslims to examine what it is in their religion that pushes them to such a violent act.
As for I think the Muslims elsewhere, well unfortunately, most Muslims elsewhere are living under authoritarian government, there is no freedom of expression, with the limited exception of Turkey of course. There are lone voices, very courageous lone voices, even in those countries. You have a secularist philosopher called Sadiq al-Azam in Syria for example; you have some very courageous individuals in Egypt, in Tunisia you have Muhammad Sharfi, who’s a secularist. They’re the people that we should encourage.
Stephen Crittenden: Can I ask you, the Muslim community in Australia is new, and often the people here have come from war-torn areas, they lack self-confidence; what would you say to those people living in Australia, who are very distressed at this time?
Ibn Warraq: Well I think there’s going to be no easy way out. There won’t be any, without some sort of wounds, as it were, without a little bit of suffering. There’s going to be some kind of suffering, like examination of conscience and so on, and you can’t grow up without taking a few knocks on the way. I mean all parents know that, but children when they’re growing up, they take some knocks, and nasty knocks sometimes if they’ve been too protected. And this is the case of course with Islam. They have been far, far, too protected. Muslims have not ever been told to examine their faith in a critical way, so the shock is going to be even greater for them, as it is for any child who lives in an over-protected environment, who suddenly has to go out and earn a living and has to stand up on his own feet. This exactly the kind of shock that they will have. But what does a child do? He has to look reality in the face, and this is what Muslims have to do. They have to examine their sacred text and see what is wrong with it, what is in it that drives people to murder 5,000 people in one go, the suicide attack, and it’s no good pretending it’s got nothing to do with Islam, they’ve to examine it and look at reality in the face. And I can’t see there’s going to be any soft way out of this. They’ve just got to wake up, they’ve got to grow up. And so instead of shouting ‘Oh, you’re insulting our prophet, you’re insulting our religion’, they’ve got to take their place along with other people who’ve had to take knocks.
I have a Dominican priest friend who said to me, ‘You know, throughout the ages Catholicism really received some slaps in the face, and believe me, it has done us a lot of good.’
Stephen Crittenden: What’s implied behind all that is that Islam is potentially going to be required, maybe by the West, to go through something a bit like the Reformation that the Christian church went through.
Ibn Warraq: Exactly, and that’s why, as I’ve said over and over again, it is illogical, totally illogical, for the Western media, there’s an editorial practically every month now in The Times, which laments the lack of a Reformation within Islam, and then to ignore books like mine. How do they think reformation’s going to come about?
Stephen Crittenden: Of course if that’s so, we’re talking about one of the biggest stories in the history of religion.
Ibn Warraq: Right. I mean I see this as megalomaniac. But it’s got to start somewhere.
Lyn Gallacher: Ibn Warraq, speaking to Stephen Crittenden. And Ibn Warraq’s books Why I Am Not a Muslim and The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, are published by Prometheus Books.
And that’s it for today. Thanks to John Diamond, David Rutledge and Russell Thompson.