The difficult road to 'Enlightenment Islam'

How to understand the concept of “Enlightenment Islam”, progressive and liberal, which many, including Emmanuel Macron, are calling for? Asks this researcher in the columns of The Conversation.

On October 2, 2020, Emmanuel Macron gave a speech on the fight against separatism and announced a bill on Islam in France, expected in December 2020.

The French president believed that the Republic and the Muslims of France must together “build an Islam of the Enlightenment”, around the autonomy of the Islam of France (vis-à-vis foreign influences), the fight against extremism and an Islam compatible with the values ​​of the Republic.

The last few years have seen this concept gain some popularity; more and more politicians, intellectuals and journalists readily use the expression to denote progressive and liberal Islam.

While many questions remain about this future law, the murder of history teacher Samuel Paty on October 16, 2020, puts the promises of an Enlightenment Islam to the test.

Enlightenment Islam has no past

The historian may look for expression in the history of Muslim thought, beyond the past fifteen years and elsewhere than in France, "Enlightenment Islam" has no past.

Some regard 19th century Muslim reformism as the beginning or the model of Enlightenment Islam; yet they cannot ignore the traditionalism of these reformists, who did not question the dogmas, practices or major ideas of classical Islam. They in fact viewed Islam as an institutionalized regulator of Arab-Muslim societies and refused to separate religion from politics.

The concepts of tanwir or anwar in Arabic (rushangiri in Persian), which mean “lights”, in reality represent a marginal intellectual effort in Muslim thought, which was especially revealed during the last thirty years of the twentieth century, in reaction to the rise of Islamism.

In Egypt, the thinker Hassan Hanafi in particular, under the influence of German phenomenology and idealism, attempted in the 1980s to build an Islamic philosophy of the Enlightenment, but it had no effect on the evolution of religious thought. Its impact was limited to students of the humanities, due to its inconsistencies, eclecticism and activism.

This work has been taken up by more critical and analytical Muslim intellectuals like Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd in Egypt and Abdolkarim Soroush in Iran, who envisioned the Enlightenment as a critical method of religious thought, directly applied to religious texts. But these intellectuals were quickly pushed out of the public arena and both sought exile in the West.

Modernist intellectuals have in fact not sought “to produce Islam”, that is to say religious thought, dogmas, norms or practices of this religion under the influence of criticism, rationalism. or the secularism of the French Enlightenment. Their desire was more to historicize this thought, that is to say to place it in a historical context, and to free itself from the legacy of the dying Islamic civilization and its traditionalist religious thought.

In short, reformists made Islam without enlightenment (or little) and modernists enlightenment without Islam (or little).

1991, the birth of the expression "Enlightenment Islam"

Leading Franco-Algerian Islamologist Mohammed Arkoun, while speaking of an Enlightenment in Baghdad in the 10th and 11th centuries, refuses to compare it to the European Enlightenment. Historians speak more of a civilizational rise.

The task to be carried out, according to him, consists of a critique of the myths and the framework narratives of Muslim thought, as a necessary step for the desacralization of religious truth and the refoundation of humanist, plural, rationalist and secularist thought in the Muslim world.

At the same time, Mohammed Allal Sinaceur, Moroccan philosopher writing in French, designated in 1991, in Le Monde diplomatique, the Koranic interpretation carried out by Jacques Berque (French anthropologist, historian and Islamologist) as a “Coran des Lumières”, in the sense of a “revelation within the limits of what reason can understand”.

In fact, this is how the phrase “Enlightenment Islam” was born: a commentary by a philosopher on the work of a scholar and translator of the Quran. But all this has unfortunately remained anecdotal. The rise of Islamism which spectacularly struck the Western world through the events of September 11, 2001 motivated some Franco-Maghreb Muslim intellectuals to imagine another Islam from an apologetic perspective: to defend oneself against Islamist violence by promoting Islam with a human face.

Although many who use the expression, the only intellectual to have actually made an effort to "build" an Enlightenment Islam is Malek Chebel, Franco-Algerian anthropologist and thinker. In 2004, he published The Manifesto for an Islam of the Enlightenment. 27 proposals to reform Islam.

In the fight against fundamentalism, Chebel wanted an Islam of enlightenment, rationality and tolerance that believes in progress, youth and the future. But the first three proposals of this manifesto - namely to produce a new interpretation of the texts, the primacy of reason and the reconsideration of the warlike role of jihad - have remained a dead letter.

The other proposals are desires to see the Enlightenment settle in Islam, through freedom of expression, equality between men and women, secularism and democracy… The premise underlying this thought of Chebel is the need to justify the Enlightenment by Islam: for something to be legitimate, it would have to be anchored somewhere in the tradition or in the history of Islam. However, there can be no Enlightenment except in the rupture vis-à-vis religious thought.

Enlightenment Islam vs Dark Islam

This thought is also naive and Manichean: Enlightenment Islam vs dark Islam, legal-theologians vs philosophers, etc. The classical Muslim world had its own logics of social action and thought, sometimes coherent, sometimes contradictory; it is unreasonable to classify them as light and dark or good and bad.

The murderer of Samuel Paty, the history teacher at the Collège du Bois-d’Aulne, justified his act on Twitter with intertwined religious and political motives:

    "In the name of Allah, the most merciful, the most merciful [...] to Macron, the leader of the infidels, I executed one of your hellhounds who dared to belittle Muhammad, calm his fellows before one do not inflict severe punishment on you. ”

The final condemnation of blasphemy with regard to the religious symbols of Islam is not the result of the recent development of radical Islamism or of any obscurantism or even of “victims of colonialism in search of emancipation” : it is the norm of Islamic law. However, the majority of Muslim bodies around the world do not justify the practice of violence to avenge blasphemy.

To cite just one example, in the aftermath of the Danish cartoon affair, an “International Organization in Support of the Prophet” was created by more than 300 Muslim leaders, from all stripes and regions of the world in an attempt to find ways to contain the crisis; this organization is still active, even if it has not been very visible in recent years.

Emmanuel Macron called the murder of Samuel Paty an obscurantist act, representatives of Islam in France spoke of an isolated act which should not be associated with Islam. However, it is irrelevant to pit an obscurantist Islam against an Enlightenment Islam.

Samuel Paty's assassination came a few weeks after the attack near the former Charlie Hebdo premises, and a few months after the attack in Romans-sur-Isère by a Sudanese refugee. We are dealing with a type of violence against civilizational symbols, with no apparent link with particular terrorist organizations.

These attacks betray a cultural insecurity among some young people who consider blasphemy to be the hallmark of a civilizational war: an attack on their cultural symbols, taken for existential stakes, which must be avenged by a counterattack.

Those who perpetrated these attacks come from different backgrounds (Chechnya, Pakistan, Sudan), but their authors share a religious-political thought that has been nourished for two centuries by adversity and a desire for revenge against - view of the West and the modernity of the Enlightenment (knowing that some in the West can of course also resist the Enlightenment and modernity).

Enlightenment Islam: avenues for reflection

For centuries, the religious thought of official Islam, Islamism and the mainstream traditionalist currents have lived in an emotional detachment maintained by certain authoritarian governments and powerful transnational ideological and political networks, with the aim of maintaining citizens of cultures Muslims isolated from changes in the world.

The function of this thought is to accompany a way of being in the world in struggle, in combat, in claim and revenge, in militancy and in rejection, and in dissent: to be in the dissent of the world while seeking refuge in a self-sufficient thought and closed to modernity.

The strength of Islamism, in its various forms, is to have often been at the head of the battles of the Muslim world during the twentieth century, and to have been able to mobilize Muslim societies with this energy of struggle.

The Islamism of the Turkish state, to take a recent example, is mobilizing Muslim audiences in different languages, and in various European and Arab-Muslim contexts, in favor of Turkish intervention in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Islamism has appropriated the dogmas as well as the practices of the tradition in a vision taught in schools and families and disseminated in popular media in the Muslim world and in Europe.

The struggling Islam has inspired reformists, jihadist Salafism and many young Muslims in Europe today. This militant thought directly surfs the frustrations, class aspirations, and resentments of many populations.

Intellectual work should be focused on critically examining the evidence, perspectives, and Muslim ways of thinking and acting. A modernist crisis is binding on any intellectual, theologian or Muslim cadre. It consists in adopting reflective tools of thought, of criticism, of seeing Muslim theology throughout the world and not the opposite, of historicizing religious ideas. But also to distinguish between social demands and politico-religious demands, to break with supremacist illusions about Islam, to work on mentalities and on categories of thought, and to question Muslim ethics, and the conditions of its genesis and its development.

The Enlightenment cannot shine through anecdotal thought, artifice and on the fringes of religion itself, or through political will. Free Islam from an ideology of fighting which has transformed it in experiences and thoughts into a religion of resistance to the West, to rationalism, to secularism, to freedoms, etc. cannot be done by speech alone.

It is the Muslims themselves, starting with the religious leaders, who must pass the test of the modernist crisis: that is to say, to experience certain beliefs, affiliations, practices, norms, especially those relating to otherness, by the tools of the human sciences, the values ​​of human rights and pluralism, the institutions of democracy and secularism, and the demands of human dignity, with all the risks that this entails, including that of harboring fewer myths but more freedom.

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