This Irrational Fury: An Attempt to Interpret

Tarek Heggy


Until a couple of years ago, and for many years before that, I was of the opinion that directing any criticism at certain aspects of Islamic ideas, texts or personalities would cause us, the advocates of modernity, to alienate some or most of those we were trying to help draw out of the quagmire of primitiveness and backwardness in which they were trapped. Today I must admit I was wrong. Although I expressed this opinion repeatedly in all good faith, the events that have unfolded in the Arab world over the last two years have forced me to revise my view and to conclude that I was mistaken. Science teaches us not to exempt any subject, person or idea from scrutiny and criticism. Thus I have come to realize that my belief in the need to keep certain areas of the Islamic experience outside the scope of critical thinking – a belief based on purely pragmatic reasons – did not, as I had once thought, serve any useful purpose.

Researches are entitled to investigate any subject, idea or individual in a scientific, objective fashion, and should not be deterred by the argument that criticizing what some regard as sacrosanct would do more harm than good. Indeed, quite the opposite: observing arbitrary taboos, accepting that certain areas are not amenable to discussion, let alone criticism, is what does more harm than good. I have come to believe that advanced societies have the right, indeed the duty, to force all cultures to accept that ideas can be answered with ideas and writings with writings, and that for some people to hold certain ideas, texts and individuals as sacrosanct does not justify exempting them from being subjected to a scientific critical view. Those we thought we would alienate if we criticized the symbols of their religious veneration will try to draw the more advanced elements of society into their primitive worldview, a dark and musty cave filled with myths, legends and rules that have no aim other than to maintain their grip over society.

It is foolish to accept that they should be treated like impulsive children who fly into a tantrum whenever anyone comes near their sacred symbols. That is actually how some analysts in advanced societies are dealing with the phenomenon, pontificating that Muslims are like violent and unruly children who become enraged whenever anyone dares direct criticism at certain subjects. Instead of reacting in a rational manner when this happens, they explode in fury, destroying and setting fire to all around them and killing innocent people. When Salman Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses, those who rejected the ideas he put forward in his book did not use logical arguments to prove him wrong, choosing instead to resort to violence and death threats. This scene has been repeated many times, the latest being the frenzied reaction of some Muslims to an obscure film depicting the most venerated figure in Islam in a despicable manner, as sex-obsessed, bloodthirsty and violent. Instead of expressing their outrage at the film in peaceful ways, such as writing articles or producing a film refuting its grotesque and offensive claims, thousands of Muslims took to the streets in violent and destructive demonstrations. As an American friend told me, the film in question is a crudely made, malicious attempt by bigoted amateurs to denigrate Islam. But the angry mobs that expressed their indignation at the insult to their Prophet by going on the rampage gave the world an even worse film to watch, one filled with scenes of violence and blood-letting, a film in which scores of people lost their lives. I am in no way suggesting that Muslims angered by books like The Satanic Verses or films like Innocence of Muslims should remain silent. On the contrary, they must respond with books that present well-founded counter arguments and films based on facts that give the lie to the slanderous images in films attacking their sacred beliefs. I would also suggest to those who advocate treating some of the rampaging mobs [in Pakistan and elsewhere] like unruly children that this approach is detrimental to all parties and beneficial to none.

I cannot write about this important subject without drawing attention to an aspect of such violent reactions as met the publication of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, an aspect I believe is lost on many. Most Muslims today know nothing about the origins of the Satanic verses, which are mentioned in many of the early biographies of the Prophet. Their ignorance is akin to that of the Egyptian youth who made an abortive attempt on the life of the greatest modern Arab novelist, Naguib Mahfouz, [1911 – 2006] after he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. The would-be assassin admitted at the inquest that he had read none of Mahfouz's works! And in 1992, when an Islamist youth shot and killed the enlightened Egyptian thinker Farag Foda [1945 – 1992], he too admitted that he had not read a single word written by his victim!

The point I am trying to make here is that the violent and bloody reactions of some Muslims to real or perceived insults to their core religious symbols are not provoked by a specific incident [a book, article, novel, film or caricature]. Rather, these incidents provide them with a pretext to vent the pent-up rage simmering just below the surface. How else to explain why a man should kill another because of a novel written by the victim and not read by his murderer? Although I believe we must deal in a rational manner with the phenomenon of the irrational fury that erupts at any provocation, I do not think that treating out-of-control rioters as impulsive children is the best way to address the issue. I believe the enormous reservoir of destructive fury that erupts with depressing regularity has built up over centuries of frustration and feelings of inadequacy. A thousand years ago, Muslims stopped adding anything new to the march of scientific progress. This decline came about as a result of the victory of the school of tradition and orthodoxy [the most prominent representative of this school is the Hanbalite jurist Ibn Taymiyah] over the school of rationality and deductive reasoning (whose most prominent representative is Ibn Rushd]. I have no doubt whatsoever that this decline has bred a sense of failure in most Muslims. But instead of self-criticism it was easier to blame others for their decline! Others are responsible for reducing us to our present condition, a condition in which we have stopped contributing to the march of human and scientific progress; Others, not ourselves, must be blamed for this state of affairs. And should any of those Others dare to criticize what we hold most sacred, the dormant volcano erupts to release an explosion of pent-up fury and repressed rage!

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