An interview with Ibrahim Kalwas, Polish Muslim liberal living in Egypt, writer and journalist.
Let’s start by asking how a guy like you – quite a party goer – becomes a Polish Muslim?
Not so long ago, on the gate of a Swiss embassy I saw posters done by some Swiss artist. One of them showed an image of a rebelled youngster from the 70s – a punk; but a rebelled youngster in the 2000s is a bearded European guy with a gun who converted to Islam, became a Jihadi. Nowadays many people really do convert to Islam to overcome their frustrations. But why others, not just crazies and frustrated people, decide to become Muslim? It’s hard to say, it’s very personal, every religion is. I converted about 16 years ago, for spiritual reasons. My Islam is totally different now than it was at the beginning. I came a long way from a neophyte to a Muslim liberal.
Why don’t you try and convert our readers, tell us what is so cool about Islam, what was it that attracted you? And why Islam and not Buddhism or Catholic Youth movement or yoga?
I never try to convert anyone, proselytism is completely alien to me. Why did I choose Islam? I don’t know. Christianity has always been very strong in my family; it was something that I was forced into and I haven’t got any nice memories from that period – going to church, or being morally oppressed by the religion. I have been keen on various religions since I was a child. I was reading scripts and books and it just clicked. Perhaps it was also because of my frustrations, I needed a religion that would bring order into my life. I was of course drinking and behaving badly, I wasn’t using many drugs, marijuana more so. I felt lost..
If I was to advertise Islam…It’s an all day, holistic system that totally regulates the life of a person who is serious about it. And converts do treat their new religion really seriously, I was the same. The converts start living in accordance to a certain religious schedule, in accordance to prayers for example. They come in, very strongly into haram and halal zone, that is, into what’s forbidden and what’s not. Many people stop drinking or eating one thing but start eating something else. Touch this, don’t touch that and this puts a person into a rhythm; rhythm of dogmas which in my opinion, calms the new convert a lot. And I think most of them are quite happy with that.
You start with an extreme mess and enter an extreme order?
Yes, it’s putting the feeling of being lost, the chaos, or anarchy in their minds, heart or life, back in order. No other religion, I believe, regulates so much the way people dress, what they eat and how they should have sex. This is something that attracts many people. There’s also the question of power. In this religion, the element of power, certain kind of violence – not only in the negative way but also in a way of reacting to itself, to the believer and to others – is very important. This power, its dynamics is transmitted to the convert. He feels very powerful, feels the backup of the community, which, right now, amounts to about a million and a half; the community where the word of god is preached where it is considered as the only one, the dominant one; the word of god that has been chosen and prophesied to be the future of the world. One feels that one enters a very strong community. Although there is a division in Islam, it is a different kind of community than a Christian one. Christianity, with few exceptions is very smooth, sluggish, liberal and democratic. Islam is like an army, because it’s a religion that is based on battle. This battle, this jihad – in a broad sense – is yet another element which by some people going to Syria is understood only in one way – as killing infidels. However, the battle with oneself, the soft version of jihad, is very important for the converts, and that element isn’t present in Christianity.
Next thing – sex. Many people think that extramarital sex is forbidden in Islam but sex itself is very much present in Islam. It’s hard to grasp it but this domination of man over woman, this patriarchal system which has been present in Islam from it’s very beginning, it’s very attractive for young, frustrated, often not too handsome guys. I remember that – these were experiences of my fellow converts. There were a lot of guys who struggled with these things. If a guy is unattractive, small and has no girlfriend then if he grows a beard, if he surrounds himself with bunch of other guys who constantly say that a woman is inferior, that she’s weaker and needs to be dominated, this builds him up. Some neophytes, who wish to go to Syria, are lured by the vision of getting sex slaves and concubines, and all those women they will rule over, as it’s said in Quran. Also, it’s hard not to underestimate the vision of constant afterlife sexual pleasures with beautiful virgins, after all it’s something that God has promised.
What in this case attracts women?
We must remember the spiritual side and the faith the converts put in God – there are those who choose the Sufi Islam – these are gentle people and I know them too. It’s mystical Islam, it’s not dangerous, it’s non-invasive. Apart from this spiritual aspect, women often convert to Islam because of their Muslim husbands or his family, especially if they are going to live there. They want to feel good, dress up as Muslim women do, not to be the object of interest of other men because a woman believes that if she covers herself up in jellabiya or hijab she usually is safe, no more subject to attacks, unwanted touching etc. although some women do have a certain inkling towards submission
The word „Islam” means to surrender. It’s a mystical, spiritual surrendering to God. It also depends on how we understand God, it can be a very beautiful thing. However, a large group of converts treat this act of surrender as an act of giving up thinking, critical thinking, and relying on a deity, dogmas and a huge army of believers who act accordingly to those dogmas. It’s an act of joining the brotherhood. And women who feel that “they don’t belong” in a modern world, they have this element present – the element of surrendering to a man, a man who is supposed to provide for everything, whose duty is to provide food for the family, give shelter, take care of the financial side of life. It attracts many women. Apart from of course, I must stress this, natural religious and spiritual needs.
Your Islam is different now – as you said it’s liberal. Can you say something about this initial period and how come you didn’t go to Syria?
What was my path? I’m quite an open person, always have been. I have been reading books ever since I was a child and the more I grow the more difficult topics I try to tackle. I have studied philosophy, only for my own pleasure, not as a potential profession. I think visiting Egypt played quite a large part in this evolution. Back then my views were not orthodox but they were conservative and I thought I will find a world of my own there, a world for me and my family. What I saw was something that I could describe as a realistic socialism – a realistic Islam.
Egypt’s community live Islam but in a way different to what I have imagined. Besides, I experienced two revolutions and what was happening after the first one, what was happening during the rule of Muslim Brotherhood, it all had its effect on me. I was experiencing this bare, everyday reality of Muslim community.
Even before the first revolution I saw something that was not my Islam, something that didn’t belong to my spirituality, my mentality, or to what I was accustomed to, something that didn’t relate in any way to how I perceived the world. It’s because I’m a man who has a European mentality, mentality of the West, which of course does not prevent me from accepting any sort of spirituality or religion of the East or Islam. However, the Western way of perceiving world – democratic, open, based on ideas of the age of enlightenment – it clashes with Islam, with the mainstream Islam. There is no connection. It’s like vinegar and alcohol, they may seem similar but they won’t ever meet. Besides, me, a fan of Gombrowicz’s work [a Polish satirist writer] – I can’t read Gombrowicz and at the same time be a Polish Muslim conservative, can I? (laughing).
Mainstream Islam ideas do not at all correlate – in any way, or at least in almost any way – to the Western way of thinking. They do not fit Western intellectual who I consider myself to be. Although it’s not always like that: Heidegger was a fascist and so were many other intellectuals and in our country, many great intellectuals were communist.
But eventually they have woken up.
They have woken up but maybe they were just lying to themselves. I was also doing that – in many things that concerned Islam I was lying to myself, I had this wishful thinking I just wanted it to be like this. Many converts are like that too. Somewhere deep inside I felt it’s not like that but all the doubts were being swept away under the carpet because a Muslim should behave like this or like that and should live according to Islam. However, I had this feeling inside me that it clashes with my liberal, democratic way of perceiving the world.
The intelligence services are mainly interested in the newly converted because if we look at all the people behind the attacks, it’s mainly them.
But the ones behind the attacks in Europe are not European converts – they are Arabs.
Yes, most of them are the so called new Muslims.
New Muslims, the nominal Muslims, who used to drink and done all the things that are forbidden in Islam and then came back to Islam to, in a way, repent for their sins or because they fell prey to some imams who embrace that kind of people – lost, frustrated, jobless, rejected also by the European communities – and point them to the way of violence.
I think most people who convert to Islam make a crucial mistake – they become Arabic, oriental. One convert once told me “as Muslims we will never escape, you will never escape the Orient” to which I replied “why not? I did. I have nothing to do with Arabic way of perceiving Islam. It can be done.”
It’s like our Tatars [a very well integrated Polish Muslim minority living In Poland since 14th century].
Yes. They only kept some elements of it in the way they dress, in the designs of their carpets or oriental architecture of mosques, but all of that it’s not very important. It’s possible, yes. Even in the World of Orient there are various versions of Islam. There is the terrifying Pakistani Islam, the terrifying Afghan Islam, but we also have the Malaysian Islam which is much more liberal. In Europe, we have Bosnian Islam or Bulgarian Pomaks. In Islam itself there are various interpretations and various groups. The converts, for example those in Poland, immediately convert to Arabic Islam.
Why do they go into Arabic Islam when they have the Tatars here?
Because a convert wants to have a strong Islam, not an Islam with Tatar style pierogi or folk dancing in mosque. Converts want order in their dogma world – that will give them strength, that will bring rhythm, that will give meaning to their life, give them a religious kick. There is no Turkish Islam here for example. We have Sufi Islam but it’s not for everybody and besides, it’s a form of Islam where the boundaries between Islam and something else, a certain philosophical-mystical world, are not clearly defined. Sufism is quite a difficult, intellectual challenge.
You also wanted order in your world?
Was it a shock for you? The clash with the realistic Islam of Egypt?
No, it was happening in stages. It’s when I began to see what the female circumcision was or the honour killings. There aren’t many honour killings in Egypt but the circumcisions are quite common. Every Muslim man or woman will tell you that it has nothing to do with Islam. And yes, it’s not part of Islam dogma but even so, a lot of Egyptian Imams support it and so do Coptic priests. Both are afraid to admit it because it’s forbidden.
Egyptians however, are very nice and friendly people. I like them a lot and I feel quite well among them. I’ve never experienced any acts of aggressions. Some of them are primitive, simple, naïve, backward people – level of education is quite low there – but in everyday life they are very welcoming and nice and not at all arrogant. Polish arrogance, that is so common here and I’ve been talking about it for many years – it’s not there. Seriously, I have not seen any arrogance there.
It’s a very religious community and very tight – they are smiling but they act different when they are at home with family, different when they’re interacting with other Egyptians and different when they talk to a foreigner. It’s very difficult to get through to their world.
I’ve lived there for 8 years and I still don’t consider myself to be some super expert. But we need to keep investigating this world because it’s dangerous – in a way it’s a danger to European culture because we are talking about masses of people who live in poverty and they want to come here. And vast majority crossing the borders will not suddenly drop their Islamic, traditional habits that are so alien to the West. They won’t drop them because they cannot live or function without them.
You said female circumcision is not regulated by religion but by society?
They’re both connected. Female circumcision, or mutilation more like, is connected to sexuality of course. Women are being mutilated so that they wouldn’t experience any sexual pleasures; to subjugate them even more to the man, to make the man feel secure knowing that mutilation stops women from having any sexual needs. Islamic dogmas and Quran, and Sunna all say that a woman must be subordinate to a man, so there is the chain connecting it all. Female mutilation is so to speak, crowning of these religious dogmas, even though they don’t directly imply it.
Some Muslims say there are certain hadiths, their origin is quite doubtful though, speaking in favour of female circumcision.
Well if there is something that fits, even if it’s not very credible, one will use it. If it doesn’t fit, well one will not use it. There are plenty of hadiths, so you can practically have an answer to anything you want. But it’s like that in every religion. One can interpret Christianity through the Inquisition or through the great love or through the mystical love master Eckhart was talking about. It’s all a matter of interpretation.
Another thing for example: virginity tests – checking if a woman is still a virgin. It’s not found in Islamic dogma either but hadiths would read that a woman, and man too, cannot have pre-marital intercourse. You can’t check a guy but you can check a woman. Hence, we have this cruel virginity test which they try and bypass – gynaecologists are importing large quantities of fake hymen from China and then fit them in. Chinese are happy to produce – these hymens are quite cheap, of course they come with a little container with blood. There are also hymen reconstruction surgeries, they are more expensive and rich Egyptian women, before they get married, they go to Western countries and have it professionally done. There is a great movie dealing with the problem – “Caramel” by Lebanese director Nadine Labaki.
You said that two Egyptian revolutions shaped the Muslim you are today. What was the influence?
First two and a half years I’ve been there, before the revolution, everyone was living in a police controlled state and the society was frozen. It was like life in Syria where I spent a month. It was quiet, safe if you stayed away from politics. It was acceptable. Bearable. It was hard not to appreciate it because there are always wars and conflicts in those regions.
It was very comfortable for me as a foreigner, and for other foreigners I knew, to live in that society back then, so I wasn’t really occupying myself too much with Egyptian matters – politics, social, moral. I wrote one book in a year. It was called “Home” and it was about my first year in Egypt, it’s mainly positive about all things Egyptian.
First revolution was about overthrowing the dictator who was in power for the past 30 years, it was about abolishing dictatorship, that started in the 50s, in general. De facto, Arab society has never experienced any sort of democracy, it doesn’t know what a democracy is – what it means in a sense of a day to day life or in a sense of law and regulations.
After revolution, as it usually happens, all the dirt came up. Independent media, more or less independent, became active and they are still active today, and they started talking and writing about things that were forbidden before.
And things you didn’t know about either.
Yes. I started reading, people started telling me things and talking amongst each other – they stopped being afraid, at least in that first period. With my Egyptian friends, we were talking about things we never talked about before. I became aware of things I wasn’t before.
For example, about the female circumcision we spoke of earlier. Although it’s not directly connected to political revolution, it wasn’t spoken of before; or about virginity tests, or oppression towards women, that was never topic of the conversation.
I was reading that the men were angrily forcing all the women, who were protesting with them, to go back to their homes and not to go out protesting again. People who oppose government feel upset by their own behaviour. They feel that it’s them creating the chaos in the society which was of course controlled by the police and they were fighting the police, but it was a stable, regulated society – everyone was behaving in accordance to certain stable, religious rules. Suddenly these things disappear, they break, women walk beside men and they’re also shouting “no more Mubarak, no more dictators”. And the men got angry. They felt insecure. Ok we topple Mubarak but women should go home. .
I remember revolution on Tahrir square, there was this feeling of enthusiasm, but later I read that women are being raped there, and it wasn’t the police, it was the protesters themselves. Women were being molested on a big scale and not only on Tahrir square. It was happening before, but after the revolution it literally exploded because in Egypt, after the revolution, it wasn’t only the police or national security that broke down. Usually after an uprising the morality becomes a bit more relaxed and people are letting themselves go, so to speak and in this kind of society sex is a taboo, so suddenly when there is no police well… heaven can wait! And so, they started attacking women and women got very scared.
Similar things happen when Ramadan ends. There’s a three-day holiday called Id al-Fitr when women stay at home because they’re afraid. No one really knows why. We can observe this thing called taharrush – women are being publicly mass molested; the culprits are usually and mostly young boys. You can see hordes of blokes stalking women. After a month of a strict fasting and limited sexual relations (although allowed after sunset) guys seem to feel a need to release the tension of that holy month by abusing women. No one has ever explained that phenomena as to why it is happening with such a force and at that time. It must be some sort of black mysticism, middle age style reaction to fasting and renouncing.
I was talking to one Egyptian psychiatrist and I was comparing this to the period of Black Death, when people were having sex in cemeteries. It was a period when sanctity was somehow being mixed with profanum, sin with something holy. And after Ramadan, when they no longer need to think about God all the time, or remember that they can’t eat, drink, have a smoke, touch a woman, they let go of sexual restraints. It’s terrible for women, they go and hide.
It’s a certain common feature of these Muslim societies, that suppressed sexual drive, it’s very important in that religion and it’s often underappreciated by political analysts. They go and analyse the world of Islam and completely avoid sexuality, but it is so very important. It influences politics or even foreign policy of these countries. It’s a bit like Europe before renaissance.
In Muslim societies religion supersedes sex. On one hand Islam allows practically unlimited sex within marriage but any other sexual relations, according to dogmas are punishable by whipping or death. It’s not easy for a man to acquire a wife (and it is an appropriate word). Marriage in Islam is a kind of contract, a buy and sell thing, and an attractive wife costs a lot of money. Not many can afford one. This frustrates a lot of guys and lead to a lot of fixations, specially connected to sexuality. Statistically, Muslim countries are world’s leaders when it comes to the number of people watching pornography and have the highest ratings of violence against women. 95% – 97% of Egyptian women are being abused. Extramarital sex does exist of course but in society its marked as “haram” (forbidden) and can lead to a strong feeling of guilt both in men and women. It’s feeling guilty of breaking God’s laws as it was God who prohibited extramarital sex and commanded stoning [secret] lovers.
This irrational rubbish is very deeply rooted in the sub consciousness of millions of people. Hence, Islamic scholars but also people themselves create various regulations just to bypass God’s severe laws. For example Shia people have so called mut’a – a temporary marriage, while Sunnis have misjar – a trip marriage. There have been many occasions when I was calling my Egyptian friends and heard them giggling replying “I’ll ring you back, I’m on a trip”. In Iran, clerics were trying to tackle prostitution issue by creating so called Houses of Purity, which were in fact religious brothels where a paying client would have to perform certain religious ceremonies, then sign a contract with a prostitute in front of an Imam, let’s say for an hour, and then as husband and wife they could go and lock themselves in a room. The Guardians of the Revolution would supervise if the contracted time was not breached. Everyone would be happy and most of all Allah himself up in the sky. These Houses of Purity were only introduced in some of the cities, the Parliament is yet to officially approve the idea. In Saudi Arabia, where extramarital sex is punishable by death, the newspapers are full of adverts such as: “attractive, wealthy engineer (55 years old, 100% Saudi Arabian) is looking for a pleasant, slim lady (16-40) for a trip marriage. Very high marriage fee.”
For Muslims, religious law is an obsession, and bypassing it is their passion.
Enough travel, let’s go back to politics – you were talking about the first revolution.
After that the army started controlling everything and there were supposed to be elections. First democratic elections in the history of Egypt, foreign observers said that they were almost completely free of interference. There were two candidates: Ahmad Shafiq who was basically Mubarak’s puppet, the old government, and Muhammad Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptians were so afraid that they will end up back under the rule of the old governemt that they were voting for Morsi who won by 3%. People didn’t vote for him because they loved him, but because they didn’t want the old establishment back in power.
More liberal parties didn’t stand a chance?
No, because they are not united. There isn’t any, and more importantly – during the revolution, there was no Arab equivalent of Havel or Walesa.
Perhaps Musrsi was like Walesa? Walesa was also very religious – he had a pin of Holy Mother of God on the lapel of his jacket.
No, no. There is no analogy between Islamic and Christian fundamentalism. You can’t compare Rydzyk [a prominent Polish ultra-conservative priest] to Bin Laden. We can compare Torquemada, the inquisitor, to Bin Laden but that was hundreds of years ago. Not right now. In Europe, Christian fundamentalists are pathetic, arrogant often dogmatic, bigots and fanatics but they don’t kill anyone or don’t call for killing. They don’t want to mutilate women, kill them in the name of honour or stone them. There is no comparison at all.
But what about the elections?
The Egyptians voted for the Muslim Brotherhood because for them it was the lesser evil. If Shafiq had won, probably all of Mubarak’s people would have come back and a year later there would be another, more terrifying revolution.
There was another one anyway.
Yes, but during the second one, it was the Muslim Brotherhood that was abolished. They didn’t fix the economy and people were still poor. There really is poverty there, nearly 40% of population live on two dollars a day. The Brotherhood not only failed to turn Egypt into a second Qatar, as they promised, but they also clashed with the army who controls at least 20% of the economy. The Brotherhood had no connections in the army, or in the police. They of course tried to take over the police but that’s absolutely impossible.
The Brotherhood started islamisation of the country, and it wasn’t a slow process – it was quite quick, done within 12 months. For example, they started closing down the liquor stores, rising alcohol, tobacco and shisha tax. Shisha was not allowed in coffee shops anymore and shisha smoking is a very old and common tradition…
Of course, people were still smoking it, hiding in dark corners, they were buying their own shishas to smoke on balconies but it’s an old tradition of sitting, drinking coffee and smoking shisha together not on your own on your balcony. This ban was quickly revoked and they admitted “we were wrong”. The Brotherhood started creating Muslim only hotels at the seaside, not in Hurghada but bit down south.
You were only allowed to sunbathe wearing burqini and of course there was no alcohol sold there. I even remember they wanted to introduce a rule, like in Pakistan, that policemen were allowed to grow beards and that is banned in Egypt.
And of course, Morsi decided to change the constitution. The president has no rights there but he decided to have them. New constitution proposed by the Brotherhood negated whatever was left of democracy that at least theoretically was present in the old constitution – also with sharia law elements. He wanted to implement constitution based on sharia law, based on manifesto of Hasan al-Banna – the founder of the Brotherhood, based on works of Sajjad Khutba, the ideologist of Brotherhood who was sentenced to death by Nasser. And that constitution project shook the Egyptians up. Egyptians, very religious people, didn’t want it.
Why the Egyptians, very religious people, as you said, didn’t want this religious constitution?
This is the paradox of that country – each Arab country is different so I’m not saying it relates to all of these countries but to Egypt only – people want to be religious, they want strong religious elements in the country but they don’t want sharia. They want to have this democratic feel that would allow them to buy alcohol for example – they buy a lot of alcohol, just next to where I live there are five shops selling alcohol. They need to feel that they can actually have a lover or a “travel wife” and that there will be no bearded policeman, like they have in Saudi Arabia, and that they will not be killed or stoned for having a lover. But apart from that, the Egyptians want religion in TV, because they can always switch to porn channel or some other satellite channel, but officially they want the country and its institutions to be moral. They don’t want Islam to be absent from family life but they also don’t want too much Islam. They don’t want too much freedom but they also don’t want too much Sharia. It may be a bit hypocritical but it could as well be comfort..
So, the Egyptians, religious people, got mad that a law is being forced onto them, a law which de facto is a law of their religion. That was too much for them besides, as I said, the economy was even worse than before, and new government couldn’t manage. They couldn’t because the Muslim Brothers knew nothing about the economy. Mubarak’s men were crooks and thievs but they knew what they were doing, they knew how to run a police controlled country. So, millions of people hit the streets. The army knew it, the army even fuelled it and they joined the people straight away, they had to join. Muslim Brotherhood had no forces of their own, only some squads and the army, and the police – these were a country within a country. They were always clashing Muslim Brotherhood.
Sisi, the Minister of Defence in Brotherhood’s cabinet, he was an army man, not a Morsi man?
Of course, Sisi was an army man. I think he was planning it and waiting for the right moment. I was often told that in the Polish media it was described as coup, a military revolt. It was not a coup. It was a spontaneous act of people flooding the streets – I don’t think it was arranged in any way – it began as people’s revolt. Of course, army knew about it and was only waiting to back people up in the right moment.
You can’t force 15 million people to hit the streets and yet the army was prepared for such event?
Yes. Tens of helicopters went up in the sky – Egyptian flags attached, they were circling round and dropping leaflets printed in advance “Army with the people”. And people welcomed it enthusiastically. Today, if you point to the fact that the Egyptians made a full circle, that they went from one dictatorship to another then one must remember that over 80% of people support the army meaning that there is 20% of Muslim Brotherhood supporters. The Egyptians support the army because it’s a practical thinking – it’s impossible for army not to be in government, because otherwise, as Egyptians are saying “if there’s no army we will have second Syria.”
Do you also think so?
Yes, I do. Unfortunately, there can’t be no army there. Unfortunately, various comments, articles found in the internet, say that there must be a whip there. Kaddafi was in power and it was OK, Assad was in power and it was OK, Nasser was in power and it was also OK. That’s tricky. That’s ill wishing to people who live there. Let them sit in their cages and stay away from us as long as we get to keep our peace. But they can’t stay in their cages forever; sooner or later, in that world that is becoming more and more democratic, in this modern world, it will all blow up. They see it all and they can’t keep sitting in those cages. They also want freedom, although they don’t quite know what freedom is.
How much the fact that it’s not a democratic society is down to Islam and how much down to tradition and historic lack of democracy? You say that there must be an army, strong leader. For me, a liberal person it’s something horrible. I’ve always thought that you can’t say these people aren’t mature enough to have democracy, or that they don’t deserve it.
You can’t say they don’t deserve democracy but you can say they’re not mature enough to have it. Lack of democratic thinking, lack of democracy, it’s not something that comes from outside, it’s the people who do not have democracy inside. Because democracy cannot be introduced by “Hey! Let’s have democracy!” Democracy is being created through generations, you must have democracy inside you.
So what is it with democracy that they haven’t got it?
Religion. In their religion, in that interpretations of Islam there is no room for democracy. It’s a hierarchical system: a child, a woman, a man, a leader. This Arab dogma is so archaic that I could even say it’s tribal, it’s patriarchal. It’s always been based on a cult of some emir, sultan, sheik. It’s emphasising tribal, not individual, way of thinking. Criticising holy words of God and almost holy words of prophet is forbidden, so critical way of thinking has disappeared. Islam is a religious system free from any cycles; there has been no intellectual shake ups like in the West where we had various eras – Renaissance, Enlightenment and other ideological revolts that come and go in Europe. And of course there’s the lack of education..
In early Islam, there was a mu’tasilite movement – rationalists’ movement that was banned in 13th century. Bassam Tibi thought it was because the movement wasn’t very popular in the society, that it was more individual.
It was happening within small groups which, in Andalusia, were able to influence the whole society. The society of Andalusia has been created for a few hundreds of years and by three communities: Arabic, Jewish and Christian. It wasn’t strictly Islamic, most of the people were Christian, of Visigothic origin. Even the Almoravids and Almohads on their own, took the splendour of that world.
One thing that still needs some clarification is why this creative, dynamic, glorious Arab civilisation collapsed. What has actually happened in 14th,15th century when that world, full of all that science, fell. There isn’t one straightforward answer to that – whether it was the Mongolians who murdered all the scientists and burned all libraries or was it the Reconquista and the banishing, or something else. I think it was all of that together but one main factor that destroyed culture and critical civilisation of Islam were the desert sheiks from Algeria and Morocco – Almoravids and Almohads – Islamic fanatics – it was them who raided and demolished it all.
And imam has won. Religious fanatics and desert dogmas destroyed Islamic science and humanism. And from that time, it was only going downhill. The black holes of 15th, 16th and 17th century when nothing was happening. There was only poverty and Turkish rule.
It wasn’t until 19th century, under the influence of ideas of the age of Enlightenment, which were somehow getting there from Europe – for example through Napoleon – when Islam started looking for a bridge to the modern world, it started to question and think critically. There was one famous Egyptian sheik and innovator, Mohammad Abduh, the president of Al Azhar, who was a free thinker and a freemason. It’s unthinkable now, freemasons are banned from Egypt and from Arab countries I think.
In a similar way, Al Afgani tried to slowly modernise Islam. It was Abduh who said that famous sentence after his trip to West Europe: “I went to Europe and I haven’t seen any Muslims but I saw a lot of Islam. I went back to Egypt and I can see many Muslims but I see no Islam.” For him, Islam meant freedom, democracy, critical thinking, no dogmas, no traditionalism. But these were all petty movements.
Because the world of Islam is traditionalism. It’s a world that’s based on a traditionalist thinking that contradicts the modern world which is going faster and faster, it’s galloping and creates things that amaze most Muslims. For at least several decades there have been so many things happening in science, technology, Western humanistic science, that the Islamic world, based on traditionalism, is struggling to cope with it. Many Muslims are scared of this ideological, but most of all, scientific and technological curiosity.
Orthodox Muslims want everyone to come back to the desert, to wear sandals and harem pants. They require going into bathroom with your left foot first and get out with your right foot first, they talk about God’s wrath and Judgement Day; the Jihadists destroy everything that’s modern, they kill “infidel” scientists and intellectuals, they burn libraries, blow up ancient buildings and New York towers. Placed side by side with nanotechnology, iPhones, fake clouds, Google glasses, virtual interface, artificial liver and Mars travel, the Islamic world appears to be horribly, grotesquely archaic. That world feels inferior to the West, it’s boiling with jealousy and envy. It wants the West but at the same time rejects it. We want God to speak to us from every infidel made inventions – that’s the dream of hundreds of Muslim men and women – from iPhones, smartphones, kindles, computers, we want every nano particle and quantum dot, every interface, every retina implant to shout Allahu Akbar – God is greatest. We are afraid that Allah will die – murdered by modern ways of “infidels”. It is a fascination mixed with fear.
All these things done by Jihadists, terrorists, fundamentalists, their aggression, it is fear. Fear of the unknown, the alien, the new, that something that can actually destroy the world of their fathers. That’s why Jihadists hate Tunisia, and most of the Jihadists come from there. Because Tunisia is very open to everything modern, to the West. Japanese and Koreans, they are also part of the Western world, they accept modern ways but keep their traditions and skilfully blend the two together.
Why can’t Arab, Muslim countries do it too?
How can I say it so it sounds right… Because they are infected with religious dogmas that are so, so strong and made even stronger through generations. There has been no reformation, so it’s so terribly traditionalist and the religious thought is so stiff that people can’t shake it off. They can’t go past this dogmatic, traditionalist, fundamentalist thinking so they don’t think critically, they don’ create. Religion and the religious system, in any religion, excludes democracy and open style society.
Arab, Muslim societies are closed societies, because that’s what their religion states. In order to have democracy, freedom, one needs to turn the religion upside down, reinterpret it completely, read it in a completely different way. And to do that, one needs education, openness. Its’ not present there so that religious stiffness is still there. There will be no democracy there, we won’t manage to implement if externally.
But there is education there. Most people are educated.
Most people are not educated. Most people, if they are educated are educated to embarrassingly low standards. It’s unimaginable. It’s like Poland, I don’t know, at the beginning of 18th century somewhere in a remote village. There’s nothing apart from that and then there’s the elite – those educated at the American University of Cairo or in few top universities in other Muslim countries. There is no middle class.
In such cases the critics always say: “What about Indonesia? It’s the biggest Muslim country and it’s democratic.”
There’s no democracy there.
There are elections there.
There were elections being held in Egypt too and in many other countries, and in Russia. Which country hasn’t got the elections? I don’t know any Muslim country that does not hold elections, even Mauretania. There is no democracy in Indonesia, the same way as there is no democracy in a country that is so often presented by conservative people as an example of a well-functioning and rich police controlled country – Singapore.
Is Singapore some sort of positive example for Arab countries?
No, Muslims in Egypt they look up to Qatar because it’s mega rich and they would love to be there. In Qatar, Emirates or Kuwait there was no revolution. There was one in Bahrain, also a very rich country, but the revolution was Sunni – Shia disputes. Being rich solves a lot of problems. If our, Polish, government managed to boost up the economy, how many of us would give up democracy? Egyptians are also looking up to Turkey, but Turkey is not so popular as it was backing Morsi.
Turkey has a history of decades of being under secular military dictatorship and there has been a massive, unimaginable de-islamisation. Egyptians can’t see it?
As you can see the experiment that lasted a few decades didn’t work and religion is back. All these people who went out and hit the streets to back Erdogan up, do you think they were forced?
Why do the Egyptians like Turkey so much?
There is much better standard of living compared to Egypt. There’s more freedom – when you look at the press, everyday life in large Turkish cities, there’s lot more freedom.
Let’s get back to religious dogmas. Christianity used to be dogmatic too.
Now we have Anglicanism, Protestantism, there’s the Reformed Church and they are no longer part of Latin church. In the world of Islam there is no such thing, the core, the base is Arabic. Quran theoretically is only in Arabic; the translations are no longer Quran. This Arabisation of Islam is one of the elements stopping this religion from evolving, it’s preventing thought evolving in this religion.
This whole religion, with all it’s dogmas, it never “left the desert”. Even in Turkey, or in Bosnia, you can feel the breeze of Orient. Islam must get rid of this Arab Orient, maybe leave the safe elements like the prayer carpet or even praying in Arabic (in Church even till the 60s there were prayers in Latin) because the Arab understanding of the world – desert like, old, archaic, patriarchal – is present in any place and in any Muslim country. Even though Malaysian Islam is different to the one in Egypt, they do have a common ground but the ground is more Egyptian than Malaysian. There are no mosques, circles or Muslim communities that are not related to Arab interpretation.
Hadn’t Charles Martel defeat the Muslims in 722 they would have gone on and taken over some European countries and today we would have Swedish or Dutch Islam. Wouldn’t this Swedish, German or Polish Islam – if Muslims got that far – forget that Arab element? Perhaps these countries would be as much Islamic as mu’tasilite – as in, they would have nothing to do with Arab Islam? It’s only a hypothesis – that this European world would be totally separated from this Arabic, oriental world. Orientalism is a curse of Muslim world.
What would this separation do – since Arabs got as far as let’s say Indonesia and there’s also Arabisation of Islam there.
Yes, that is a valid point but this Arab core, this Arab dogma is so strong that this religion doesn’t know how to exit the desert. In some countries its less desert-like, in others – more so. For example, in Bosnia or Turkey – it does accept some local elements but it still is a desert religion, which is a pre-enlightenment interpretation and has no relation to European critical thinking.
You’re saying it clashes with modern world, democracy and with science…
Yes, it accepts tools but not ideas. It happily takes the tools, but rejectsthe ideas..
…that fundamentalism is a reaction to this modern world, that it’s afraid that this modern world will change Islam, that it will destroy tradition they cling on to so much, the religion. From what you are saying there are three options. One – that the situation as it is, will continue – that we will continue having more or less bloodied conflict between Islam fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists and the West. Second – that the West will cut itself off from Islam, or other way round.
Impossible. In today’s world, such separation is impossible.
Well, if the world will not need oil anymore, and soon it will not need all these economical things that the world of Islam can offer…
There’s almost nothing except oil and natural gas. Nothing.
…then the Western world won’t need the world of Islam anymore. And there’s the third option – that there will come some sort of modernisation. Turkey was heading that path, right?
Yeah but dropped it.
But these critical thinking individuals, critical thinking groups in Islam, they did grow?
They did grow and they’re still growing because there’s internet and these groups are working better and better. At the same time, however, that Islamic world is growing too – there are so many kids being born there, they are not being educated, they do not develop. Just in Egypt alone the population is growing by two millions each year. They are joining the army of frustrated non-educated people. And those frustrated people are turning to God, to the magical way of thinking. And the fact that there’s a growing number of oppositionists and democratic forces it doesn’t mean that they will start winning – because there is also a growing number of people connected to traditionalism, conservatism, people who are not educated, poor, who lack knowledge and have no hope.
I keep putting hope in opposition or liberal movements in Islam but I don’t know if it’s not wishful thinking. It’s still not enough. These people often call for a reform that is a bit of a cosmetic solution. There aren’t many people who actually say “we must get rid of this and that from Quran or Sunna”
You did say it.
Yes, certain thing we must re read, re-interpret in an allegorical, symbolical spirit, but a lot of things must be dropped just as it happened in Judaism. The Old Testament is much bloodier than the Quran yet Jews don’t murder and have never murdered others, on the contrary – it was them who were being murdered. It’s because they have always had so many thoughts, schools, trends and styles and all these considered that Old Testament violence either as symbol, allegory or specific to time and place. In Quran, everything is literal, all the time through centuries. That’s madness.
We have words of prophets in Judaism, they were inspired by God, in Quran we have the word of God.
Yes, and Muslims are scared to touch it – that’s the word of God so it would mean destroying the sanctity, so it would be haram. If it’s haram it means punishment. You will be punished. Whoever touches it will suffer eternal hell. This world is afraid of thinking because it’s scared that God will punish it.
There was an idea that this new Islam will be created in Europe. Bassam Tibi said it, Gilles Kepel from France. That these Muslims who come to Europe, they will be influenced by our world and they will create this European Islam but it looks like it’s other way round – that it’s the European Islam that’s being converted to Arab Islam or even Wahhabite Islam. This idea of European Islam was an idea from the age of Enlightenment.
That didn’t work out. There are of course think-tanks and some Muslim thinkers’ movements in Europe but they are tiny. But it didn’t help Islamic dogmas because it stems from this fear that the word of God will be altered and from the lack of education – even in Europe. These Muslim communities are far worse educated than the Europeans. And that is the reason why Europeans reject them and that’s the vicious circle – they all keep rejecting each other.
And there is a lack of great people, reformers. Islam hasn’t produce Walesa or Havel, Luther or Calvin. Simply because if they appeared, they would get murdered.
What about Tariq Ramadan?
Tariq Ramadan is a fundamentalist, a crypto fundamentalist. Pointless even talking about it. These fundamentalist forces in Europe are so strong and efficient that even though they are small, the Islamic reformers are scared. Someone who would start sharing such vison in mosques, interpret Islam the way we spoke of earlier, they would need to accept the fact that they would get killed.
If you were an Arab and you were saying the things you are saying, would you be murdered?
Probably. But in Egypt there is an atheist TV and it broadcasts from Egypt. There are many things there. Some Egyptians are saying even more radical things – but that’s razor-thin. As long as they don’t tease the government, then the government leaves them alone. Fundamentalists are threatening them; some intellectuals and Muslim liberals were killed because of the religion but it’s not too common.
Let’s get back to the question about future. Progress will not stop…
No progress will not stop. There will be wars and they will be more intensive. People will be fleeing to Europe to escape the wars and poverty.
You mention demographic issues.
We must remember that there are a lot of Muslims being born in Europe itself. Not because of good welfare but because the religious command “populate and fill the Earth” is being treated literally. There will be more and more of these people. Nothing will stop these poor souls.
But that influx is not solving Europe’s demographic problems, it even adds to social issues.
Of course – its adds to social issues because, as we can see, majority of these people are struggling to assimilate and we, Europeans, are struggling to accept these people. We – some Europeans – are scared of Muslim migrants and the majority of those Muslims don’t want to accept European values because they’re haram. And so, they shut themselves in these capsules. If a capsule holds a few thousand people, it’s not a big problem but if we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people then we do have a problem. And these people keep coming.
So more and more of them are being born and migrants keep coming…
Immigration must be stopped and it will be stopped. I think it’s smaller now, we no longer hear about these masses of refuges. Europe realised it’s a problem.
We’re having a tiny break. You’re saying that Egypt’s population increases by two milliosn each year. The economy stands no chance to take them.
No. Neither does the Egyptian education system or healthcare.
What will happen to them?
These people will be swimming over to Europe
Europe will not be letting them in.
I don’t know how it can technically be done, there are talks about “help there”. It’s a very good idea but very difficult. How can one help countries torn by war or corruption? Ideas presented by far right-wing parties or by professor Wolniewicz, that we should start shooting at the boats, is pure cruelty and is out of discussion so we need a solution. We don’t know the solution though, and that’s an impasse.
Imagine that by some miracle you became an advisor to the European Union, and they all sit around you or rather they’re on their knees round you, and they say “will do anything, whatever you tell us to integrate Muslims in Europe. What must we do?”
Oh God, that’s a very tough question. I think the best way always is to educate Muslims, on a wider scale – starting from very young children – convincing them to democracy, to European values.
But these kids do attend normal European schools.
Yes, but they leave school and come back to their traditionalist homes, where their parents only watch their national TV, they only shop in halal shops, they go and pray in traditional mosques, they go to culture centres where they only learn about traditional Islam.
I’ve got this great friend in France, he’s Polish, left country in the 80s. His wife is French and they have a child. They live in Paris, in quite a good neighbourhood. He’s not racist or xenophobic. Few years ago, they sent their kid to preschool. “We had to take her back” he said “listen, nearly all the kids were coloured, they were Muslim and their parents were horrible. They were demanding all food to be halal, that girls who can already wear hijabs must wear them. The kids, even though they were only 5- 6 years old, they were very aggressive, dominating. We were afraid for our daughter.” They signed her up to private preschool and there also were coloured and Muslim kids, but they were from totally different environments, secular, liberal. And there were no issues with kids or parents because they were integrated and felt they are French citizens.
These fundamentalist, conservative communities are often poor. And they stay poor because they don’t learn, and they don’t learn because they are being rejected by the French – French or English or Germans they all move out from certain districts because they don’t want to live with the coloured anymore, and the coloured people behave in such a way that you can’t really live with them. And we have the vicious cycle.
Is there a way out if this vicious circle?
Breaking it – apart from lay education, forced education, there must be de-islamisation, de-radicalisation – even by force – of mosques and so called cultural centres. All the radical imams and hate preachers must be thrown out, even those semi fundamentalists. There must be a harsh treatment. I think it was done in Austria – they made all the imams learn local language, introduced culture, language and history tests for all the leaders of local Muslim communities. Force. I’m sorry for what I say, but they must be forced to integrate; all those Muslims who aggressively oppose European values, they must be removed, deported, have citizenship revoked which is very difficult to implement and sometimes some changes in constitutions are needed.
Another thing – the Western world should strongly support, finance, all the centres of liberal Muslim opposition. Here and there. There should be something like Radio Free Europe, television, media run by Muslims of course, even broadcast from here, with guest clerics who should gently and wisely present this world of freedom to other Muslims. There are some clerics, on my Facebook you can find a link to such imam, an Egyptian from Australia, who said on theEgyptian TV that Muslim women are allowed not to wear hijab. The host got so enraged that he started hitting him with a shoe – it’s an Arabic symbol of humiliation – and the filming crew had to separate them. It’s because he said something so horrible, so haram, that it was unthinkable. But such imam could actually be in a radio or TV and talk about it in a gentle way.
These are radical steps that must be taken. From the politically correct point of view, it’s totally incorrect but you really have to give a s** about it because we, our kids wake up one day and it will be too late – there will be so many radicalized Muslims that it will be too late to do anything at all. Muslims will be using democratic tools to take over the power – a bit like in Houellebecq’s “Submission” – a futuristic situation but not impossible. The strategy of beating liberals with their own weapon.
What about the scarf? Is it freedom of wearing whatever they want or a symbol of Islam?
Scarf yes, burqa no. Niqab, no.
What about burqini? We have mixed opinions even here in Euroislam.pl
Burqini ban is a total putdown for these women, Muslim women, who will have to stay at home.
But they go to the beach to demonstrate.
They go to the beach to have a swim.
But if a nudist girl wants to have a swim she goes to a nudist beach.
So you’re saying you want a Muslim only beaches?
No, not for Muslim women – only for women wearing burqini.
So for Muslim women mainly. Listen, that is a problem but everything should be regulated by law as precisely as possible. Because we are a world of law, world of constitution. Law should define what can be done and what is forbidden. Covering your face – burqa is forbidden because it’s depersonalising. Besides, there is the matter of safety, the threat of an attack. A guy wearing an armour and walking into a mall should also be stopped, or if he’s wearing balaclava. Woman wearing a scarf is no threat and that should be allowed.
I’m not talking about security but I’ve heard, even from Muslims, that a scarf is also an element of local islamisation.
Democracy makes the world uncertain, open. That’s why we won’t be able to establish here what is allowed – law should be able to define it – is burqini the final line? Or is it the scarf?
Scarf is an element that stems from religious oppression. Because it’s not the kind of scarf that an old woman in a Polish village would wear. An old woman would maybe wear it to church on Sunday but if she hadn’t worn it, no one would take a notice. But in Islam, a scarf is an element of a woman’s submission. Some wear the veil automatically and they don’t even think about it. Some Muslim women say I’m wearing the scarf because otherwise I feel naked. If Polish Muslim women say so, they are lying to themselves. It’s false, it’s been enforced. It’s enforced by either the woman herself – “if I don’t wear the scarf I will commit a sin because I will be seducing with my hair”, or by her husband or husband’s family and community. The scarf is not such a petty thing but also, I don’t think it should be forbidden, all of a sudden like burqini. Because by doing so we are not different to Muslim countries where going to beach wearing swimming suit is forbidden.
That modernisation or Westernisation, as some Muslim liberals call it, should be gradual, it shouldn’t be implemented too quickly. Anything happening too quickly creates a counter action. This should be a process of opening up for Muslims, especially for young ones, for children, opening them up to freedom. They should be shown that the Western world, democratic world is a good world. That there is room for Islam but for a different kind of Islam. Not for the one that contradicts this free democratic world.
Muslims react conversely when some new rules are being imposed on them. For example, banning certain piece of clothing – “oh not another ban”. Many of them don’t understand this democratic world, even if they live here. It’s a sin, something that is evil, forbidden. I’ve said it already that they are so immersed in this traditional thinking, this fear of God, that sometimes it’s not because they have some evil intentions but just because they are good people, they simply cannot accept this world. They will live with constant feeling of guilt, they won’t be able to sleep fearing that God will punish them.
You can compare it to that situation when priests were barring masturbation because God will punish you – and the boys who were masturbating lived in a constant fear that God will punish them one way or another, and sometimes it would lead to various perversions. Sex is a big thing in a religion, in every religion. These are two intertwined things – sex and religion. The more religion, the more sex – that is forbidden, suppressed.
To sum up – your recipe is to stop migration and change the approach that’s been prevailing for the past 40 years with regards to Muslim integration.
Yes, to stop the immigration but keep helping there. And don’t support dictators. I know it’s difficult – not paying the dictators. Assad, Mubarak – they are the products of bad American and European politics that was going on for decades. We kept them in power just to have peace and access to oil. Russians of course, were contributing to it by supporting their own dictators. Tyrants who were murdering and persecuting, and destroying every effort of implementing small internal democracy. They were also breeding the ever-growing armies of Islamists. The more of this secular, police controlled country, the more opposition we have from Islamists – when in fear God is dear. All these ghosts and demons, after Bush attacked Iraq, and it was a stupid attack, after they overthrew Hussein, it all exploded.
Every year I was visiting the police to extend my stay permit, I’ve always had to wait a long time together with my wife, in a big hall of Egyptian security services in Alexandria. I’ve always been treated nicely because I was a foreigner. We were sitting in a hall together with all the summoned individuals and nearly all of them had beards and were really terrified. It’s an example just to show you that these police controlled countries that we supported, it was them who created these Islamists.
Ok but you said it yourself that these are the societies that must be governed by dictators.
Because this is a vicious circle. It’s connected to the fact that in this religious dogma there is no democracy. And that religious dogma has been around for hundreds, hundreds of years. In this religion, there is no room for democracy.
Should we support the less strict dictators?
Yes, we should try and make deals with these tyrants – and that’s a utopia – to commit them to set some sort of road marks, some sort of direction for the democracy. But how to do it when corporations and governments get a lot of money from the oil and stabilisation that must be kept there for the tyrants to juggle their politics? Just like Erdogan who says: give us your money or else we’re going to flood you with immigrants. That’s a similar thing that Kaddafi used to say – don’t threaten us accusing us of killing people or else we’re going to cut off our oil supply. Very difficult situation.
So should we support Sisi or not?
Well.. support Sisi because without him, we will have Muslim Brotherhood again, or Salafists, and war will break out. If a war starts in Egypt, like it happened in Libya, it will be a terrible war. And it must be said that there’s Israel next door and they cannot afford a war, and there’s also the Suez Canal…but we should support Sisi by reassuring him: “Mr Marshal, please do this and that to develop democracy because it will be beneficial for us all.” And that’s how we get onto a path of political idealism.
But the West was thinking that moderate Islam, like Muslim Brotherhood, subjected to democracy would actually be getting more liberal. It didn’t work in Egypt. But what do you think about what Ghannushi (leader of Tunisian Islamists) said in Tunisia – that state should be separated from religion. Is it opportunism or his true beliefs?
It’s hard to say because it’s politics. But hope lies in Tunisia, it’s Tunisia not Turkey that gives us hope that the world of Islam, Muslim countries can slowly head towards democracy. Let’s keep an eye on Tunisia but let’s remember that this is the reason – the fact that it is being open to democracy, at least in Arab terms – that it’s so often being attacked and hated by Islamic fundamentalists. It’s being attacked so that the economy would go down and people turn to fundamentalism.
How is it that fundamentalism is getting more and more popular, even though people in Muslim countries have wider access to the Internet? Communists were trying to cut society off any sources of knowledge about what the West looks like and people in Muslim countries have a far better access to such knowledge. How is it that they do not rebel against these hardened dogmas, tradition you spoke of earlier?
Very often young people are democratic on the outside but then they come back home and turn into traditionalists. They go to a university and they present other views, and more often than not, the fundamentalist beliefs win. Because the world of the internet, the one that Muslims see, is considered to be a world of sin, a tempting world but one that is evoking feelings of guilt, pornography for example, but it’s not only that. This world of critical thinking, the nakedness that they don’t understand, not only physical nakedness, it awakens their curiosity, seduces them and leaves them with feeling of sin which later results in expiation – returning to mosque, religion, they want to repent – I went into this Internet world but I did so much haram, I sinned so much that now I should make up for it. And paradoxically, it strengthens these fundamentalist beliefs in people who have already been religious.
That’s why so many people come back to the mosque, to these various Muslim brotherhoods, to terrorism – all these people browse the internet. They are all modern people. Do you think that a Jihadi surfing the internet does not watch porn? Or listen to metal music? They like it a lot, I heard that Bin Laden had some favourite bands. It’s a world taken from “The name of the Rose” where the line between sin, haram and halal is very fine.
Are they curious of the West?
Yes, but that too is relative and not exactly how we imagine it. We cannot apply our Western way of thinking to their expectations. People are very curious of all the Western things available on the Internet and satellite TV but at the same time they don’t really want to go to the West apart from those people who want to emigrate. Have you ever seen young Arabs with backpacks? Never in your life. I’ve never seen them and I have been travelling around Africa and Asia. You see Japanese, Chinese, Hindu and yes, Turkish too, but I’ve never seen Arabs. It’s because they don’t travel even if they have the money. Rich people in Egypt can go on a trip – to Paris, London, Madrid, Berlin – best 5 star hotels, 5 night stays, shopping malls. But I’ve never seen anyone interested in museums, little towns, culture, local delicacies, local feel – the way we do it, no they’re not interested in it.
Because theirs is better?
No, because it’s a world of haram and Islamic people have this hadis somewhere inside, that a good Muslim should not travel, and not leave the family unless he or she travels to Mecca or Jerusalem. There’s this thing even if a Muslim frowns and says “no we don’t have any money”, Arab sheiks they go to Malaga or Canary Islands and they get drunk there but they’re not interested in anything else. They don’t know this world of the West. It is us who are interested in their world, not other way round.
Thousands of students – male and female – leave Saudi Arabia and Egypt too, and go to America. They do speak English. Then they come back and nothing changes.
When they come back, they put on their traditionalist outfit and come back to the old way of thinking, but they never renounced it really, maybe except brief moments when they were using hookers, drinking alcohol or disco dancing. And it’s not applying to all of them – some are very religious. It’s because this religious, dogmatic thinking is so strong, it makes them see our world as so sinful that the only things they want to take from it, are the tools.
No one there is using the internet to learn a language, not many people search for Western literature of philosophical or cultural nuances. Tools yes, but ideas not so much. Because from a Muslim point of view, their ideas are best and those ideas prohibit going too deep into forbidden areas. There is also one hadis saying: there are things that are haram and things that are halal and in between there is the zone of uncertainty – do not go there. This instantly makes a Muslim, who does not even go there, a person devoid of critical thinking. This hadis kills critical thinking because you don’t want to enter a zone where there is an issue, where you may get some doubts, fears that may make you think. Dogma über alles.
If their beliefs are based on such strong dogmas and fear then this open version of Islam that you propose, if it became popular, it could lead to results similar to the ones after the Egyptian revolution – as you yourself said – God is gone, all is allowed.
Yes, people are very afraid this may happen, not only imams. These are tribal, collective societies, there isn’t a lot of room for individualism. These are societies that are watching one another. I felt very safe there, night or day, apart from a few districts in Cairo the cities are very safe – if you are a man or a wife of some respectable man, no one will touch you. It’s because these people supervise one another. Young people are very safe, you won’t experience any sort of bad behaviour or aggression because there’s always that old man – it’s a broad expression – it can be sheik, imam or father. That’s why when they are free from such a way of thinking, we have the Donkey Festival – as it was described in “The name of the Rose”. That’s when we have the loosening, taharrush…
They are fully aware of the fact that if such revolution was to happen – not only political but also liberal – it would lead to such disintegration of these traditionalist societies that it could turn into anarchy. If a spiritual change was to happen there, it should be happening very slowly, gradually, otherwise it would be terrible. These desires, suppressed over ages, mainly connected to erotic sphere, they would explode. They would explode terribly. And that’s this strange standstill not even connected to politics anymore – it’s all about the religion.
So, it would be dangerous for the society to get rid of dogmas but it’s also dangerous for them to be linked to radicalism now.
Political correctness is killing us. Political correctness of these uncritical Europeans is deadly. It’s something that isn’t good for the Muslims and for the Muslim liberals and reformers like myself. One cannot approach Islam that way. One cannot say: “no, it’s not Muslims, it’s not Islam, it’s just Islamists, terrorists” it’s not true. Terrorism stems from Islamic dogmas just like inquisition was connected to dogmas of Christianity. Quran is much more violent than the Gospel so more effort is needed to eradicate it.
The Western world doesn’t want to establish TV or radio stations, the kind I was talking about, because that would also stir and enrage Islamists. And if Islamists are enraged then they pose a problem for the dictators who are sponsored by the West. That’s why it’s better to heal the wounds, sponsor new dictator, keep using the oil while it’s there, keep having access to Suez Canal. This is a short-sighted way of thinking, European politicians don’t think ahead, they don’t think that there might be some more Arab Springs possibly even worse than before, and that they may affect us or our children. And again, we will be flooded with Muslims, war refugees.
We must do something about it to stop this. The situation is very grave but we must do something. The Western world somehow managed conflicts with other civilisations in the past. This conflict is the greatest, there has never been a greater one. Conflict between Western world and Russia is incomparably smaller.
The situation as it is now, can be compared to situation in the 30s – the right-wing renaissance in Europe. The growing popularity of right-wing parties in Europe observed today is different and largely caused by the threat from the world of Islam. Western world is scared, the Western society is afraid of Muslims and they run towards the right-wing parties. They say that Muslim refugees are godsend for the conservatives. Just like it happened in the past, Europeans were leaning towards fascism, nationalism, towards strong leaders, because they were afraid of the Bolsheviks. Now they’re running towards the conservatives because they’re scared of Islam.
But the picture you painted gave us the impression that people running towards right-wing parties have every right to be afraid.
Of course, just like in the past, people had every right to fear Bolsheviks.
Isn’t it a grand failure of centre-wing parties who don’t know how to react to this challenge?
Of course, it is a failure of centre-wing parties, social democratic parties, liberal parties in different countries but also in European Union and European Parliament. Political correctness, turning blind eye to the growing radicalisation of Muslims living in Europe, sponsoring the dictators – these are all errors or liberals. Now these errors must be fixed. The European Parliament is trying to do something but it’s not enough..
Democracy starts killing itself, just like the gnostic snake – it begins to eat its own tail. That snake and tail must be separated, in the name of democracy radical steps must be taken. The things we are talking about – the democratic propaganda in Muslim countries, education, banishing radicals – this one is actually already happening, Choundry was imprisoned in England – these are small steps but they’re doable. They need to be done on a bigger scale otherwise people will keep turning to right- wing parties and we will find ourselves in a very bad situation, we talked about it in the last year’s interview – we can’t fight plague with cholera. It’s like bolshevism and fascism.
Let’s call the far right-wing parties fascists – a party that wins over Bolsheviks, in this case Islamic fundamentalists. In the middle, we have European society that is lost, that got used to democracy, freedom, to safety – it’s actually very important, that it got used to safety. And now they all see that this bolshevism, this Islam, is a threat. And those people, the right-wing people they promise they will save us. And people go for it, it’s natural. People don’t analyse, they don’t go deep into nuances of world problems – they want safety, they want to keep this beautiful world they are so used to. And right-wing parties offer concrete solutions and they of course win the game.
But in a situation when Merkel says „let’s just take then, we’ll manage..”
That’s terrible. What was happening in Germany, in Austria, this incredible welcoming of Muslims, that was incredible. Now a lot of people have regrets and they vote for AfD. The polls say that Germans don’t want any more refugees. But what’s also shocking is that German society, with its high living standard, and so highly educated they know so little about Muslims and proved to be so naïve. It’s either stereotypes or stupid multicultural correctness. So, another thing we should be doing in Europe is we should be learning about Islam. We should educate ourselves and our children about Islam but do it in a clever way – without hate and stereotypes but also avoid political correctness. We should learn about things that are good in Islam and also about things that are cruel and dangerous and how we can live side by side with Muslims but also how to fight them.
We can live with Muslims but we must teach them freedom. It’s very politically incorrect because it sounds as if they are worse than us. They are not worse, they are backward, terribly backward when it comes to civilisation. And we can also teach young Europeans, well not only the young ones, a normal approach to Islam.
There’s also another thing, also politically incorrect. We should support the Arab Christians. Because they are being murdered, denationalised, extinct. These are mini civilisations that existed there long before Islam – Copts, Maronites, Ysidis (another ancient civilisation, not Christian) who are being denationalised, cast out. There is the talk about refugees; “how can one choose?” I know that there are people of various religious beliefs on these boats. Let’s say that there’s a Muslim and a Copt and both are poor. But when one of them is trying to escape poverty the other one is trying to escape poverty as well as being murdered for his religious beliefs.
There’s one thing that seems quite difficult to do. You said that there must be a way we could teach Islamic world freedom, because their civilisation is backward in that notion but they really want their civilisation to be appreciated. How can we appreciate their civilisation and at the same time keep pointing at their backwardness? Noone likes to be lectured.
No one likes to be lectured but look at Japan or South Korea. They keep their traditions – yes, I know it’s a different world, different mentality – but they adopted the Western world, maybe even a bit too much.
That’s why I think that media broadcasting in Arab or Islamic world they should talk about these things. There is an enormous heritage in Arab or Islamic world and it’s beautiful and that what should be referred to in this propaganda. There is a heritage of Arab philosophers both Muslims and atheists but both of Arabic origin. There is music, art, architecture, multitude of authors, musicians, artists, not to mention cuisine. But at the same time, we are backward because of religious dogmas that must be eradicated so that we would be able to take up the values that the world of the West has to offer. And we should merge them with values of our Arab world just like the Japanese merged the West with their traditions.
I know it’s difficult to do. It’s like that conversation between Polish and American officer in Afghanistan, I can’t remember if it was Jagielski who wrote about it. Anyway there’s this fight going on with the Taliban and that Polish officer, hiding behind ruins, says to the American “listen, democracy will never work in this country” and the American says “it worked in California so it will work here too”. There’s a certain naiveite in the Western world, in the minds of those who are politically correct (who actually do have a good heart), in thinking that democratic, liberal, freedom values of the West can be transplanted into a society that barely left the desert or caves. Society that is backward in its development.
It’s not so easy. They need to be convinced but also, we must remember colonialism. Colonialism was humiliating, it was putting others down, enforcing Western values, leading to crimes like during the war in Algeria – now the Algerians are taking their vengeance quite often. One must then remember that it resounds in the minds of Arabs. Not so much in the minds of black Africans. It resounds in the minds of Arabs and they overuse it but it’s one of elements they use when they mark-up relations within the Western world.
There are people who think that democracy can be implanted. But there are also people who say “let’s leave them alone. It’s a different civilisation”.
Yes, there is that option – completely unacceptable. No one can leave anyone alone in today’s globalised world. Well, there are certain communities of naked Indians in Amazon or some islands that can be left alone but we are talking about a civilisation that every fourth member of the world belongs to. We cannot leave them alone; absolutely not! We must cooperate with these people, keep convincing them to democratic culture, to democracy. We had communism in Eastern Europe – we had it but we chose the West, democracy – we made a choice. Of course, we come from this world and we do have a history of democracy. There was no democracy in the history of Arab countries. Ukraine also wants to be part of the West even though they never had democracy. Or Belarus. Who doesn’t want to be part of a wealthy, comfy world?
The question is what do they want? Is it only the wealthy and comfortable world or idea as well?
Well this cannot be implemented hastily. That’s why these people, of the Islamic world must be convinced to the positive message of the West; to its renaissance ideas of freedom and citizen oriented society. I know it’s difficult. When I talk to my Egyptian friends, even those very smart ones, they say „we want democracy” and I ask them „do you know what democracy is?” and he starts explaining what democracy is. From what he says I can tell that he doesn’t really know what it is and then I start explaining and he says “you know what? I don’t want that sort of democracy. I want this and this. I do want citizen censorship but not the political one”
The Gallup poll – 70% of Muslims want democracy but after the parliament passed the bill they wanted a committee of ulemas to check whether it’s in accordance to sharia.
That’s right. If you read Pew Research works about Egypt, they are shocking. 80% want democracy and 80% want sharia law. And 80% also say they do not want sharia regulated country. They want sharia ruled country but they want democracy and sharia law. They want to have cake and eat it at the same time. These people are so lost, lost in modern times. I compare them to a Neanderthal man who finds himself in the streets of New York. 9/11 was in a way a mace strike delivered by a man frightened by modern times.
When Muslims look at the West do they see a world without religion, without God? Shameless, devoid of any values? If so, what do they think keeps this world together? How do this godless world function according to them?
It’s all said in the Book. Quran says, I can’t remember how it was exactly in Polish, that infidels will be rewarded with wealth, beautiful sons and daughters and they will be fooled by this richness. You have been cheated by God. God gives you more and more to deceive you even more. God deceives the infidels. Can you imagine what sort of God it is? One that deceives man? He chose you to be infidel to deceive you and reward you with money, freedom and democracy…
But in truth, as the hadis says, we are born when we die. Then, in that new world, all those poor Muslims will be rewarded with true life. Another hadis says we are only passer-by’s in this world.
This way of thinking, so incredibly strong and magical – what sort of world-view does it create? That this world is only temporary, illusory. That’s why we have the fatalism, another thing present in the world of Islam. Fatalism – bad economy, bad everything, all the rubbish. Because it doesn’t matter, it’s insignificant. It’s fate. If something is on the ground, then it probably should stay there. It doesn’t matter. One should only be attached to something that is everlasting. This is a different world – it doesn’t think like the West – factually, it thinks in the terms of revelation. It’s a world that is awaiting Judgement Day. The coming of Judgement Day is always stressed and can happen at any time, remember that. The Middle Ages motto “memento mori” is always present there. It’s a conflict between rational and irrational way of thinking.
Religious education is not the kind of education you can get in medresas. There aren’t many kids in medresas in Egypt – they go to state schools. They’re being educated at home. Of course, the sermons in mosques and in media are important. When I sit, and watch the Egyptian TV and listen to imams from Egypt, Kuwait or any other country I tell to my wife “he might as well had been saying this 300 years ago”. There is no difference at all, he’s only using a modern tool to convey the old meaning. It’s normal, archaic thinking. Some would say “but priests do the same” but it’s not true. There are radical priests in Church but Church, just like the West, undergone various stages of reformation. There are churches where a parish priest acts like he was on the panel of Tygodnik Powszechny [Catholic magazine for the intelligentsia]. You can’t see a lot of this in Islam – a cleric speaking out. There are some exceptions but like in the example earlier, they get beaten up with a shoe. Such comments do appear in media but they are very rare. These people are being criticised, attacked and get life threats so they live their lives hiding.
President Sisi was calling for reformation of Islam and Al Azhar – was there any outcome?
Yes, there was – much stronger control in mosques and checking what sort of books are being used but it only leads to these books being put away and smuggled to some radical Salafi mosques. Because it’s not remedial, it’s not like taking ibuprofen if your tooth aches. The ministry of education began monitoring what is actually being taught on religion classes. But it’s not enough, still not enough.
The most important thing that Sisi should have done as an Egyptian citizen – Al Azhar is in Egypt and is like a Vatican of Islam – he should try and influence the muftis, ulemas to start making changes in the whole interpretation of Islam. He didn’t do it. And he probably won’t do it because that would mean the end. He would be at a terrible risk of being killed like Sadat or Mubarak who survived loads of attacks. But this time it would have been different. They wanted to kill them because of peace with Israel or because they were the dictators. But if you touch religion, most of the nation will either get mad at you or get very mad at you. Every Muslim ruler, except for Ataturk, who done it in quite a brutal way, kept away from religion.
And there was also Burgiba in Turkey, who was also doing it quite aggressively. He had a lot of support just like Naser, a lot of people were becoming secular although they were still attending the mosque. Burgiba was calling hijab a hideous rag, during Ramadan he was giving speeches and he was eating and drinking ostensibly. If you ask me that gives you the opposite result. It’s not the right way. Majority of people who go to Syria come from Tunisia. I think the secularity in Tunisia is only partly an effect of Burgiba, more the effect of the French. French influence was very strong there. The same was in Morocco – libraries, bookshops, they are full of books all in French. Another inconsistency – colonialism was bad but at the same time it made these societies civilised, westernised. Anyway, Tunisia is an example that democracy can take small steps in Arab world. And it has to start somehow.
But isn’t it true that democracy can only be successfully transplanted if the ground is secular?
I don’t think democracy can be transplanted without transplanting, promoting secularism. You can’t combine a theocratic country with a democratic country. Yet within democracy there does exist Christian democracy – a mix of Christian values with democratic values. Why don’t we create an Islamic democracy?
Is there any hope?
Islam as a religion needs to be completely reformed from top to bottom. If this doesn’t happen it will continue to be a system enclosed in its shell. It will continue to threaten the world and it will be in an even greater conflict with the modern world, the world that changes so fast that this archaic, non-reformed world of Islam will need to go into even greater conflict with. I don’t know if this means war conflict but we are talking about 1,5 billion people, soon to be two billions, who are so immersed in in this magical mystical way of thinking that it’s unlikely that they will smoothly enter this world we offer, this modern world.
They must re-evaluate their way of thinking. And how will they do it? It’s a big question. And we surely won’t be able to find answer to that today. This is work for generations but world is changing so fast so maybe the process won’t take as long as it took Europe.