Increasingly, Fouad Laroui heard Muslims making allegations that showed they had very little idea what their religion was about and no clue at all about other religions. So he decided to write a book about Islam. Ode spoke with the author.
Tijn Touber | May 2007 issue
Fouad Laroui was fed up. He was sick of having to answer questions constantly about the 70 virgins in heaven waiting for each suicide bomber. He was sick of being lumped together with imams who, in his eyes, were spouting the worst kind of nonsense. And he no longer felt like giving his perspective on things “as a Muslim.” Laroui may have been born in Morocco, but he didn’t think that should mean now that he was living in the Netherlands he should have to explain the views of people who had hijacked his religion for their own tyrannical purposes.
He had spoken countless times to friends, colleagues and students about religion. “Faith is a personal experience,” he would say, ” ‘vertical’ – something between you and God. Religion, however, is collective, ‘horizontal,’ which doesn’t connect people so much to God as to each other.”
Because this “horizontal” connection was becoming increasingly extreme throughout the Islamic world, Laroui decided to write a book addressing these issues. On Islamism is a crystal-clear argument that exposes the hollow rhetoric of Muslim fundamentalists who claim to speak in the name of Muhammad or the Quran. Laroui shoots from the hip, often in a wonderful, funny way, but he knows what he’s talking about. In addition to studying math, physics, philosophy and econometrics (the branch of economics that deals with math), he also researched and published papers on the major world religions. This is undoubtedly the reason he can sit serenely in an Amsterdam café, discussing these issues in such depth.
Initially, Laroui didn’t plan to write the book himself, but he couldn’t find anything that clearly explained what was going on in the Muslim world. He considered it his “civic duty” to write On Islamism “so that young people who have yet to find their way in the religious-spiritual world can take a clear stance and not be led astray by fundamentalists who aggressively court them on the Internet.”
For Fouad Laroui, the theme of radical Islam – which he calls “Islamism” – didn’t become urgent until seven years ago when he returned to his favourite city, Amsterdam. As a child, he lived in Casablanca, Morocco, where he attended a French school. He then left for Paris and got a degree in civil engineering from one of the Grandes Écoles – highly selective elite universities. He worked, studied and taught in Casablanca, Brussels, Amsterdam and York, England, returning to the Netherlands in early 2000. Says Laroui: “I love Amsterdam. Or, I should say, I loved Amsterdam. In Britain’s York, I sometimes felt very nostalgic when I thought of that tolerant city where everyone could do his thing and spiritual and intellectual freedom were considered very important.” Those lofty ideals were torn to shreds in November 2004 by the bullets fired by Mohammed B., a Muslim extremist who murdered Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh.
“That murder was a turning point,” says Laroui. “I started to feel uneasy at times in my own city. What particularly irritated me was that ‘the Muslim’ in public debates was increasingly synonymous with a type of backward character who appeared to be incapable of making a move without consulting an imam or the Quran. I heard Muslims on TV making allegations that indicated they had no clue about their own religion, let alone other religions – something that in my view is a clear requirement if you want a serious debate.”
Laroui may sound somewhat aggravated, but he’s far from being a nag or sermonizer. He carefully formulates his thoughts and is interested in the opinions of others. His speech is characterized by careful reasoning and well-founded arguments. But what really separates him from the average Muslim expert involved in public discussion is his sense of humour. His novels and poetry reveal a shrewd, erudite thinker with a great talent for joie de vivre. In short, hanging out with Laroui for an evening is great fun.
But tonight he is primarily in the role of the analyst who must bring clarity to the heated debate. He starts off with this: “The Quran is not the book the Islamists have turned it into. Claiming that the Quran can answer all of life’s questions is ridiculous. The Quran says virtually nothing about love, sexuality, human rights, politics, history, eating, drinking, etcetera. Of course it contains passages that can be interpreted as instructions for daily life, but for each such passage there are 10 others that claim the opposite. You’re not giving the Quran enough credit as a religious document if you insist on reading things into it that aren’t there. By doing so you are, in fact, degrading God.”
Take for example the oft-cited passage: “Kill the infidels wherever you find them.” But the Quran also states: “Before the Quran, God revealed the Torah and the gospel as a guide for the people.” And: “Those who believe, and those who are Jews, the Christians and Sabeans [a religious minority of Iraqi Christians] – whoever believes in God and the Last Day and does right – surely their reward is with their Lord, and there shall no fear come upon them, neither shall they grieve.”
Laroui adds, “Many Muslims also cite the hadith, a collection of books with comments from Muslim theologians on the Quran. This hadith is often used to sanction religious hatred. But here too you find just as many appeals for tolerance, as evidenced by the following pronouncement attributed to the Prophet: ‘I warn you against religious extremism, for it has led to the downfall of the peoples who preceded you.'”
The Quran – just like the Torah, the Bible and the Bhagavad-Gita – is full of contradictions. Laroui says that’s logical. “The Quran isn’t meant to be taken literally. It isn’t a book of law but a religious text that can inspire readers to experience astonishment, depth and faith. People who enter into discussions about how many virgins are in the hereafter are light years away from faith.” Indeed, the contradictions are plentiful. Just take the issue of drinking wine. Is wine a benefaction of God, as Sura XVI, Verse 6 implies: “You drink an intoxicating drink and good food, you are permitted by God.” Or is it in fact banned, as suggested by Sura II, Verse 219: “They will ask thee regarding wines and games of chance. Say: In both is great sin”
Laroui chuckles at the impossible predicament in which Muslims trying to live to the letter of the Quran find themselves. “From a psychological perspective, they are in a very interesting situation. The Quran should be read as the inviolable, perfect and complete word of God, but it includes passages that are contradictory and therefore inaccurate. Does this mean God made a mistake?” It appears that if you add up the contradictory passages, two to five percent of the Quran is “wrong.”
Laroui is very concerned about the psychological damage suffered by many fundamentalists. “Common sense becomes paralyzed when you want a single answer for everything. Fundamentalists want to confine everything within the boundaries of the Qu’ran. They want to base the Constitution, civil law, criminal law, economic principles, etcetera on the sharia [the Islamic law allegedly provided by God] and don’t understand that a holy scripture is completely unsuitable for this purpose.” He provides a practical example: “Take homosexuality. Islamists claim you should push a homosexual off a five-story building. Why five? Why not six or 18? Because there’s a passage in a 14th-century text that mentions five stories. Aside from the fact that it is, of course, completely inadmissible to want to kill homosexuals, taking that literally is too absurd for words! Nowadays you can consult a cyber imam if you want to know whether you can go to Mardi Gras or split up with your wife via a text message.” His face reflects a mixture of horror and hilarity. If it weren’t all so emotionally charged, he would probably get a good laugh out of it.
“Also,” he says, “who should we appoint or trust to judge what is right and wrong based on the teachings of Mohammed? A couple of years ago Abdellaziz Ubn Baz, Saudi Arabia’s foremost religious leader, still declared that the Earth was flat.”
Of course Islam doesn’t have a corner on religious extremism. You don’t have to go too far back in history to find Christian witch hunts, religious crusades and acts of terror. You don’t have to go back at all. U.S. President George Bush has been known to wave the Holy Scripture to justify his acts of terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet today it is mainly Muslim extremism that has the world in its grasp. Does Laroui have an explanation for that?
“It all started over 20 years ago. Prior to that time, the word ‘Islamism’ wasn’t associated with its current meaning of a totalitarian, power-based Islam. Back then, the word ‘Islamism’ was interchanged with the word ‘Islam,’ just as ‘Sufism’ and ‘the Sufi religion’ are used interchangeably. All that changed in 1979 when Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in Iran. He became the hero of the Muslims because he managed to make a fool of the ‘Great Satan’ of the West by holding the American embassy hostage for 444 days. Khomeini, who was not an Arab himself, gave Arabs a kind of new identity: Muslims.”
Laroui remembers a whole different Islam than Khomeini’s totalitarian vision: “When I was growing up in Morocco back in the 1960s, Islam was a good-natured religion, comparable to the Catholicism practised by most Italians. Religion wasn’t that important in their daily lives.”
There were, for instance, no clothing regulations at that time. “As children,” Laroui recalls, “we spent entire days on the beach. My sisters and cousins walked around in bikinis. Things are very different now; women don’t go to the beach for religious reasons.” And it wasn’t assumed that children should get an Islamic education. Laroui’s father sent him to a French private school because it was the best place to learn reading, writing and arithmetic. “Now, kids at both elementary and secondary schools in Morocco get 884 hours of Islamic education a year, compared to 409 hours of history, geography and civics and 714 hours of physics and biology.”
Understanding why Khomeini’s seizure of religious power had such an enormous impact requires looking a little further back in history. “The creation of the Israeli state in 1948 played a major role in the radicalization of many Muslims,” Laroui says. “Seen through Arab eyes, it was very simple: All of a sudden, people from Poland, Russia, etcetera, were settling on their land. That was considered humiliating.”
A few years later in 1956, Egyptian President Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. The crisis that resulted led to an armed conflict with Israeli, French and British troops sent to the region. The troops were forced to leave when the U.S. and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) exerted pressure inside the United Nations. Because of his unbending stance toward the old colonial powers – England and France – and the new regional power – Israel – Nasser became a hero in the Arab world.
In 1967, Egypt, Syria and Jordan lost the six-day war against Israel, which from that moment – with the help of the U.S. – became an ever-more-powerful military force. Many Arabs were deeply humiliated by this defeat. That’s why Ayatollah Khomeini was so influential. “This became a decisive turning point for the Arab world, which was tired of defeat and, thanks to Khomeini, found the key to retaliation: Islamism. Many felt dismissed as Arabs, but as Muslims they had defeated the powerful America.”
From that moment, increasing numbers of people defined themselves as “Muslim.” Laroui saw it happening around him: “Girls who I had seen wearing tight jeans a few years ago are now wearing head scarves. The sad low point – so far – is the Afghan Taliban [Ed: which literally means ‘students of theology’] who have managed to ban just about everything that makes life worth living: pleasure, curiosity, kite-flying, philosophizing, dancing, music-making, sexuality”
He falls silent, taking a sip of orange juice, and shakes his head. The loss of spiritual, intellectual and human dignity pains him. “The Arab culture was once an example to the rest of the world. But the culture only flourished when it was free of ideological dogma. During the era that Arabic was a scholarly language and Baghdad and Cordoba [in Muslim Spain] were cultural capitals of the world, theology was kept strictly separate from science. It had everything to do with who was in power. If the kalif [the civil and religious leader and representative of Allah on Earth] was interested in philosophy and science, they flourished. If the kalif was solely focused on Islam, they faded into the background. The last time they really flourished was around 1100 during the time of Al-Mansour. Since then, the Arab world hasn’t produced any philosophers or thinkers worth mentioning.”
This lack of inspiring figures in their culture results in an identity crisis for so-called “second generation” Muslims in Western countries. Laroui says, “Young people are seeking their own identity. When they’re unable to integrate, they fall back on another identity, such as ‘Muslim.’ That immediately gives you a clear identity.”
“Eventually, these people get jobs, marry and have children. At that point the Muslim identity they’ve assumed usually weakens. But this is not the case for around 10 percent of Arabs. They remain psychologically unstable. Mohammed B. [who murdered filmmaker Theo van Gogh] is a classic example. Around the age of 16 he suffered an identity crisis and resulting depression. For him, Islamism was literally an answer to his prayers. He was suddenly absolutely sure of everything. The fact is, psychologically unstable people are looking for something strong they can hold onto.”
Laroui’s book came too late for Mohammed B. But he thinks it wouldn’t have had any effect. He would rather direct his efforts toward people who, at the age of 16, haven’t found the answers to life’s questions. “Sooner or later, each of us faces a fundamental choice between ‘faith’ and ‘religion,'” Laroui says. “I’m convinced that the ‘faith’ element is present in nearly everyone. Even if you were born on an island in the Pacific Ocean and never heard of Jesus, Muhammad or the Revelations, you’ll still have an occasional transcending experience – the feeling that you are one with the world, with the universe. That’s the experience of an individual who suddenly feels his place in the universe. And that feeling is essentially tremendously peaceful.” He leans back and smiles amused. “No one in his right mind would declare war on someone else just because he sat on the beach, looked up at the stars and felt himself to be part of all of creation.”
So what about his own faith? “I never answer that question,” he says. “I believe that the world would be a much more peaceful place if everyone practised their religion in private.”
He empties his glass, looks at his watch and remembers the essay on Shiism he was supposed to write this weekend, the volume of poetry he needs to finalize and the sixth novel he’s writing. Laroui does not have time for a family, but does have time to devote himself as a good citizen to the society he loves and hopes that someday soon will find peace – the same peace (salam means peace) that is incorporated into the name of the religion in which he was raised. Laroui believes that this peace will come closer when we learn to see the fundamental difference between faith and religion. “This,” he says, “is what they should post above the door of every mosque: ‘There are only individuals.'” And then heis off, walking into the heart of the city he loves so much.