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Navid Kermani

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Navid Kermani is one of the outstanding public intellectuals of his generation. Not one for drawing hard and fast conclusions, his style of thought is probing, observant, often straying from well-trodden paths and always peering beyond the present moment to trace connections and grasp the bigger picture. Well known for his prize-winning novels and major works of non-fiction, Kermani has also gained widespread acclaim as a journalist, displaying a rare political sensitivity which manages to illuminate what politicians fail to see and to seek out solutions where all appears hopeless. This volume brings together his brilliantly perceptive writing from the last thirty years, on topics ranging from terror in the Middle East to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. As a record of Kermani's uniquely compassionate curiosity, this absorbing book is a welcome antidote to the confusion and despair that stalks global politics today.

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1 Islam versus Islam: The Judgement against the Egyptian Quran Scholar Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd

2 The Thousand Voices of Silence: The Situation of Artists and Intellectuals in Iran

3 Sympathy for the Satan: After the Attacks of 11 September

4 The Soft Words of Violence: After the Beginning of the War in Afghanistan

5 What Alternative?: Before the War in Iraq

6 Right Again, Sadly: The Attack on the Synagogue in Istanbul

7 Strategy of Escalation: On the Hostages in Beslan

8 A Good Thing You’re Educating Me …: Confusion in the Integration Debate

9 Desperation and Enthusiasm: After the French Referendum on the European Constitution

10 Hate Pictures and Hysteria: The Dispute over the Muhammad Cartoons

11 Relying Only on Strength Makes Israel Weaker On the War in Lebanon

12 We Are Murat Kurnaz: Before Foreign Minister Steinmeier’s Testimony to the Bundestag Investigative Committee

13 The Message of Cologne: The Discussion on Building a Grand Mosque

14 Death on Wednesday?: The Trial of Ayatollah Boroujerdi in Tehran

15 Rejection of Europe: The Swiss Referendum on the Prohibition of Minarets

16 A State without a People: The Recent Mass Protests in Iran

17 Allianz Lecture on Europe

18 Triumph of Vulgar Rationalism: The Outcry over Martin Mosebach and the Ban on Circumcision

19 Too Late for Good Conscience: The Civil War in Syria

20 Farewell to the Middle East: The ‘Islamic State’s’ March on Baghdad

21 Stop the ‘Islamic State’!: The Threat of Genocide against Christians, Yazidis and other Ethnic Groups in Iraq

22 The European Ideal is Sinking: The Mediterranean Sea as a Mass Grave

23 At Our Children’s Cost: Europe after Brexit

24 What We Can Do in This Situation: After the Attacks in Ansbach, Würzburg and Munich

25 The Weight of Two Sacks: In Search of the Last Blind Spots of Progress in China

26 For Three Dollars a Day: After the West’s Withdrawal from Afghanistan

27 No Programme but Politics: The Chancellorship of Angela Merkel

28 Afghanistan? Already a Non-Issue: German Apathy towards the World

29 The Price of Justice: The Disappearance of the Generic Masculine in German

30 War as a Means of Politics: After Vladimir Putin’s Announcement of a Russian Troop Deployment to Donbas

31 Through the Night: Ukraine at War

32 The Dust on All the Faces: In South Madagascar, Farming Families Battle to Survive a Lethal Drought Caused by Climate Change

33 Woman, Life, Freedom: The Uprising in Iran, July–December 2022

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Originally published in German as Was jetzt möglich ist: 33 politische Situationen © Verlag C.H.Beck oHG, München 2022

This English edition © Polity Press, 2024

‘The Dust on All the Faces’ was originally published in German in Die Zeit no. 39, 2022. English translation by Tony Crawford published in Plough Quarterly no. 35, Spring 2023. Copyright © Tony Crawford.

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ISBN-13: 978-1-5095-5765-3

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Library of Congress Control Number: 2023936989

The publisher has used its best endeavours to ensure that the URLs for external websites referred to in this book are correct and active at the time of going to press. However, the publisher has no responsibility for the websites and can make no guarantee that a site will remain live or that the content is or will remain appropriate.

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Newspapers are ephemeral. The oldest of the essays I had planned to include in this book, the article on Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd which appeared in the Frankfurter Rundschau in 1993, was nowhere to be found at home, not even as a file on my computer. My editor wrote to the newspaper assuming they would have the article in their electronic archives – but in vain. All right, then they must have a basement where they archive the issues of years past, the editor supposed, and they could pull up the issue with the article for a suitable moderate fee. No, they didn’t, the newspaper replied. Frankfurter Rundschau, until a few years ago one of the four, five national newspapers in the German-speaking countries with an outstanding cultural section and foreign reporting that, in sheer volume, seems almost unbelievable today – doesn’t even have archives any longer. Finally, an assistant at the publishers’ made the trip to the state library in Munich and found on a shelf the big, dust-covered binder with every issue of Frankfurter Rundschau from 1993. On opening it to 4 September, she had the presence of mind to take photos not only of the article we were looking for but of the frontpage headlines too: ‘Ukraine Relinquishes Nuclear Weapons – Accord Reached with Russia on Black Sea Fleet’. Thirty years later, in March of 2022, Ukraine was at war.

I started working for the Siegen local desk of the Westfälische Rundschau at the age of fifteen. From town council meetings to plays and rock concerts to demonstrations against the planned ring autobahn and the obligatory archery society fairs, there was nothing I would not cover. Since then I have continued to write for newspapers, more frequently in the beginning; more sporadically after my first books were published. What have I learned from the political situations that I described or analysed? If I had to pick out just one lesson, it would be this: I have learned, or, more precisely, I have experienced, seen with my own eyes, how single events that seem to be confined to one region can set off massive eruptions years later and far away. In politics, just as in nature, everything seems to be connected with everything else by chains of cause and effect whose complexity is impossible to foresee but often visible after the fact.

I remember how Afghan acquaintances told me in 1989 that it was actually Afghans who brought down the Berlin Wall. I was a student then, and their logic seemed a bit strained to me, but, when I studied the events in more detail, I soon realized that Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform policies, the more immediate cause of the German unification, were causally connected with the Mujahidin’s successful resistance against the Soviet Army – and hence with the Kremlin’s 1979 decision to intervene militarily in Afghanistan. Another example: if the Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson had been elected president of the United States in 1952, then the CIA would not have toppled the democratic Mosaddegh government in Tehran a year later, and there would have been no Islamic revolution in 1979 and no occupation of the American embassy – nor any of the further consequences in relations between the West and the Islamic world. And yet, during the election campaign, even Dwight D. Eisenhower probably hadn’t thought much about Iran. And so on and so forth, down to the invasion of Ukraine: in 1993, that country relinquished its nuclear weapons only out of trust in the Russian promise to respect its sovereignty and its existing borders. As the report on the front page of the Frankfurter Rundschau of 4 September 1993 indicates, Ukraine also demanded guarantees of its security from the West. I don’t think anyone besides specialists in international relations still remembers that demand – I at least hadn’t remembered it. Maybe it wasn’t even taken seriously in the Western capitals at the time. But now, thirty years later, the whole world knows how reasonable the demand was. Fulfilling it then might well have prevented the present war, which is not only catastrophic for Ukraine, for Russia, for the whole of Europe, but will also result in terrible famines far away in East Africa. In the worst case, the refusal to guarantee Ukraine’s security in 1993 may result in a third world war.

As I was compiling articles for the present book, the thought often crossed my mind that political decisions, which we may register as dubious although we cannot foresee their consequences, can have dramatic effects a long time later and in completely different places. Sometimes, however, the effects can also occur much more promptly – and then, strangely, everyone is just as surprised. Without the West’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russia would probably not have been tempted to attack Ukraine on the assumption that the West was divided, weary, anxious, busy with internal problems, and thus incapable of a resolute response. It was easy enough to guess that the images from Kabul airport, where Afghans clung in vain to the outsides of American aircraft, would be followed by further calamities, and not just for Afghanistan. I was not the only one to write that the Taliban’s rule would make itself felt in the West as well – in the form of new migrations, cheaper drugs, retreats for terrorists, or further growth in China’s power. But a war raging in the middle of Europe just a few months later? No, no one reckoned with that, except perhaps inside the Kremlin. And yet, in hindsight, a connection can be seen reaching from the Soviet Army’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the 9/11 attacks, to America’s wars in the Middle East, the passiveness of the West in Syria and the refugee crisis of 2015, and finally to Brexit, Trump and the West’s weakness, resulting in the increasingly confident actions of China and Russia. Similar threads run through every area of our social lives; but we don’t realize it when we open today’s newspapers, and much less if we only follow TV news or click on the top headlines online. Just think of climate change, which is mainly caused by us in the North and results in severe droughts in the South, and consequently in wars breaking out and whole populations losing their livelihoods – if not the physical ground under their feet, as in Bangladesh or in the Maldives. What an illusion it is to think that we could be shielded from the developments all around us on this ever-shrinking planet – and how sobering to see that the illusion is cultivated afresh every four years in electoral campaigns that centre on nothing but Germany, Germany, Germany.

The present book is not a representative or authoritative survey of the major political developments of the past three decades, and that is not only because the issues I am able to comment on are inevitably limited. Furthermore, as I have already hinted, I wrote for newspapers more often in some years and then rarely in others because books, and sometimes life, monopolized my time. And up until the pandemic, a large part of my journalistic work consisted of travel writing. As talk shows and the internet have advanced the inflation of everybody’s opinions on everything, my urge to report from abroad has grown steadily stronger. But although many of my travel texts first appeared in newspapers, almost all of them have also been collected and published as complete books. I have also left aside the cultural commentary, critical reviews and literary impressions I have published in newspapers over the years: this book is limited to my political statements. Of those, I have selected the thirty-three that seem most significant to me from the vantage point of the present, whether because they evoked the strongest reactions immediately upon publication, or because they are still relevant today, or subsequent developments have made them relevant again. I have also included certain articles that were collected in earlier books in German: in the anthology Strategie der Eskalation: Der Nabe Osten und die Politik des Westens [Strategy of escalation: the Middle East and Western policy], in the essay Wer ist Wir? Deutschland und seine Muslime [Who is ‘we’? Germany and its Muslims], and in modified versions in the novel Dein Name.

Not all of my predictions have turned out to be correct, and the present book does not hide the miscalculations I have made. The present-day reader looking back on the situations I wrote about will rest his or her own judgement on a foundation that is more solid for the time that has passed. On reviewing the texts, however, I was dismayed to see that my hopes were seldom borne out but my fears often were, or else exceeded. And so one of the lessons that I have learned, as a political commentator and still more as a reporter, is, sadly, this: violence works. Those who mercilessly persecute their political opponents, deploying firearms against peaceful demonstrators from the moment protests begin or dropping bombs on an insurgent population, have a good chance of holding on to power. It is not glasnost that set an example in the watershed year of 1989, but Tiananmen. In a way, the same can be said of our Western democracies, whether in the United States, Europe or Israel: violating international law, taking a hard line in combating terror, abandoning the rule of law, inciting hostility against migrants, or redefining democracy as a dictatorship of the majority are all too often the way to win the next election.

Violence works. But for how long? If in politics as in nature everything is connected with everything else by chains of cause and effect, violence must sooner or later catch up with the perpetrators, or at least with their descendants, their societies. For that reason it is wrong, no matter what the political situation, to let one’s own actions be guided by promises of short-term success, minimal commitment, or momentary popularity. Nothing has caused as much realpolitical damage since the Second World War as so-called Realpolitik. It is not merely morality’s doing if our religions revere not the selfish but the martyrs and, even in our present-day secular societies, those heroes who rebel against injustice. Looking beyond the single day that is recorded in a given issue of a newspaper, it is also better from the point of view of self-preservation.

Cologne, May 2022

1ISLAM VERSUS ISLAMThe Judgement against the Egyptian Quran Scholar Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd

Frankfurter Rundschau, 4 September 1993

Ebtehal Yunes found out about her impending divorce in the newspaper. An industrious and zealously religious Egyptian lawyer had requested the divorce from a duly convened Egyptian court – unbeknownst to her and her husband, the lecturer Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd. The grounds: the marriage of a Muslim woman with an apostate is, he argued, invalid under Islamic law.

A joke in poor taste, one might think, but in fact it is the latest high point in an affair that has kept the Egyptian public in suspense for months. The Washington Post thought the controversy, which centres on some of the Egyptian scholar’s books on literature and Islamic studies, was important enough to be reported on its front page. For good reason: the misery of the Muslim world and the desperate struggle for reform appear here in condensed form, as if under a microscope. ‘I expected the worst,’ Ms Yunes is quoted in the Washington Post. If the court orders the divorce, she plans to leave the country with her husband: ‘Do you know of any other solution? We are not heroes.’

Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd’s books deal with the Quran and the history of Islamic theology – and he is finding out first-hand what a touchy subject that is in today’s Egypt. A majority of Abu Zayd’s studies are published abroad; his appointment as professor at Cairo University was refused on flimsy grounds; the centre of Sunni Islamic theology, Azhar University in Cairo, has charged him with apostasy; he is treated with abject abuse in the press; preachers publicly denounce him as a heretic; death threats land in his letterbox; by his own account he and his family are being terrorized; there is a lawsuit to divorce him from his wife; and now a lawyer declares him fair game: ‘Our constitution protects the rights of members of all three religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism. But it does not protect those who decide to abandon their religion,’ Muhammad Samida Abu Samada tells the Middle East Times, explaining why it seemed unavoidable to him to request the divorce of the Abu Zayd couple.

At about the same time, Sheikh Muhammad Ghazali, one of Egypt’s most influential theologians, who until recently was considered a moderate, spoke out in favour of murdering ‘apostates’ if the state does not fulfil its obligation to condemn and punish the blasphemers. Ghazali, known even in the remotest villages through his regular television appearances, promulgated this carte blanche for vigilante justice in his testimony for the defence at the trial of thirteen fanatics charged with murdering the secularist author Farag Foda. Foda was shot in front of his house in 1992 after having been branded a heretic – like Abu Zayd – in the loyalist press. The Egyptians understood quite clearly that the respected sheikh was practically legalizing murdering Abu Zayd. What had begun barely three years before with the publication of a literary study of the Quran may end with the exile, if not the death, of its author. ‘There is no discussion with you,’ read one of the anonymous letters. ‘All that matters is that you emigrate to some place far away from the Islamic world, because you won’t be able to live in a country that you are trying to destroy. No matter how the police try to protect you, you will not escape.’

Is this the standard procedure? After Salman Rushdie, Aziz Nesin, Sadiq al-Azm, Muhammad Khalafallah, Said al-Ashmawi, Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, is another advocate of Western secular Enlightenment being threatened by religious terrorists? Is it further evidence of a rise in religiously motivated intolerance in the Islamic world? Or another sign of the Muslims’ clash with modernism, now being waged against the modernists in their own ranks?

Let’s not rush to simple answers. Most of the authors I listed are not primarily advocates of the Western ideals of freedom and human rights – although they are often so portrayed – but products of their own Middle Eastern and Islamic culture, just as much as the great simplifiers in the fundamentalist camp are. The conflict is not between modernists influenced by the West on the one hand and fundamentalists bound to their tradition on the other: rather, both currents, each of them infinitely diverse and disunited, have their roots in the same culture, one that is deeply and irreversibly shaped by the West. The conflict is not between two cultures, each with its own different values, but between two positions within one culture. Khomeini no more represents Islam than Rushdie does the values of the West; rather, both of them stand, in the same intellectual world, for different answers to its unmistakable crisis. The case of Abu Zayd illustrates that a genuine modernist of Islamic culture can be much more traditionalistic than all the traditionalists.

The debate over the Cairo scholar Abu Zayd, which later expanded to call his other works into question, was sparked by the publication of Mafhum an-Nass (roughly, ‘The concept of text’), in which he examines the Quranic revelation using the methods of literary analysis and linguistics. The book’s stated goal is to create an awareness of the historicity of the text and the dialectical relationship between revelation and reality. To this end, it meticulously shows both how very much the Quran is conditioned by the cultural and historic context in which it was revealed and how it happened that this fact, which should be self-evident, became taboo as Islamic theology evolved, so that the Quran was ultimately surrounded by an aura of untouchability. God’s message, Zayd wrote, has been degraded ‘to a reified, sacred object’ and ‘an object of ornamentation’.

One must be conscious of the paramount position of the Quran in the Islamic faith to understand the uproar caused by Abu Zayd’s scholarly approach. To highlight that position, I may recall that the Quran in Islamic doctrine holds the central function that is reserved in Christianity to the very person of Jesus Christ: that is, it does not simply proclaim God but is itself divine in nature. Although not one line of his book denies the divine origin of the Quran, Abu Zayd excludes that matter from the scholarly discourse. What can be studied, just as any other text – i.e., a literary text – can be studied, is not the divine nature of the text but only its significance as a document which came into being in reality, which reflects influences of that reality, and which in turn changes that reality. ‘I treat the Quran as a text in the Arabic language which both Muslims and Christians – or atheists – should study because it contains a condensation of Arab culture and because its resonance is still found in other texts in that culture,’ Abu Zayd said in a conversation I had with him last year. ‘It is a text which assimilated the pre-Islamic texts and which has been assimilated by all the texts that have come after it, even those being written today.’

In fact, Abu Zayd’s analytical Quran exegesis recalls in several respects historical-critical Bible research, whose methods were as revolutionary for Christian theology as the work of the Cairo scholar seems to be for Islam – and which many Christians still see as ‘degeneracy in religion’, to use the Egyptian press’s characterization of Abu Zayd’s position. A crucial difference, however, is this: while historical-critical Bible research was a completely new way of relating to the revealed scripture, the same cannot be said of Abu Zayd. Besides the fact that other Muslim authors have put forth similar approaches in recent decades, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd is well within the tradition of classical Islamic scholarship. What is more, in his striving for scientific rigour in Quran exegesis, Abu Zayd appeals again and again to tradition – or, more precisely, to the text-critical methods of classical Islamic theology. In my conversation with him, he characterized this approach very distinctly: ‘We must study the Quran the same way we study the language of Shakespeare, with the tools and the methods of linguistic analysis, to discover its meaning. That is how the scholars used to study it.’

But why the turmoil if what Abu Zayd is advocating is, in principle, nothing new? The Egyptian public was reacting not to Abu Zayd’s references to progressive and pluralistic elements in the early tradition but to his critique of a Quran interpretation which emerged in the tenth century and which dominates the theological discourse today. Abu Zayd calls that interpretation reactionary. It isolates the Quran from the context of its objective historical circumstances, thus distorting its message and its meaning for society. And, Abu Zayd continues, there are political reasons for this: rationality, anti-dogmatism and diversity in Quran exegesis have been lost since the theologians fell under the sway of the state, which by nature wants to solidify the status quo. The preservation and monopolization of Quran interpretation by ‘state theologians’ has contributed to the conservation of existing conditions by branding new interpretations and critical questions, which are often charged with volatile social implications, as heretical and exposing their proponents to persecution.

Abu Zayd’s problem is that the religious discourse he criticizes is often equated today with Islam itself. Opposition to a certain theological current becomes an ‘attack on the Quran and the Sunnah’, as Al-Alamout al-Islami, the most influential mouthpiece of the Muslim World League, published in Riyadh, claims. It becomes apparent that a good Muslim today must believe not only in God and His messenger but also in the quasi-official scholars preaching on television. A third proposition is added to Islam’s twofold profession of faith: the belief in an Islamic church, a thing prohibited in Islam which has practically become established nonetheless in many Muslim countries.

Abu Zayd’s attack on the state-aligned theologians, his challenge to their monopoly on the interpretation of the scriptures, has considerable importance for current political affairs. It is a manifestation of numerous intellectuals’ struggle against the growing influence of the Islamists in all areas of society and the increasing public acceptance of radical ideas. Abu Zayd is unmasking a phenomenon which can also be observed in Germany today in the treatment of far-right parties: the governing parties fight the extremist organizations, but at the same time adopt their political programme. Because Abu Zayd’s criticism of social developments appears in the context of Islamic studies, it is no wonder that those he criticizes and their apologists respond with the accusation – a life-threatening one in Egypt today – of apostasy.

The aggressive reactions to the publication of Mafhum an-Nass have not kept Abu Zayd from pursuing and detailing his attack on state-sponsored Islam in other books and articles. In the 1992 work Critique of Religious Discourse, for example, he accuses the official religious institutions of failing to distinguish themselves in substance from the militant Islamist opposition. ‘The only difference between them’, Abu Zayd told me, ‘is that the extremists know the political import of these ideas and are trying to change the society. The dispute arises only over the political meaning of the ideas; the intellectual foundations are the same. How can the official religious media serve such a distorting function?’

The skewing effect of the Egyptian media is dramatically evident in the debate on Abu Zayd. An article by Abdul-Galil Shalaby in the government-aligned newspaper Al-Gomhuria, for example, leads the uninformed reader to assume that Abu Zayd attributes Muhammad’s emergence to economic causes – although there is not a word to that effect in the book. Fahmi Huwaidi, a columnist for the state newspaper Al-Ahram, diagnoses Abu Zayd as having a personal aversion to Islam and its prophet; the popular author Mustafa Mahmud complains in the same newspaper that Abu Zayd considers transcendence purely mythical; and Jamal Badawi, editor in chief of the formerly liberal Al-Wafd, is indignant that Abu Zayd abuses his academic freedom to wilfully denigrate the religion. They concur with the president of the Egyptian Writers’ Union, Tharwat Abaza, who announces, ‘There is no doubt: he is an unbeliever.’

Such claims – libellous though they may be – have to be taken seriously, just as the murder of Farag Foda, the intimidation of Said Ashmawi, and the condemnation of Salman Rushdie have been taken seriously. These are not flyers printed by an extremist organization but newspaper articles by men occupying the top positions in the Egyptian media. They are upstanding citizens and at the same time demagogues. They are declaring open season on Abu Zayd. The extremist organizations don’t need to hand out flyers if what they are saying is printed in the state publications of the United States’ closest ally in the Middle East. All they need to do is carry it out.

The scandal over Cairo University’s refusal to promote Abu Zayd to professor casts a light on the increasing influence of Islamist ideas in the former bastions of secular scholarship. In May of last year, the lecturer in Rhetorical and Islamic Studies, who had previously taught in Japan and the United States, presented his candidacy for habilitation, supported by two books and thirteen articles. Of the three evaluators, two approved the submission, while the third, Professor Abd al-Sabur Shahin, rejected it in a polemical, rudely worded statement. Shahin, a prominent member of the governing National Democratic Party, found that, in addition to monstrous lies, Abu Zayd’s works contained substantive errors, perverse and Marxist-atheistic ideas and ‘the most abhorrent contempt for the principles of the faith’, and condescendingly recommended that he disseminate his ideas only in literary journals with low circulation in order to avoid incurring the society’s wrath.

When, after a heated debate, the thirteen-person selection committee ignored the two positive evaluations and rejected Abu Zayd’s habilitation, his colleagues at the university and other intellectuals and journalists responded with dismay and tried to challenge the committee’s decision. To their surprise, however, many newspapers sided with Shahin. When the university definitively rejected Abu Zayd’s habilitation on 18 March, even the Egyptian human rights commission intervened, condemning the academic senate’s decision as ‘an attack on freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, and scientific research in Egypt’. The magazine Ruz al-Yusuf called the university’s decision ‘a scientific and academic disgrace’, while the left-leaning weekly Al-Ahali ran the headline ‘Terrorism Threatens Major Bastion of Thought’. Ghali Shukri wrote in his weekly column in Al-Ahram that Cairo University had become a ‘court of the Inquisition and a centre of terrorism’. Lutfi al-Khuli argued similarly in the English-language Al-Ahram Weekly, demanding a national debate on the state of the universities ‘because we are now beginning to see alarming evidence – both in the universities and elsewhere – of the danger of suppression of intellectual activities, the compulsive uniformity of academic work and the liquidation – whether physical, by bullets, or only metaphoric – of thinkers and authors who are accused of blasphemy. In other words, the terrorism in the streets has begun to spread in the universities, and vice versa.’

‘A Quran that is neither read nor understood is a book like any other, an unwritten page,’ Ali Shariati told his listeners in Tehran in the early seventies. ‘That is why they go to such trouble to keep us from reading it, understanding it, thinking about it. They say we wouldn’t understand it because it’s so complicated; they forbid all rational interpretation of it.’ Shariati was murdered in 1977, probably not by Islamic fundamentalists but by the Iranian shah’s henchmen. In today’s Iran too there is no place for many of his books, and his widow once said that, if her husband were still alive, he would surely be in prison.

Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd’s lasting achievement is that he did not describe the plight of Arab culture by outward comparisons but penetrated straight to the core of that culture to expose the sclerosis that has set in around its heart: the Quran. Regardless of what may happen to him now – whether he gets shot or driven into exile – a new Abu Zayd will come after him. They will arise again and again, in very different forms – modernists and reformers, blasphemers and heretics, Iqbals and al-Afghanis, Ashmawis and Fodas, Rushdies and Abu Zayds; they will not disappear until Islamic culture finds a way out of the intellectual and social destitution it is suffering. Like fundamentalism and traditionalism, they are a reflex, a necessary response to the challenge of the modern age. ‘As long as no pre-scientific system of belief and method of assimilating the world and acting in it has the ability to resist the penetration and disruption of the modern scientific system, future Rushdies will continue to turn up, with a regularity approaching that of the laws of physics, in the Islamic world,’ wrote the Syrian Sadiq al-Azm in the debate on the Satanic Verses.

You can think what you like about modern society, and for the Middle East in particular there are plenty of reasons to approach it with distrust and caution – but you cannot escape it. How sad it is, and how distressing, that the most creative and intelligent, the most respectable and courageous minds in the Islamic world – scientists, theologians and artists – are being slandered and antagonized, ostracized and murdered by their own social milieu. It is they who are upholding their culture and their identity in a changed world instead of timidly seeking refuge in dogmas and ignorance. They are contending with modernism instead of running away from it. They are working to find answers instead of burying their heads in the sand. They will not be silenced. We should listen to them and not just to the blowhards wielding the alleged Sword of Islam.

But the Abu Zayd affair also offers reasons to hope. A society that can produce such self-critical books cannot be utterly finished. The outcry they evoke is also an indication that they are touching a nerve. And the reactions have by no means been all negative. Thanks to Abu Zayd, many people, and in particular many of his students, have mustered the courage to question what has long been proclaimed to them as indisputable. They have learned that the Islamic tradition encompasses many progressive and pluralistic impulses. A discussion has begun. Insults and threats have set off a wave of solidarity that is not limited to Egypt.

At the same time, the attacks on Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd have revealed the unscrupulous methods with which the Islamic discourse is being carried on. An argument built on such shaky footing will not be able to stand for long – that is the hope, desperate as it is. Perhaps the often discussed advance of fundamentalism is in fact a bitterly fought defensive battle against the incursion of reality in people’s consciousness. And the incontestable danger of fundamentalism is perhaps that of a wounded animal. ‘My considered opinion’, Sadiq al-Azm writes, ‘is that it is becoming increasingly clear in the Muslim societies that the price of a decision against the modern system of scientific logic, of faith, of comprehending the world and acting in it, is consigning ourselves to the dustbin of history.’ If Islamic culture escapes this fate, it will have scholars such as Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd to thank for it.

2THE THOUSAND VOICES OF SILENCEThe Situation of Artists and Intellectuals in Iran

Süddeutsche Zeitung, 12 August 1995

A Stammtisch is a German pub table where the same locals always meet, on the same day of the week or month, over decades. If there was such a place in Tehran, it would be around Imam Hussein Square. Picking this area to begin a report on artists and intellectuals in Iran is like going to the Bavarian foothills of the Alps to report on Germany’s techno scene. The square is at the midpoint of a plebeian area, a district of small merchants, workers and tradesmen, loud, lively and deeply religious. Nowhere in the city is the popular Shiite religion, with its rituals, traditions and customs, as visible as in this square and in the surrounding streets and lanes. The only cultural institutions you would expect to find here are tea houses, Shiite passion plays and cinemas showing Iranian Rambo knock-offs.

‘This area is dingier than a dead dog,’ grumbles the taxi driver from the genteel north of Tehran as I guide him into a side street. But here is where the editorial offices of Gardun are located, one of Iran’s most progressive cultural magazines. In the top storey of a little block of flats, people not only discuss the latest book on French deconstructivism or the new film by Wim Wenders; this is also a staging area of the struggle for free speech in the Islamic Republic. In recent years, many critical articles and books have been disseminated from here; authors have argued for the revival of the Iranian Writers’ Association, strongly supported the sensational protest declaration published by 134 Iranian writers last autumn, and campaigned for the writer Saidi Sirjani, who died in prison – probably murdered – in January. As I enter the four-room flat that serves as both editorial and production offices, I realize: this is where a report on the life of artists and intellectuals in the Islamic Republic must begin. The restrictions they are subjected to, and at the same time the persistence of their efforts, could not be more tangible anywhere than in these rooms decorated with artists’ portraits and theatre posters from all over the world.

With a circulation of 20,000 to 25,000, Gardun is one of Iran’s most read cultural magazines. And yet – in spite of extreme austerity in its staff costs and rudimentary equipment (there’s not even a fax machine) – the paper doesn’t come close to breaking even. That is mainly because it no longer receives a contingent of subsidized paper. The result: Gardun has to buy paper on the open market, at a price eight times higher. That makes every issue a losing venture from its inception. Another way in which the state deals with insubordinate minds: private companies are given to understand that it is better not to advertise in magazines like Gardun. Accordingly, the copy of the journal that the publisher Abbas Maroufi hands me to read, fresh off the press, contains no advertising at all. Although in recent years Maroufi was repeatedly able to finance the magazine using the money earned by his novels and stories, which enjoyed large print runs in the Iranian market, this source of revenue has dried up too: Maroufi is not allowed to reissue any of his books, much less publish a new novel.

‘What else will they prohibit?’ asks Esmail Jamshidi, an editor at Gardun. ‘We’re practically closed down. If we bring out just two issues instead of the fourteen we planned, the magazine really doesn’t exist any more. How can we keep our readers, our subscribers?’ And Abbas Maroufi recently wrote in his editorial, addressing a section head in the ministry of culture: ‘We spend more than half of our time exposing your swindles, and the rest of the time we are held hostage by you, the paper suppliers, the banks and a crust of bread. We cut off a piece of our sleep and our soul in order to write something. A piece of a soul that is already wounded and half dead. And now, as I write this, I realize that, as far as my books are concerned in this country, I can recite the prayer for the dead. And I recite it.’

Maroufi is a lean man in his mid-thirties with a moustache and dark, piercing eyes, restless, full of plans, and with the emotion of one fighting for a better world. He doesn’t want to give up, to withdraw into literature. ‘Intellectuals in every age have spent their blood,’ he says. ‘Look at the life of André Malraux. People like that really slogged. Or Camus, Sartre, who sacrificed themselves for their cause. How many deaths did they die; how often were they flayed alive? You can’t just sit in a corner and write novels, least of all in Iran.’

That may sound old-fashioned. But when you’re dealing with Iranian artists and intellectuals, you sometimes feel you’ve been sent back in time to the ‘fabulous’ days when art was the expression of an immediate affliction and, at the same time, the most subversive form of rebellion. There may have been a similar effect in the communist or Latin American military dictatorships. What else besides art’s necessity in the face of a shocking reality can explain the fact that, in the Islamic Republic of Iran of all countries, ambitious auteur films are made and classical Iranian music continues to evolve, avant-garde poetry and big novels of social criticism are written, and dozens of notable cultural journals are published? Iranian films have won more than 170 awards at international festivals in recent years, from Cannes to Berlin, Tokyo and Montreal. Concerts by Iranian and international ensembles sell out months in advance. The country’s conservatories are booming. After some three thousand new book titles appeared each year in pre-revolutionary Iran, today there are ten thousand, some of them selling hundreds of thousands of copies. Many of the new titles are translated from European languages. Because private poetry readings are among the most popular leisure-time activities, an Iranian newspaper ran the headline a few months ago, alluding to the country’s bottomed-out economy: ‘Iran Holds World Record – in Poem Production’.

It is not only the political pressure that drives many people to give artistic expression to their distress and their fears. In the past sixteen years, the Iranians have been subjected to what must be a unique concentration of historic events and changes: a revolution, an eight-year war, natural disasters such as the 1990 earthquake which killed more than sixty thousand people, an economic crisis that is threatening the livelihoods of whole segments of the population, and streams of migrants leaving the country and entering it, bleeding Iran financially and intellectually and at the same time making it the country with the most refugees in the world.

Yet the population’s formative experience may have been something else: the collective boundary experience of the Iranian society; the experience of death and the despair at its senselessness. At demonstrations and on the battlefield, many people have looked death in the face with their own eyes, and the omnipresence of death is further heightened by the cult of penitence and martyrdom in popular Shiite religion. Practically every family has martyrs to mourn – martyrs of the revolution, martyrs of the war, martyrs of the resistance against the mullahs’ regime. And for what? Most people are neither better off nor freer today than they were twenty years ago. All the blood for nothing; the sacrifices for nothing; the running, fighting, living – for nothing: that is the experience that has formed many Iranians’ outlook on life.

And there is no end to the running. There is no rest and no catching their breath. Today it is the daily race for a living; two, three jobs in parallel, fourteen hours a day, six and a half days a week: that is the workaday life of many Iranians. ‘Is that what the people fought a revolution for?’ Abbas Maroufi asked some time ago in an editorial: ‘For the idea of freedom to extinguish itself; for the day’s twenty-four hours to run out before they have a chance just to say the word freedom?’

Many Iranians withdraw into private life or flee, finances permitting, into consumption. Satellite TV, video, cheap Western culture, all are booming. Others become poets. Art is a way for many Iranians to deal with the vanity of human striving. It gives expression to the questioning, the bewilderment, the despair, the betrayed hope for a better future. It proclaims, as the great Iranian storyteller Mahmoud Dowlatabadi once said, ‘with a thousand voices of silence: I am mute.’

It has often been noted at international film festivals that the Iranian contributions share a seriousness, a depth, an absoluteness, even when they are comedies. The reason – of course – is the reality which confronts filmmakers in Iran. What is expressed in the artists’ work, the experiences of a society, is significantly more brutal, and more existential for the individual, than in Western Europe. I do not want to glorify anyone: in Iran too there is a great deal of mediocrity and art-as-entertainment. During my stay, however, I have met a few people who impressed me so greatly that I