No question that international Islamist terrorism is on the rise, leading to changes in Egypt and the whole world on political, economic and social levels. To expound on the issue, Watani met one of Egypt’s most prominent philosophers, one who has been vocal in his analysis of religious-based terrorism.
Murad Wahba is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Ain Shams University; he is the founder and honorary president of the Afro-Asian Philosophy Association and president of the Averroes and Enlightenment International Association. Dr Wahba is among the 500 most notable philosophers in the world.
You have been preoccupied with changes on the international scene. A statement that you made caused quite a stir; it described US President Donald Trump, along with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, as ‘God’s messengers’ to save civilisation.
My interest in the international scene is not new; I’ve always taken interest in religious fundamentalism and terrorism wherever they emerged. However, the term ‘messenger of God’ is not mine; it was said by a participant in a seminar I presided over during the Cairo International Book Fair last January. I cannot be responsible for terms others use. What I said was that we now have a revolutionary trio consisting of Egyptian President Sisi, US President Trump and Russian President Putin, and that this trio are saving civilisation from fundamentalists bent on destroying it.
What do you mean by ‘saving civilisation’?
I mean saving civilisation from religious fundamentalism, especially Islamic fundamentalism which aims to establish a global Islamic Caliphate on Planet Earth. President Sisi alone took the initiative of standing against Islamic fundamentalism.
Don’t you think that the expression ‘establishing a global Caliphate on Planet Earth’ is an exaggeration?
I use the term ‘planetary’ to distinguish it from ‘globalisation’, a term which has other implications. Planet Earth has experienced changes that resulted from the technological revolution which caused spatial and temporal distances to almost vanish, hence the term ‘planetarism’.
What threats can religious fundamentalism bring to Planet Earth?
Religious fundamentalism, led by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), is based on the teachings of Ibn-Taymiyyah, the 13th-century Islamic scholar who branded the 12th-century philosopher Averroes an infidel. This was because the latter had concluded that religious texts can have two meanings, one apparent and another hidden or allegoric. The apparent meaning is usually perceptual and does not need much reasoning, whereas the hidden meaning calls for reasoning. If a believer sees that a religious text contradicts reason, the mind should look for an allegoric meaning embedded in it. However, Ibn-Taymiyyah accused Averroes of apostasy saying that allegoric interpretation is a Satanic abomination and a hell-bound heresy. If we stop using reason and just adopt the apparent meaning [of any text], how can one make knowledgeable discoveries? Scholarship would weaken and give way to mythology; we revert back to pre-civilisation ages. In fact, civilisations start with a mythological mind and evolve into a reasoning mind.
Religious fundamentalism in general, and Islamic fundamentalism in particular, pulls us backwards because, according to Ibn-Taymiyyah, it calls for an end to reasoning, which leads to the principle of Compliance and Obedience. When the entire planet becomes an Islamic Caliphate dominated by Compliance and Obedience and no reasoning, as desired by Islamist fundamentalists, civilisation comes to an end. The person who stood against the establishment of this order is President Sisi and therefore I have the right to say that he saved our civilisation and our Planet Earth.
Is President Trump continuing what Sisi already started?
President Trump is following in the footsteps of Presidents Sisi and Putin; this is obvious in his speeches where he does not shy of using the term “terrorism”. President Putin faces terrorist threats that originate in the surrounding Islamic Republics of the Caucasus.
In the 1970s, religious fundamentalism started to emerge in many spots in the world, but Islamic fundamentalism stood out because it sought, and still seeks, to establish itself globally. That’s why it is the common enemy of the revolutionary trio.
But isn’t the mere fact of holding a religious service in the White House a confirmation of another type of religious fundamentalism that lurks in the heart of the American presidential institution?
One must not confuse private religious practice with religious fundamentalist thought. Religious practice is concerned with faith, rituals, and behaviour and is not binding to others. Religious fundamentalism is about doctrines and results from the literal or perceptual interpretation of religious texts. I didn’t observe that President Trump was in any way interested in religious interpretation.
Before him, the US Democratic Party led by Barrack Obama, Hilary Clinton and Huma Abedin, supported Islamic fundamentalists, controlled White House politics, and would have ultimately led to the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate.
But the US is a secular nation. How would the American people have accepted a world order under an Islamic Caliphate?
Fundamentalism is about one religion imposing its thought and will, which would have happened given the opportunity afforded by the Obama-Clinton-Abedin axis.
When Mr Trump became president, he said that President Sisi was the first person he desired to cooperate with. The revolutionary trio is set to confront Islamic fundamentalism for sure.
The term ‘State terrorism’ has gained ground. Which do you think is more dangerous: fundamentalist terrorism or State terrorism?
To make things clear, let us make the following analysis. Free expression, as once described by an activist, is a non-negotiable right. But a terrorist threatens peoples’ lives; that is, he threatens their right to life. Which should take precedence: their right to life or a terrorist’s right to free expression? If lives are threatened, it should be the State’s highest priority to ensure the individuals’ right to life. If priorities are reversed in a terrorist climate then this is when we have to say that the State supports terrorism, not the contrary.
I believe the right to live a safe and peaceful life must precede all other rights. The terrorist who blew himself up in the Boutrossiya church killing 28 worshippers in December 2016 curtailed their right to life; had he been caught before he committed his horrendous crime I would have been the first to demand that he should be granted the right of free expression. But he was not caught; he lived free to take their lives. I believe it is not right to use the terms ‘State terrorism’ or ‘human rights’ out of their proper context.
President Obama used to accuse President Sisi’s regime of State terrorism, whereas he never accused his predecessor, Islamist President Morsi who came on the wings of the Arab Spring and whose regime was notorious for blocking freedoms, of such a thing. Meaning that the term is politically exploited.
You have accused the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) of being the origin of Islamic fundamentalism: “the origin of evil”. But MB violence is far less brutal than that committed by the Islamic State (IS) and the Islamic Army in Iraq (IAI).
This is traditional thinking. Did any of these groups exist before the MB? They did not. They all implement various versions of MB ideology. It has not been proved whether IS or al-Nusra take orders from the MB, but when they claim responsibility for a terrorist attack they appear more than anything to be following a distribution of roles. The main mastermind is the MB; during their rule in post-Arab-Spring Egypt we witnessed acts of violence no different than those committed by the other groups.
Terrorism is the culmination of religious fundamentalist thought which bans the use of reason and believes it owns the absolute truth. Anyone with views different than those of the fundamentalists is an apostate who should be killed. Terrorism combines the two stages of apostasy: accusation and killing, and is thus the highest degree of religious fundamentalism.
Do you support opting for a military solution to eliminate terrorism?
This is only a secondary solution. Islamic fundamentalism cannot be destroyed overnight; it is a long and difficult battle which requires changing people’s minds to undermine fundamentalist thought. Unfortunately, the Egyptian education system was for long dominated by MB members. When I taught at Ain Shams University in 1980, I was the only professor to be fired during the presidency of Anwar Sadat. Was it President Sadat who fired me or was it the MB who were then in control of the education system? The report against me stated that I was the most dangerous university professor because I had the ability to change the established system using reason and intellect. After the assassination of President Sadat in 1981, President Hosni Mubarak took office and re-appointed me as university professor. Later, in 1998, I received a phone call from the then University President Hassan Ghallab who told me that my students were complaining that they couldn’t sleep nights because they kept thinking of my ideas and opinions. The University administration considered this a threat to national security and asked me to stop teaching undergraduate courses and limit myself to graduate courses, which I have been doing since then.
Until now, the MB is being fought by the army and the police. The correct way to confront it is through battling its thought and culture. However, I notice that the Egyptian cultured elite which should carry the torch of enlightenment are currently not undertaking this mission, possibly not wishing to clash with religious thought or authorities.
Dealing with Takfiris (Islamic extremists who pronounce anyone who does not follow their version of faith as apostates; a thought prevalent with militant jihadi groups) is a very difficult task because their values of life and death are ‘reversed’. How can we confront such extremist thought?
The reason why some Muslims adhere to this extremist thought must be understood. The Iranian Revolution was influenced by a prominent Shiite philosopher called Ali Shariati who argued that the history of mankind was nothing but the history of war between the party of mushrikeen (those who worship multiple gods) and the party of tawheed (the concept that God is one). In other words, between Islam and all other religions. He praised the martyrs who look forward to death for their faith and willingly seek it rather than wait for it. In this case, they value death more than life under the belief that it leads directly to Paradise with all the corporeal pleasures promised there; therefore, one must embrace death without hesitation. So the right to life recedes in favour of the value of death. This is how terrorists are made: death is so embellished that they happily embrace it.
Take for example the young man who blew himself up in the Boutrossiya church. The day before he executed his suicide mission, he went to the church to inspect the location. What struck me was that for this young man the idea of death was so easy to accept that he went to inspect his ‘tomb’.
The only way to beat this ideology is to confront it with an opposite one; this is where the cultured elite should play a key role to change the suicidal thought and divert these young people’s ideas to a different direction.
Please tell us about your project “Murad Wahba and the ‘man in the street’”?
My project was in line with the concept of taking culture to the masses. It came to life when I started to realise the importance of bringing philosophy closer to the public. I followed in the footsteps of Socrates, the great 4th century BC Greek philosopher who spent his days talking to the public in the Agora (the Athenian marketplace). However, I wanted my ideas to reach places far beyond the local marketplace, the world over to be exact. I started my project in 1983 by holding an international conference under the title “Philosophy and the man in the street”. It was the first international conference in the history of philosophy; philosophers from the four corners of the world were invited and it was held within the premises of the Arab League.
I was surprised to see a fellow philosopher arriving to the conference accompanied by a sweet potato vendor. He told me that since the conference addressed not only philosophers but also average citizens, he brought a simple man and asked me if I would accept to have a discussion with him. Of course I accepted and started by asking the vendor about his definition of a philosopher; he replied that in his home village they call him “Mr Know It All”, a term I found very amusing. Then I asked him about his problems and whether he was willing to take any steps to change his reality. He objected by saying that local tradition and religion say that a person’s fate is predetermined. We kept arguing about this until he finally asked me if it was possible for him to change his life; at that moment it was clear that this simple man had grasped the idea and started to use reason.
After the conference was over, I was surprised at the volume of criticism I received. A reporter in the Cairo daily Al-Ahram told me about numerous letters that his newspaper received attacking the conference and attacking me personally.
This was followed by another enlightenment project around the philosophy of Averroes. Can you tell us about it?
After the failure of my first project, I started a new project targeting intellectuals and philosophers under the theme of substituting Averroes for Ibn-Taymiyyah. Again, I was attacked by writers who accused me of bad faith; until now, I still don’t understand what exactly is the bad faith in promoting the ideas of Averroes. Once again, my project was aborted.
Now that we are in the time of President Sisi whom you consider the saviour of civilisation, did no institution decide to revive any of your two enlightenment projects?
This is a problem which President Sisi must solve. The institutions responsible for education and culture rejected my project; whereas the media channels contact me from time to time for small TV appearances. Although President Sisi has met with intellectuals twice, no national counter-terrorism programme was launched. [President Sisi has repeatedly called for reform of Islamic religious thought as a means to counter terrorist fundamentalist thought]
To sum it up, how can we beat terrorism?
First, by substituting Averroes for Ibn-Taymiyyah. Second, by establishing the Arab Averroes movement to hold dialogues with the Latin Averroes movement which is responsible for European religious reform and cultural enlightenment. Third, for any change in thought to be achieved, it must be adopted first by the cultured elite then passed to the man in the street. Last but not least, an awareness campaign must be launched by the media to promote enlightenment and cultural and intellectual change.
22 March 2017