When I saw the Twin Towers collapse, live on TV, and when I became certain that the attackers were all Arabs and Muslims, I understood the words of the Algerian philosopher Malek Bennabi (1905 -1973) “Dead ideas become deadly.”
Bennabi explained how Islam is an ensemble of original and functioning ideas for solving the problems of Muslim society, on condition however, that new interpretations are constantly activated adapting the holy text to the context, and not the opposite, as extremists of all religions do.
So any idea is therefore like a living human being; subject to the laws of nature, and unable to escape the life cycle envisaging birth and death. The great danger – warns the Algerian intellectual – is that of bringing back to life an idea that is dead, because, no longer finding the original context it originated and developed in, it goes mad and becomes deadly. Ideological extremism, be it religious or political, basically thrives on dead ideas, while terrorism thrives on mortal ideas.
I still remember September 12th 2001; I was in Rome surrounded by demonstrators protesting against terrorism and supporting the American people, I too adhering to the slogan: “We are all Americans.” I could not but take part in that torch-light procession, since I came from a country tortured by terrorist attacks and massacres; in only seven years two hundred thousand people died surrounded by the indifference of the civilised world. During those terrible years, I would have wanted to see solidarity demonstrations all over the world supporting Algerian women and to hear them say: “We are all Algerians.”
The suicide attacks of September 11th 2001 mark a profound epistemological breakdown; in fact, there was a negative discontinuity within the framework of knowledge of Islam in the West. Faced with the need to identify and know the new “enemy”, the media very quickly searched for experts on Islam. In Italy for example, we watched talk shows on Islam that were like episodes of a programme about soccer hosted by Biscardi: super-pseudo-soccer-experts commenting matches with the emphasis and frenzy of fans, they too following the winning communicative model set by Vittorio Sgarbi: always shout and prevent the opponent from speaking, so that, as the Milanese correctly say: “Whoever shouts loudest gets the cow.”
The commercialisation of Islam therefore, so the birth of two main producers of Islamic wisdom or simply of do-it-yourself Islam:
Firstly. There were improvised Imams in need of full immersion courses both in Italian and in Islamic Law. All in all people too ready to pronounce a fatwa, preaching on how to beat a disobedient wife. Many were “ethnic tradesmen”, mostly the owners of halal butcher’s shops. It seems that being an imam does not arise from a spiritual need but rather from the need to promote a personal commercial activity. The faithful are all potential clients; and so many small Muslim entrepreneurs invested in setting up small mosques. The best known example is the controversial former-imam and butcher from Turin, Bouriqi Bouchta, expelled from Italy in September 2005.
Secondly. In September 2001 a very angry Oriana Fallaci reappeared and had unsolved issues with her fellow Italians. The Muslims or ‘sons of Allah’ were only an excuse for inciting an Islamophobic crusade. Her ‘anger’ however infected millions of Italians.
Fallaci’s ideas inaugurated a fashion: to be an expert on Islam it is not necessary to speak Arabic or Farsi or Urdu and it is not even necessary to have in-depth knowledge of a Muslim country. I wonder: is it feasible to be an expert on America or Germany without speaking English and knowing the United States or without speaking German and knowing Germany?
The show goes on. We continue to see “theocons” on TV, improvised experts, not Islamologues but Islam-demagogues, with no knowledge of languages spoken in the Islamic area and who have never attended courses on Islam. They do however publish books with great publishing houses and are invited on television as experts on Islamic subjects. I have myself watched a pseudo-expert on Muslim women explain on television her proposal to forbid minors from wearing the veil and in the days that followed appear on other programmes where, once again as an expert, she spoke of summer holidays on the Sardinian Costa Smeralda and the right Italian female members of parliament have to wear high heels in Parliament.
One must bear in mind that explaining Islam to non-Muslims, was in the past entrusted to Orientalists, Western scholars who spoke at least one of the Islamic area’s languages, and one must acknowledge that they brought to light manuscripts of Arab literature and philosophy such as “A thousand and one nights”, and Al Muqqaddima (a masterpiece of modern historiography) by Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406).
During the Sixties and the Seventies, following the independence of many Arab and Muslim countries, a number of Arab scholars such as Anouar Abed-Malek and Edward Said accused Orientalists of having placed their linguistic and anthropological knowledge at the service of the colonial powers. Hence this criticism was of ethical origin and only concerned the improper use of knowledge and did not question their linguistic and cultural competence.
Do-it-yourself Islam is sterile and sealed, in spite of being an effective media product since it results in high ratings; the preacher offending the crucifix makes the news and causes controversies. In the daily lives of Muslim immigrants however, there are promising premises for trusting in an open Islam, capable of reconciling tradition and modernity.