This was a shockingly bizarre set of responses from a man considered to be one of the great Arab intellectuals of our time. I have read Adonis extensively, and I am frankly really surprised to see him argue that:
“If we do not distinguish between what is religious and what is political, cultural, and social, nothing will change and the decline of the Arabs will worsen. Religion is not the answer to problems anymore. Religion is the cause of problems. That is why it needs to be separated. Every free human believes in what he wants, and we should respect that. But for religion to be the foundation of society? No.”
Oh dear. I never imagined a day would come when I would realise that Adonis, considered one of the greatest living Arab poets, would reveal that he is poorly read, and even worse, intellectually dead.
This statement reflects a profound and fundamental misunderstanding about the travails of our times. And the imaginary history of Europe that he is obviously repeating.
It is as if he has never bothered to read people of his own generation: Wael Hallaq, Talal Asad, Akeel Bilgrami, Saba Mahmood, Edward Said, Amir Amin, Joseph Massad, Partha Chatterjee, Arun Appadurai, and so many others, who have taken so much time, so much research, so much effort, so much eloquence and insight, to peal apart the false construction of ‘state’ and ‘religion’ that underpins the very idea of ‘Europe’ in the post-Enlightenment period. Talal Asad alone has dissecting the ontology, epistemology, theory, and lineage of the creation of the ‘secular’ over a period of decades, dozens of articles and a few very critical books. What about Shahab Ahmed’s What Is Islam: The Importance Of Being Islamic? I could go on. I was simply flabbergasted to read Adonis speaking as if he has read nothing really related to the very subjects he wishes to pontificate on. And if he had gone a step further, he would have remembered to at least understand the reality and existence of colonialism, imperialism and global capitalism, that has something – I dare say something large – to do with the violent state of affairs we now find ourselves in. By what incredible imagination and feat of forgetfulness would anyone claim that Syria, and the chaos unfolding there – or in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia or Pakistan, has anything to do with the Western concept of religion?
Who in their right mind can claim that this is a ‘clash of civilisations’, or a struggle of faith against secularism? A very small and uninformed, ahistorical and anti-intellectual mind indeed. And yet, as i say this, I am surprised at myself for saying it because we are talking about Adonis here! When Adonis says…
“A writer can never be on the side of killing. It is not possible, you know. But some people love killing and violence. How can a poet or a painter be on the [same] side as a person with an explosive belt who goes into a school and detonates himself? How? Those are children. How, how do you kill them? It is an unimaginable monstrosity.”
…does he forget the hundreds of Western / European writers, including luminaries like Rushdie, Naipaul, and others, who have consistently been on ‘the side of killing’? How many writers, and recipients of PEN accolades, stood along Israel or American wars of invasion and occupation? Does he not want to say something about the writers who have in fact worked hard to serve violence and war – Salman Rushdie, Michael Ignatieff, Christopher Hitchens, Ariana Fallaci, and Martin Amis to name just a few. What is this bizarre naivete this great mind is clinging on to?
“But I can say that the Arabs will never advance as long as they think and run in this old, jihadist, religious context. It is not possible. This is what is extinct, what has ended. ISIS is the last shout. Like a candle about to go out, it ends with strength.”
How did he fall into this Orientalist cliche i.e. the failure of the advancement of ‘the Arabs’? What Bernard Lewis pamphlets does he keep in his book shelves to have the temerity to make so ahistorical, and anti-factual a statement? This is racism of the purist kind, and one that erases a century of remarkable Arab struggles against colonialism and imperialism – struggles within which they have developed literature, art, political ideas and died in the millions while trying to build civil and civilized societies. And where is Adonis’ acknowledgement of the decades of the Cold War where the USA and its cohorts in Europe spent trillions organizing, training, funding, arming and placing ‘hard core’ Islamists from across the globe and supporting their massacres of innocents across the globe – from Bangladesh to Indonesia to Egypt and more? Is this Islam, or the Arabs? I expect these from populists, pundits, journalists and politicians, but again, we are talking about Adonis here, a man repeatedly considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature! To what extend of ignorance and indifference – of history, of society, of politics, of the news! – does one have to cling to offer so anti-factual, and historicist a cliché?
This is a staggering collapse of the intellect on display here. I will not say anything about the poorly structured questions – filled with an Eurocentric bias, and sense of European superiority – but I will be adamant in arguing that Adonis should have questioned the questions, peeled apart their prejudices, and forced the interviewer into some form of self-reflection.
Separation of religion and state are hardly the basis of European success or achievement alone because one can argue that pillage, war, theft, colonial violence, genocide and expropriation are probably bigger and more relevant factors! Talal Asad has done so much work in taking apart this false concept, and I am simply shocked that Adonis can so unthinkingly repeat these clichés. Furthermore, there are tons of debates within Europe itself that recognise the false ‘religion’ and ‘secular’ divide that the Western myth relies on – and it is a constructed myth as anyone who knows the law, and understands its deep roots in Protestant Christianity, can attest (see such as, Sullivan ‘Comparing Religions, Legally’ to see how much of so-called European ‘secular law’ still resides deep within Protestant Christian ethics, ideas of man, of life etc.).
“I see immigration as caused by two things: either there is no work or there is no freedom—no work or no freedom. So the citizen, or the human, looks for a place to work and be free. “
Really? This is all to it? So all those dead bodies, destroyed cities, NATO jets, and American bombs and drones and occupations and torture and those Saudi / Gulf millions and weapons and what not, are not really, in any way, relevant or worth even mentioning. Even in passing? No? Nothing Adonis? This is what the New York Review of Books has declined to.
I do so miss Barbara Epstein! She was an incredible editor and a brilliant mind and would never have allowed such stuff!! God rest her soul!