PARIS - Friends and supporters of Al-Afif al-Akhdar are convinced: the life of the veteran fighter for secularism and democracy in the Arab world is in danger. A year ago, the Tunisian Islamic movement Al-Nahdha, which is persecuted by the authorities in its country, condemned him as the author of the scandalous book "The Unknown in the Prophet's Life." A Tunisian citizen, Akhdar has for decades been waging a stubborn campaign to expose the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism, including those espoused by Sheikh Rashed al-Ghanoushi, the leader of Al-Nahdha, who has been in exile in London since 1991. In an unsigned declaration on its Internet site, Al-Nahdha referred to Akhdar, without naming him.
Two years earlier, the fingers of Akhdar's right hand became paralyzed, and the paralysis gradually spread almost to his whole body. He published the details of his illness in order to explain why he had stopped writing. Akhdar and his supporters are convinced that Sheikh Ghanoushi backed the declaration, even if he did not write it himself, which speaks of divine punishment being inflicted on the "true author" of the book that vilifies the prophet Mohammed.
In response to the declaration, which was construed as a fatwa condemning Akhdar to death, the Arab organization for the Protection of Freedom of Expression and the Press organized a petition "against obscurantist religious extremism," which called for the protection of Akhdar's life and freedom. Within two months, the petition was signed by more than 600 intellectuals and academics, most of them Arabs. Akhdar, who in the meantime regained his capacity for movement thanks to medical treatment (though he is still unable to write, because his fingers remain too stiff), recently contacted the London solicitor Daniel Machover about the possibility of taking legal action against Sheikh Ghanoushi.
It was not by chance that he turned to Machover, an expert in international law who gained fame last year when he tried to bring about the arrest of an Israeli officer, Major General (res.) Doron Almog, who had just landed in London, on suspicion that he had perpetrated war crimes while serving in the Gaza Strip. Akhdar wants Islamic terrorists to get the same treatment as people who have committed crimes against humanity. In October 2004 he was one of three Arab intellectuals who asked the UN secretary-general and the Security Council to establish an international tribunal to try such terrorists, including clerics who issue fatwas for the liquidation of "infidels."
Machover is the son of Prof. Moshe Machover, one of the founders of the radical socialist organization Matzpen, which was active in Israel in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1970s and 1980s, Akhdar and Moshe Machover were members of a collective of Arab and Israeli revolutionaries who published the journal Khamsin in Paris and afterward in London. Already then, Akhdar had identified the danger inherent in Islamic fundamentalism and assailed the support of many left-wing activists for the "anti-imperialist" Islamic revolution in Iran. In 1981 Hamsin published an article by him entitled "Why the Reversion fo Islamic Archaism?" In the search for an analysis of the motivations and origins of Islamic terrorism following the events of September 11, 2001, the article was republished on several anarchist and left-wing Web sites. The article is signed Lafif Lakhdar, the author's user-friendly name for non-Arabs.
An Arab Spinoza
Akhdar, who is 72, conducts his struggle from an apartment in a poor Paris neighborhood, many of whose residents are immigrants. He lives alone, "but with my 4,000 books I don't feel alone." Until 2002 he wrote a weekly article for the London-based Arabic paper Al-Hayat, but was fired after he gave an interview to Al Jazeera in which he condemned the barbarism of the corporal punishments that are meted out in Saudi Arabia, such as amputation of limbs.
Since then, only a few Arab Web sites agreed to publish his articles, mainly Ilaf, a liberal Arabic Web site whose owner pays him a modest monthly salary. Still, says Akhdar, whose first name, Al-Afif, means "the modest one," his economic situation now is better than it was during most of his life. Just a few years ago he was on the brink of starvation and traveled to the center of Paris every day (pensioners can ride the Metro free) to have a free hot meal in a "restaurant for the poor."
His supporters believe that he deserves a great deal more. Dr. Shaker al-Nabulsi, a Jordanian researcher who three months ago published (in Beirut) a book entitled "The Devil's Advocate," the first comprehensive study of Akhdar's thought, wrote an ironic article about Arab society, which worries about ill and aging singing stars but ignores the misery of an intellectual of Akhdar's stature. The article likens Akhdar to the "prophet of liberty," Thomas Paine, who fought for human rights and secularism in the American War of Independence and in the French Revolution. Yigal Carmon, head of the Washington-based MEMRI Institute, which studies the Middle East media - the institute has translated and published several of Akhdar's articles - likens him to Spinoza, who like him was persecuted and ostracized because he insisted on grounding his thought, including his critique of religion, on reason.
"If we were living in a normal world, the entire world left would acclaim him," Carmon says. "He is an amazing person, deeply immersed in Arabic and French culture, an intellectual with broad, diverse and up-to-date knowledge, not only in philosophy, Islam and history, but also in psychology, and he is thoroughly humane. The French, or the Europeans in general, who are coping with problems of immigration, should have placed him at the head of an advisory council on integration, where he could explain, educate and serve as a role model."
Akhdar, who is completely immersed in his present struggles, objects to the focus on him and his life. "Seven lines are enough to present me to readers in Israel," he says. "It is far more important to concentrate on explaining the dangers that inhere in jihadist Islam."
He was born to a poor Muslim family of fellahin; they lived in a hovel 13 kilometers from the nearest village. Seven of his eight brothers and sisters died in childhood (his only surviving brother is a lawyer in Tunisia). Apart from half a year in a French school, which was shut down during World War II, he received no formal education, only Koran studies in the village, and he chose a religious university because it was tuition-free and offered free lodgings and a modicum of food. ("For two weeks during the religion lessons, I secretly read Darwin.') He then studied law and afterward worked for three years as a lawyer.
In 1958 he represented an opponent of the regime who was convicted and executed. The authorities then issued an order restricting Akhdar's movement. In 1961 he fled Tunisia with the help of Algerian freedom fighters and spent nearly 20 years wandering the world using forged passports. He became a socialist in Algeria ("First of all from the gut, because of the hunger - I didn't understand why others had and I didn't - and then I found philosophical justification for the message of egalitarianism"). He was close to Algerian President Ahmed Ben Bella, and was present at the meeting of Abu Jihad and Che Guevara, but in 1965 had to flee Algeria after Ben Bella was deposed in a military coup.
He spent some time in Germany, both East and West, and visited the Middle East, where he formed an unfavorable impression of the Baath regime in Syria, in part because of its attitude toward the Jewish community. In 1968 he was a guest of the Fatah leadership in Amman, which housed him in the same apartment as Yasser Arafat, rather than in a hotel, in order to protect him from Algerian intelligence agents. Over the years he has incurred the wrath of nearly every Arab regime, and thus the danger of death is nothing new to him. He has also been highly critical of the "progressive" national movements and of the Arab Communist parties, which supported dictatorial regimes of oppression and feared to confront the clerics.
"He is in the vanguard," says Prof. Emmanuel Sivan, an expert in Islamic history from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who corresponds regularly with Akhdar and visited him during his illness. "Earlier, he was in the vanguard with regard to the Marxist camp and now, after the turnabout he experienced, he is in the vanguard of the Arab liberal camp. He takes sacred cows and deals with them. He was the first who dared to compile and publish in Arabic everything Lenin wrote about religion, and thus drew the enmity of the Arab Communist parties. He was also one of the first who acknowledged the need to study Israeli society methodically, and in recent years he has written much about what can be learned from Israeli democracy."
Akhdar was soon disappointed in the Fatah leaders, some of whom were influenced by the ideas of the Muslim Brothers. "Abu Jihad told me that there is no chance of overcoming Israel by force of arms, but 'if enough Palestinians are killed maybe the world will hear about us.'" He was far more impressed by Nayef Hawatmeh, founder of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. "Hawatmeh argued that the only justification for forming a fighting force is to topple the Arab regimes," he says. "He convinced me. Hawatmeh also contributed a great deal to the entrenchment of the idea that the Israeli people and its rights must be recognized, and of the need to arrive at a compromise with Israel, but since then there was a great regression in his attitude toward the armed struggle."
Akhdar spent the next few years between Paris and Beirut, with a foray to socialist South Yemen. The civil war in Lebanon induced him to stay in Paris for good. At the end of the 1970s he received a Tunisian passport again, and for the first time in years emerged from the underground. He retranslated the Communist Manifesto into Arabic, based on the German source (he insisted that the cover declare that it is "the first genuine translation" and found a publisher only in the Israeli radical left), to which he appended a sequel of his own, "The Origins of the Arab Bourgeoisie." Some readers discerned a Koranic influence in his writing, to which he admits: "I integrate the poetic spirit of the early parts of the Koran, which are all poetry, with the logical, spare and synonym-less structure of the French sentence."
During this period, he met the Israeli writer Shimon Ballas in Paris. In 1984, Ballas published his novel "Last Winter," in which one of the protagonists is based on Akhdar. In the novel he is called Bashir Halimi, a revolutionary of Moroccan origin.
Terror from Islam
The book that reveals "secrets" from the life of Mohammed, which was written by a certain Dr. Al-Makrizi - though Al-Nahdha accused Akhdar of being the author - can be read in Arabic on a Christian Web site. A perusal of the book shows clearly that its goal is to "prove" to Muslim believers that Mohammed is not exactly the prophet who appears in their sacred writings and to persuade them to join the "true religion," namely Christianity. "The book was apparently written by an anti-Muslim Christian Egyptian who is not very smart," Akhdar says. "It is Christian religious propaganda. How can they accuse me, when they say I am a secular infidel atheist, of writing such a book? Am I a stupid Christian?"
And does the real author deserve to be the subject of a fatwa?
"No. The culture should be free, and every artist and every researcher should be free to write about all religions without any restriction."
Does that include the Danish cartoonist?
"Yes. It includes humor and satire. In the history of Islam you have the poet Abu Nawas, who joked about the Koran. He wrote, for example, "Your Lord did not say woe to the drunkards / But woe to the worshipers." That is a secular principle: separation between religion and politics, and between religion and artistic and literary creation, and between religion and scientific research. This is the greatest achievement of modernity. The clerics must not be allowed to intervene in these matters.
"As for the cartoons, one has to see which Arab and Islamic forces protested the affront to Mohammed and used it for their purposes. Syria was the first country to recall its ambassador from Denmark - the same Syria which in 1982 killed 30,000 'Mohammeds' at Hama. Its protest intended to make people forget its responsibility for the assassination of [former Lebanese prime minister Rafik] Hariri. Iran is the same Iran that prevents the Sunnis in Tehran from building a mosque. It protested in order to divert attention from its nuclear program.
"Saudi Arabia is the same Saudi Arabia that, as part of its plan to turn Mecca into a modern city, decided to demolish the building in which Mohammed married Khadija - a rare historic site - in order to build a public lavatory in its place. It protests in order to make [Muslims] forget its war against Al-Qaida. Sheikh Yusuf al-Kardawi, who stirred up the Arab world against the cartoon in his television program on Al Jazeera, did what all the Islamic movements did: He used the protest against the cartoon in order to show Muslims why it is necessary to break relations with the 'infidels' and in order to foment an interreligious war.
"One has to see who is using the cartoon for his purposes. The workers? The fellahin? No. It is those who are demolishing Mohammed's house and protesting a cartoon."
Many Muslims are protesting the identification of Mohammed, and hence of Islam as such, with terrorism. Is terrorism in fact ingrained in Islam?
"This is what the Islamists themselves say, like the spiritual mentor of Ayman al-Zawahiri , who is not second in importance in Al-Qaida, but first in terms of religious law, as well as planning and thought. His mentor is Sheikh Abed al-Qadr bin Abed al-Aziz (whose real name is A-Sayed Imam Abed al-Aziz a-Sharif), who asserted, 'Terror is from Islam and anyone who denies this is a heretic'. He and others rely on a few verses from the Koran, and I will give you, as an example, only one of them, from the Surah of the Spoils of War [Surah 8:60]: 'Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into [the hearts of] the enemies of Allah and your enemies' [translation from Abdullah Yusuf Ali, "The Meaning of the Holy Qur'an"]."
On what, then, do Muslims who deny the identification of Islam with jihad and terrorism rely on?
"There are two Islams from the period of Mohammed. There is Meccan Islam [referring to Mohammed's period in Mecca], which is a 'Christian' Islam - that is, under Christian influence - and is essentially peace-seeking. The use of violence, even for self-defense, was prohibited. In this Islam, jihad was prohibited. This Islam was the basis for the mystical Sufi movement.
"When Mohammed was forced to move from Mecca to Medina, a second Islam - jihadist Islam - was born. And it is this Islam that the contemporary terrorists have adopted. To justify the passage from the 'conciliatory' peace of Mecca to the militant peace of Medina, Mohammed told the Muslims that jihad is permissible only for self-defense [Surah of The Pilgrimage - Surah 22:39]: 'To those against whom war is made, permission is given [to fight], because they are wronged.' Mohammed was wronged - he was expelled from Mecca, and the purpose of the defensive jihad is to enable his return.
"Medinaist Islam is terrorist Islam. Sheikh Yusuf al-Kardawi says that terrorism in Islam is positive and should be welcomed. Here he is drawing in part on verse 12 in the Surah of the Spoils of War: 'I will instill terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers: Smite ye above their necks and smite all their fingertips off them.' Osama bin Laden, in a speech on the occasion of Id al-Adha in 2003, said that it is best to follow the blessed terror about which al-Kardawi speaks."
Is there anything that can be done so that Meccan Islam will be strengthened and overcome Medinaist Islam?
"My answer is my plan for the reform of Islam, a reform of the Islamic discourse, of religious education, the religious media, the sermons in the mosques, and so forth. The plan is to remove from the textbooks all the violent and jihadist verses and leave them only in the source, in the holy writings."
"To a certain extent, yes. In Tunisia, this has been done since 1999. The plan is that instead of the violent verses, schoolchildren will be taught the universal verses of peace which exist in the Mecca period. For example, Verse 62 of the Surah of the Heifer, which says, 'Those who believe [in the Koran], and those who follow the Jewish [Scriptures], and the Christians and the Sabians, any who believe in Allah and the Last Day and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.' And there are another two similar verses. The sages of the Sharia all said that these are 'annulled' verses. We have to annul the annulment of these three verses and declare that it is the verses against the Jews and the Christians that are 'annulled.'
"The plan I proposed includes the introduction of modern sciences in the institutions of religious education, as well as comparative history of the religions and psychology and sociology of the religions, so that students will be able to understand the religious text in terms of modern logic. And also courses in philosophy and human rights, in order to instill modern values into Islam, in which there are now only values of permitted-prohibited.
"Several Arab regimes have already begun to implement this plan, or parts of it. In Morocco, for example, philosophy is now being taught in high schools. In Algeria, a year after I sent an open letter to President Bouteflika, calling on him to eliminate Sharia instruction in high-school education, a law in this spirit was enacted last October. And in October 2005, Libya, too, canceled the teaching of jihadist Islam and of the verses that justify violence."
The ambush of history
Many are convinced that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is one of the major reasons for Islamic terrorism. Is this so?
"Not at all. People who say this, including experts on whose opinions Western decision-makers rely, do not truly understand the theology of Islamic terror. What are the goals of the terrorism perpetrated by Al-Qaida? Zawahiri described this clearly in his book, 'Horsemen under the Prophet's Banner,' which he effectively wrote as his last testament shortly before the terrorist offensive of September 11 (he was certain that after the attack the United States would liquidate all of them).
"Here is what he wrote, on pages 327-328: 'The jihadist movement must strive for the Islamic nation to take part with it in its jihad, and the Islamic nation will not take part as long as the masses of the Islamic nation do not understand the slogans of the Mujahideen.' And he adds, 'Therefore the jihadist movement is obliged to abandon the limitation of going into the fray solely under these slogans - al-hakimiya, al-walaa and al-baraa' - meaning religious rule based on the Sharia, Islamic religious law; forging ties with believers only; and total and immediate severance from the unbelievers.
"The goal of Islamic terror, then, is to establish a state that will implement the Sharia and divorce itself completely from the infidels - from their religions, their customs, their dress, their institutions, their sciences and their values.
"But al-Zawahiri is smart and is aware of the reality. 'Regrettably,' he writes, 'these slogans are not comprehensible to the masses of the nation, who do not find within themselves readiness to sacrifice for slogans they do not understand, even if the slogans are one hundred percent correct.'"
What solution does he propose?
"He knows that a great deal of time is needed before the masses will understand these slogans. However, he writes, 'It is clear that our enemies will not give us all the time we need to educate the nation.' What, then, is to be done? His answer: 'To our slogans [as listed above] we must add other slogans, which are understandable to the masses of the Islamic nation, and instead of viewing them as being of secondary importance, we must move them forward so that they take their place at the forefront' - on the same level as the three original slogans."
What are the additional slogans he promotes?
"'The slogan that the Islamic nation has understood well for 50 years,' he writes. 'This is the slogan of the call for a jihad against Israel.' You have to understand, for him this is a second-rank goal and its use is solely as a Machiavellian means: If we tell them that the goal is a Muslim state that will amputate thieves' hands, they will say no, but this goal is clear and simple.
"Another slogan that Zawahiri promotes is the liberation of the Islamic holy places in Saudi Arabia from the American military presence in the Arabian Peninsula, and in Jerusalem from the presence of the Israeli army. The liberation of Palestine is not the central goal of the terror, but the struggle for it helps the terrorists recruit Muslims for the jihad against the Jews and against the 'Crusaders.' In contrast to the left, they hate neither American imperialism nor Zionism; they hate the Christians and the Jews. Not because of what the Jews and the Christians are doing to the Muslims, but only because they are Christians and Jews who did not accept the true faith, Islam."
Is this also true of the Palestinian Islamic organizations, such as Hamas?
"Yes. True, Hamas asserts that its goal is the liberation of Palestine to the last clod, and its transformation into Islamic Waqf [charitable trust] of all the Muslims in the world. This is undoubtedly an unattainable goal, but its role is to mobilize the Palestinians and the Islamic nation for a jihad against Israel and against its allies in the West.
"Incidentally, al-hakimiya, al-walaa and al-baraa are the foundation in the theology of all the Islamic movements of the modern period. For example, Rashed al-Ghanoushi, in his book 'The General Freedoms in the Muslim State,' says that Ibn Taymiyya viewed hatred of the infidels as a basic goal of the Islamic Sharia. And this Ibn Taymiyya, who lived in the 14th century, is THE sheikh of the modern Islamic terrorists. And who is an infidel? Not only those who believe in other religions. Ibn Taymiyya stated that the Shiites are infidels, and he was the first to state that the Sufis are infidels, and the philosophers are infidels, and in short anyone who departs a little from what true Islam views as the right path is declared an infidel."
We will return, with your permission, to Hamas.
"And to terrorism. Contrary to the declared goal of Hamas, the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza can be realized, but its establishment will pull the ground from under the excuse for terrorism (the liberation of Palestine), so that Hamas will be left only with the three slogans, which the Islamic nation does not understand."
Taking into account the Hamas Charter, is there any prospect that this movement will reach a settlement with Israel?
"The Hamas Charter is taken from the theology of Islamic Jihad. When Hamas announced the possibility of a long-term hudna [cease-fire] with Israel, Western commentators, who are unfamiliar with jihadist theology, wrote that Hamas had become more moderate. That is a foolish diagnosis. Bin Laden recently offered the United States a long-term hudna - so has he become moderate, too?
"Like bin Laden, Hamas took this straight from the jihad theology. What does this theology say? When the Muslim army is weak and is in an inferior position, it must ask for a hudna of three-four years in order to exploit the time to strengthen itself. This is the 'long term' of jihad."
Is it possible to persuade the Hamas leadership to conduct peace negotiations with Israel?
"It is difficult. In such a case, jihad theology will view the Hamas leaders as heretics, because that theology prohibits the ceding of even an inch of Muslim land to infidels. After the Oslo accord, Rashad a-Ranoushi issued a fatwa in which he declared Arafat and the PLO leadership infidels and [said] that all the sages of Islam view as a criminal anyone who cedes one iota of the soil of Palestine. But reality is stronger than the Koran, and I have no doubt that the more rational of the Hamas leaders will deviate from that religious law and accept Israel's existence."
So you also see a positive aspect in the Hamas electoral victory?
"Yes. History has laid an ambush for Hamas. The Hamas movement did not want to win, it wanted to be the second most important force, after Fatah, and to delay the implementation of the 'road map.' After the victory, the movement finds itself in a situation in which it must choose: either it forgoes its charter, and the jihad, in order to negotiate with Israel, or the Palestinian people will forgo it."
Is there also a democratic lesson here - there is no need to seize power by force, there is the possibility of winning at the polls?
"The Islamists are against democracy. For them, the legitimacy of government derives from Islamic religious law, not from elections."
If Hamas loses the next elections, will its people give up power?
"Giving up power is forbidden in Islam: the ruler rules until his death. Hamas will not be ready for an exchange of government as a result of an election loss, but in the end this will be decided by the balance of power that will prevail at the time; it will depend on the true power that will accrue to the winning side."
The president of the United States says that jihadist terror is the greatest threat to world peace. Do you agree?
"Islamic terror is a great enemy of humanity, but so is rampant capitalism. The world is being managed without wisdom and humanity is in constant danger of an ecological disaster, a nuclear disaster and a biological disaster.
"Capitalism is a necessary historical stage. At first it was wild and left many victims in its wake. As a result, a counter-movement arose, which succeeded in 'taming' it by stages, in 'civilizing' its barbarian impulses. Now it is running wild again and we must fight to tame it anew."
Once you believed that the workers and their allies would succeed in toppling capitalism in a socialist revolution.
"Today I think this is not possible. What will apparently happen is that capitalism will gradually change, by itself and under pressure from its opponents, and will become something else. The workers do not want a dictatorship of the proletariat, but they do want to receive services and commodities free. We have to struggle for free health [care], free bread and milk (every year surpluses of milk are dumped - why not distribute it to hungry children?), free culture, free public transportation."
There is a Belgian city that has already introduced free public transit.
"Really? That is very interesting. Michel Jobert, the foreign minister under Pompidou, told me that in 1970 the minister of transportation said that it was possible to run the Paris Metro for free, and it would cost the government less. What did President Pompidou say to that? 'No, if we give them the Metro free they will demand bread and milk free, too.'
"To this we have to add the change in democracy that is made possible by the media and communication revolution, from a democracy of elected representatives over whom the voters have no supervision after their vote and who can break their promises, to direct democracy, in which more and more decisions will be made in referendums."
So you have changed your mind?
"Certainly. In the Muslim Arab culture you have to hold the views of your tribe and your religion, which were set in previous generations, and you must not think for yourself or change your opinion. Every day I read 70 pages of philosophical and scientific writing, and I change 70 times under the influence of the facts and ideas I encounter. And then I am asked, 'Why did you say one thing 20 years ago and something different now?'
"In the eyes of the Muslim Arabs, an intellectual is a kind of prophet, whose words are absolute truth. I am not a prophet, I am a researcher of society. And science - what, really, is science? It is a mistake that was corrected, a mistake that needs to be corrected. Very soon I will perhaps make a new correction."
When we met in Paris 25 years ago, you told me that you would like to visit Israel in order to participate with the workers in their struggle. In Shimon Ballas' book, too, the character based on you plans to go to Israel, but in order to study Hebrew. What prevents you from visiting?
"Now, the illness. Because of my support for a compromise with Israel, I am occasionally asked, 'If the government of Israel were to invite you to visit, what would you do?' And I reply: a government has to invite a prime minister, a minister or a politician, not me. But if I receive an invitation from the civil society, from nongovernmental organizations, I will not reject it. In any event, if you succeed in reaching peace and the establishment of a Palestinian state, I will try to come even if I am very sick, in order to celebrate with you and with the Palestinians."
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