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Radical Islam examined

Maddie Hanna | Monday, January 28, 2008

Muslims need to take responsibility for violence and oppression perpetuated by radical followers of their religion, Chahdortt Djavann, an Iranian woman who moved to France and became a writer, said Friday at Notre Dame.

The provocative novelist, whose writings include a pamphlet protesting the veil worn by Muslim women and a book criticizing radical Islam in Europe, delivered a lecture to about 50 students and professors in O’Shaughnessy Hall. She spoke primarily in French and didn’t hesitate to make politically charged statements, including calling Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a “psychopath.” Her remarks were translated by French professor Catherine Perry.

The problem with radical Muslims, Djavann said, is that “they don’t see themselves as radical Muslims.” She focused on the French word islamisme, which translates as “Islamism.” The term is used less in the U.S. than in Europe, where it is generally defined as “political Islam,” Djavann said.

That definition implies that Islam, in itself, is not political, Djavann said, explaining that every religion has two sides: one spiritual, the other legislative. In Islam, the legislative aspect is “much more powerful,” she said.

This emphasis on legislation has led the West to draw a parallel between Islamism and communism, Djavann said – “a very big problem.”

“The communists, they [called] themselves communists,” she said. “Stalin said, ‘I am a communist’ … and the West also named them as communists. But nobody [says], ‘I am an Islamist,’ in a Muslim country.”

Islamism, she continued, is “a concept that doesn’t reflect any reality in a Muslim country.”

Because of this disconnect, Muslim intellectuals often say Islamism has nothing to do with Islam, Djavann said. But she believes those intellectuals are ignoring reality.

“No one says the Inquisition had nothing to do with Christianity,” she said, adding that what happens during the history of a religion should be considered part of that religion. “Without recognizing the problem, there cannot be a solution. … What’s happening today in the world, in the Muslim countries, it belongs to Islam.”

Djavann also criticized the way Muslims view the Koran, the holy book of Islam. The book includes messages of love, but also messages of war and jihad, she said. “Everyone takes what he wants.”

Muslim thinkers blame radical Islam on “problems of interpretation” of the Qur’an, she said. But Muslims also believe the Quran is the direct word of God.

“Why would God need humans to interpret his word?” she asked.

The Quran was written by humans decades after the prophet Muhammad died, Djavann said, and “what is written by a human being can be criticized by it. We have the right to criticize the Quran.

“But if I say that in my [native] country?” She paused and feigned slitting her throat. “It’s like the Middle Ages with the Inquisition. … I would be killed.”

Djavann said she considers blasphemy her “duty,” because “the Muslim people should be more tolerant.” While her parents were Muslim, and she credits religious thought throughout history as “a promoter of civilization.” She calls herself an atheist.

“Any belief is not sacred,” she said. To her, belief “presupposes uncertainty.”

“What is sacred,” she said, “is human life.”

After her talk, Djavann fielded a number of questions: What criteria should be used to determine what is and what isn’t acceptable in the Islam religion? (Her answer: “Human rights.”) Isn’t her perspective of Islam a modern interpretation? (“We don’t have to say it’s the problem of interpretation.”) Are there no grounds for tolerance in Islam?

There are, she said, since the Qur’an preaches tolerance. But it also preaches war, she said.

Another audience member asked if Islam can exist within a democracy. Earlier, Djavann had said “no religion” was compatible with democracy, since “if that religion becomes the law, if that religion becomes the state, if that religion becomes political,” the result is totalitarianism.

In terms of Islam within a secular, democratic society, Djavann said, “one has the right to be Muslim.” But few Christians live in Muslim countries, she noted. Islam is “not tolerant.”

Still, Djavann pointed to Western culture as the best model for how Islam should operate: personal religious beliefs within a secular society. “The best thing is education, pedagogy,” she said.

Schools in Muslim countries should teach children that “some people say the Qur’an is the word of God, some people say no,” Djavann said. That way, there “can be discussion, the religion can become moderate.”

But she said she was not optimistic that would happen.

Djavann’s talk was co-sponsored by several Notre Dame departments, including the Program in French and Francophone Studies and the Nanovic Institute for European Studies.