Dear colleagues, philosophy professors of French universities
World philosophy day is a ground for philosophers of different countries to discuss common global issues. As a group of philosophy teachers and researchers in Iran, we believe this is a good opportunity for us to share some of our perceptions and experiences of the relationship between the Islamic world and the West with you. Events such as the publication of Prophet Muhammad’s caricature, the killing of Samuel Paty, remarks by the president of France on freedom of speech, and the consequent reactions in Muslim countries have been viewed and felt in different ways by us, as professors of philosophy in an Islamic country, and you in France. We have imagined, in utter disbelief much like you, the horrendous scene of Paty’s murder for days and we are concerned about the recurrence and spread of such incidents.
As philosophy teachers and researchers, each and every one of us has spent years studying the history of the West and tried to understand the history and formation of modern thought in France. We, too, like every French academic, have attempted to understand Descartes, Rousseau, Condorcet, Baudelaire, Bergson, Sartre, Foucault, and other French scholars. We know philosophical modernity through French and German philosophers. Given this context, maybe it is time we exchanged our different understandings of common issues, especially with respect to today’s constantly growing challenges, and provide the means for a fruitful dialogue.
Similar to many contemporary French intellectuals, we are also concerned with the relationship between philosophy and economic and political structures of power. Although skeptical about the influence of thought on power structures, we believe in the influence of intellectuals in criticizing them. In recent years, power and politics have increasingly been shaped by populism and radicalism, this is why radical politicians have intensified and deepened the current crises so that taking sides is tougher. For years, without paying attention to the roots of crises, for instance in the case of radical Muslims, politicians have provoked more and more Muslims and taken the crisis to a more critical stage by insisting on clichés such as Islamic terrorism. With the publication of Prophet Muhammad’s caricature, we in Muslim countries, are witnessing greater difficulties stemming from provocative comments by politicians. The problem with most politicians is that they cannot think or make decisions outside of rigid structures and theoretical clichés. Therefore, it is necessary for philosophers, thinkers, and those capable of criticizing theories and structures to create new horizons for the formation of new theories and policies, based on the unconcealable realities of the contemporary world, particularly the special situation of Islamic countries.
During colonization, the Islamic world, particularly in the Middle East and Africa, was for the most part under the influence of France. Their experience of modernity was through French culture and civilization. Therefore, there is a deeper connection between modern Islam and French modernity that meets the eye. This section of Muslims, in the modern era, has thus sought to reconstruct their identity and adapt to new conditions according to their image of French modernity. Hence, France is now facing Muslims who have formed their new Muslim identity in accordance with or in reaction to the structures and standards of Modern France. It is exactly at this point that we see similarities between Islamic fundamentalism and radical laïcité. Fundamentalism in Islamic countries of the Middle East and Africa is rooted, more than anything, in the revolutionary-radical narrative shaped in France.
In many Islamic countries, one can still see traces of revolution and rebellion, encouraged by intellectuals who were under the influence of the revolutionary discourse of the 1960s and 1970s in France. One can still hear the words of some French intellectuals, which have been echoed by fundamentalists trying to restore their identity. This is a crucial reminder as one must pay attention to the similarities between Islamic fundamentalism and radical laïcité to understand the origin of their antagonism towards one another. The French understanding of Enlightenment in the radical sense was initially associated with elimination, rejection, and fear. Consequences were evident in the years following the revolution. Let’s remind ourselves of Hegel’s criticism of Enlightenment in his Phenomenology of Spirit. Muslims, too, in search of their new identity was mostly under the influence of French revolutionary and fundamentalist thinkers.
What matters today is taking advantage of all philosophical traditions and great experiences (achievements) of French thinkers, especially since World War II, to fight Islamic fundamentalism appropriately and effectively. To discuss this confrontation, one must pay a closer attention to the current situation. Today, France is probably more engaged with the challenge of dealing with its Muslim minority— who are of the same faith as many from East Asia to North Africa and Europe— than other European nations. Could France solve the problem of coexistence with this Muslim population and secure its own safety and welfare by insisting on the radical treatment of Muslims? We suppose that you agree with us that the era of the master-servant relationship is over. Similar to you, every time we think of Enlightenment, we remember Emanuel Kant’s definition of it: “man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage”. This was the basis of a sort of radical Europe-centred mindset. People of African descent and Muslims were considered as immatures that needed to be taken out of this situation. This image still exists, in more complicated forms, among many western politicians and intellectuals, and even scholars of Muslim nations.
It seems that it is time to invite each other to contemplate on what we consider to be the foundations of our history and culture. We ask you to rethink the principles that you regard as a strength to modern civilization. We also feel bound to rethink the cultural and intellectual foundations that construct our current understanding of the “other”. Today’s West has no choice but to reflect on the fundamental principles of the Enlightenment, paying heed to current realities. We have been attentive to different narratives of the Enlightenment in France, Germany, and Britain. We, as citizens of Muslim countries and based on the values and principles we hold as Muslims, reflect on the conduct and attitudes of politicians and intellectuals of the mentioned countries. The West, with all its internal diversities, is now being tested against Muslims. Across the spectrum of the Islamic world, from China to North Africa, and within European countries, we are faced with a massive wave of Islamism. Accordingly, the immediate issue for the West becomes: how do we confront it? To confront this wave, we often resort to the competency of enlightened wisdom, and in recent days, its French narrative. We, of course, are cognizant of the importance of freedom of speech for the betterment of humanity and the contemporary world. With the same clarity, however, we are also aware of the importance of respect for a prophet that is revered by millions as the pinnacle of love and friendship. We and the vast majority of the Muslim population regard Samuel Paty’s murder as standing in discordance with the principles of Islam and humanity and oppose the prevalence of such approaches in encounter with others. We consider France’s philosophical thought more capable of solving such crises than its political approaches have demonstrated thus far. The modern world will indeed remain in a precarious situation if it is not mindful of the wishes of Muslims. The future of today’s world, and in particular, the future of Europe depends on the solution it devises to the confrontation between Islam and the West. In recent years, we have witnessed the systemic incitement and transmission of violence to Muslim countries. We must resist the simplistic attribution of the conflict and violence present in some countries of the Middle East and Africa, to the historical propensities of these countries. Power relations, in particular economic and military interests of powerful countries, stand as one of the causes of such conflicts. The political West, with the aid of media and complex technical means, has provoked the Islamic world and played a role in the growth of fundamentalism.
Many nations, especially in the Middle East and Africa, are victims of violence. Unfortunately, the effects of this dire situation will gradually surface in nations that have been hitherto free of such crises. We must employ all cultural means available in search of the panacea for such violence. The reality is that violence has chronically propelled people from many countries toward divergent, offensive, and reactive behavior. The first victims of such violence are the millions of Muslims living in Islamic countries. We must work together to put an end to all kinds of militancy. We must reflect on how we can stop this cycle of violence that appears and reappears with staggering speed. Militancy is a danger threatening all nations. Philosophers must ponder on the means and ways to reduce it.
Indeed, the realities of the precarious conditions in which we find ourselves provides us with no choice but to extend flexibility and the scope of dialogue to the values and principles we have deemed as fundamental to our cultural and collective identities. Undoubtedly, today’s world is the arena of diverse cultures with their historical backgrounds. Accordingly, nations that exhibit readiness for flexibility, dialogue, and companionship towards “others” will be the most successful. Nations must remind each other of this reality. It is precisely with this sense of responsibility that we declare that the present political response, including France’s political response, is not effective for the improvement and rectification of the current situation. The continuance of these sorts of trends is beneficial, neither to nations and relations nor to international order. In any case, ridiculing the religious and insulting the faithful must be avoided. If we are hoping for a better world, we must pay attention to the role of the religious; the dialogue between cultures without dialogue between religions yields very little. Precisely for this reason, we hold that a laïcité that would cause ridicule and disregard for religion is harmful to the contemporary world we inhabit.
On the basis of historical experience, and the teachings of all intellectual and spiritual beliefs, we still believe that a remedy to this dreadful situation is possible. A better future is indeed possible—but as mentioned, the path towards betterment consists of reinterpreting the path that led us to the present, rethinking the potentials of our own culture, and making a multilateral attempt to strengthen dialogue. Our most important responsibility today is to start anew the dialogue that pertains to modernity’s present situation on the one hand, and the fundamental principles and values of Muslim societies on the other hand. To attain mutual understanding, thinkers and philosophers of both the Western and Islamic worlds must transcend their own particular cultures and meet in the “middle”. The wisdom of modernity and the wisdom developed in the Islamic world must converse. The future of a great deal of the world’s crises depends on the results of this conversation. This conversation must consider all previous the experiences. Neither side should reduce the discussion to their own understanding. The only way to enhance the human and cultural relations of the contemporary world is to form a “middle” ground for a conversation, the two sides of which are equal. If modern wisdom fails to recognize Islamic wisdom, it undoubtedly endangers its own future. Today, more than ever, we need to re-read the project of modernity and the history of Islam if we are to understand one another. It is naïve to hope, by comparing the Islam of today with the 18th and 19th century Christianity, that the Islamic world, similar to Christianity, would adapt to what the political West regards as Enlightenment, maturity, wisdom, and culture.
Islam is a religion with a wide variety of potentials and possibilities and is, in this respect, distinct from other world religions. In the course of history, Islam in the Middle East and North Africa has been the proximate “other” of the Western world. This “other” has a special political side, such that over the centuries, the whole of Europe has been influenced by it. Europe must think of this rival “other” in line with the needs of today’s world. Modern thought has hitherto scrutinized, with considerable nuance and precision, the multifaceted dimensions of its relation to the “other”. With this background, we can and must rethink the relation between the West and Islam. Here, we must emphasize that the West, in an important stage of its history, attained its own self-understanding through Islam. The West, in its relation to Islam, has deemed itself in opposition to Islam in one era, and in a colonial relationship to Islam, characterized by interference and imperial domination, in another era. These deep wounds have not completely healed. Today, however, the West must seek a new relationship with Islam. We are cognizant of the agitation, violence, and extremist behavior that has spread throughout the Islamic world. These predicaments, however, will not find their remedies in the language of the radical thinkers of the 18th and 19th century Enlightenment. We must, in the strive towards shared experience and mutual understanding, know one another more deeply. Each and every one of us must regard the concern of the other as their own, and reflect upon these concerns with utmost empathy and compassion. This is the responsibility of thinkers, philosophers, or influential figures—on both sides.
We also follow the unfortunate events that have led to this extreme rift between Islam and the West; we are deeply worried and bothered by the prospects of the future. We have a shared responsibility. In our common purpose of preventing further conflict and strengthening the roots of dialogue, we must remain steadfast—more than ever—in our critique of violent trends and provocative behavior. We must, together, reveal a deeper layer of the present problem and thereby share and suggest our solutions. We truly hope to be joined by thinkers and philosophers of other countries in developing common wisdom of love and compassion, and thereby witness the shaping of new horizons for understanding and the betterment of human relations.
Professor Ali Asghar Mosleh
President of the Iranian Society of Intercultural Philosophy (ISIPH)