For the upcoming breed of Muslim politicians in Europe, the cartoon crisis has been a golden opportunity in terms of public relations. They suddenly found themselves courted by journalists eager to find the “voice of moderate Islam” or, alternatively, fishing for a sensational quote encapsulating Islamic extremism in some novel way. In my own country, Belgium, one of the Muslim politicians capably giving voice to the “moderate” position is Turkish-born Ergün Top, a lawyer, town councillor in Antwerp and one of the coming men in the Flemish Christian-Democratic Party. His future is bright, for his party badly needs its handful of Muslim candidates to counter the large Muslim presence in the Socialist Party in the contest for the fast-growing Muslim electorate.
I can personally testify that Mr Top is a nice fellow, a model of integration, and quite a contrast with some of the Turkish-born politicians in the Francophone Parti Socialiste. Unlike Emir Kir, one of the heavyweights in the regional Government of Brussels, who ensured the non-implementation of Belgian regulations on the slaughtering of animals during the latest Islamic Sacrifice Day (Eid-al-Kabir), and who continues to lobby against any form of recognition of the Armenian genocide. I sincerely hope the voters of Turkish origin will reconsider their choices and abandon the likes of Mr Kir in favour of responsible politicians like Mr Top.
In several television debates, Mr Top argued that offensive speech or cartoons are perfectly legal, but are morally unacceptable, especially if published by people who know and understand the Islamic prohibition on depicting and insulting the Prophet. It is of course commendable that he clearly accepts the legal position: newspapers enjoy freedom of expression in which the Government cannot interfere. He calls on his fellow Muslims to abide by the law but to educate their non-Muslim neighbours into accepting this demand of “respect” for the Prophet.
It is often said that “integration” is a hollow concept except where it means that the only thing that we can demand of immigrants, as of all citizens, is that they abide by the law. If they want to stand out by wearing funny dress and eating funny food, that is their right so long as it is not in explicit conflict with any law. Hence, the whole fashionable discourse of a set of “norms and values” into which the Muslims should assimilate is beside the point: only the written law lays down the limits. Apart from these, anyone is free to differ from the “mainstream” in convictions and lifestyle, in norms and values, just as Catholics are free to differ from Protestants, beef-eaters from vegetarians or hippies from yuppies.
It must be admitted that the discourse of “norms and values” is vague and politically unpractical. Yet, here we seem to be encountering a situation where these concepts are valid. To say that irreverent cartoons are “morally unacceptable” is not in conflict with our laws, but it might be in conflict with our “norms and values.” Laws do not just appear from nowhere, they grow in a certain cultural framework. If we have enshrined freedom of speech and of the press in our constitution, it is because we had first come to value these freedoms. That pre-existing conviction motivated a struggle for these freedoms which resulted in their adoption into our system of laws. We believe that it is morally acceptable to express your opinions, even if they hurt someone’s religious sentiments. If opinions are wrong, it is still best to see them out in the open so that we can evaluate them. So, to us, it is good that opinions including mistaken opinions are given free expression.
As the case of Mr Top indicates (to the extent that his answers in the rather hurried context of a TV interview can be taken to reflect his convictions accurately), even law-abiding Muslims have not entirely embraced our norms and values. To be sure, that is their privilege, just as anarchists are welcome to reject the rule of law mentally so long as they abide by the law in practice. But it remains a point worth noting if we want to understand the problems of integration that the Muslim community is going through.
For now I’ll leave that for further thought. Meanwhile, seeing Ergün Top on TV reminded me of my first meeting with him. On that occasion I probably made a more irreverent attack on the prophet than all the twelve Danish cartoonists together – and got away with it. I will relate my experience here as a case study in how and when a critique of Islam can be presented to committed Muslims without causing damage to anyone.
Mr Top, then a law student, was one of the organizers, along with the Green Party’s student section, of a debate on Islam at Leuven University in 1994. We had agreed to meet at his place before walking together to the university hall where the debate was to be held. The panel featured Arif Ersoy of the Turkey’s Islamist party, currently in power; the Muslim convert Prof. Yahyah (formerly Jean) Michot, who was to make headlines a few years later with a booklet published under a pseudonym arguing that Islamic jurisprudence allowed the killing of Christian monks, then a regular occurrence in Algeria; and myself, introduced in the leftist student paper Veto as “the controversial orientalist Koenraad Elst.” The audience of several hundreds consisted mostly of Muslims, men and women in roughly equal numbers.
The first skirmishes were about the usual topics: Islam’s record of intolerance and iconoclasm, the Crusades, etc. After a while, I managed to steer the debate to more fundamental issues. When I brought up Mohammed’s snatching the beautiful Zaynab from his adopted son, making the latter divorce her to make her available for the Prophet’s own use, Prof. Michot replied along classical lines that it was an old Christian argument to depict the prophet as a lecher lusting after ever more women. I explained that that was not my point at all: it is of no consequence to us if a 7th-century chieftain in a far-away desert had a large harem. The real problem with this episode is that Mohammed knew he was breaking Arab tribal custom, which prohibited marriage with the ex-spouse of a legal (even if non-biological) relative, so he contrived to receive a “revelation” from Allah telling him that in this exceptional case, his marriage with Zaynab was allowed.
This means that the episode puts in doubt the genuineness of Mohammed’s prophetic revelations, which he apparently conjured up to provide justification for his personal interests, less by deliberate manipulation than through a subconscious self-delusion. Likewise, when he trespassed against the existing war conventions, as by fighting during the “sacred months” (when a truce guaranteed the safety of pilgrims to Mecca) or chopping down fruit trees (a rare and precious commodity in Arabia), he always received revelations from heaven justifying his decisions. Even his favourite child-wife Aisha sceptically remarked that those revelations were always so suspiciously convenient for his all-too-human personal whims.
Indeed, I argued, the Quran itself has Allah tell Mohammed a dozen times how he should react when people disbelieve his claims of hearing a voice from heaven. His contemporaries are reported to have dismissed him as “ghost-possessed”, “fanciful”, and even as “a mad poet.” Worse, the very first person to suspect a mental disorder behind his prophetic trance was Mohammed himself. When he had his first vision of the archangel Gabriel dictating him a message, he feared he was going mad and decided to undo this shame by committing suicide. It was his first wife Khadijah who comforted him and helped him adjust to these recurring visions. From terrifying mental crises, they gradually became a familiar phenomenon and Mohammed integrated them into his new persona of God’s Prophet. When Mohammed went into his trance, he vocalized what he “heard” so a secretary could write it down, and these utterances were later collected into the Quran.
The firsthand diagnosis by immediate witnesses, admittedly laymen who understood mental phenomena in terms of “spirits,” has later been developed in more serious detail by professional psychologists, such as the late Dr. Herman Somers in his (Dutch language) book Een Andere Mohammed (A Different Mohammed, Antwerp 1993). Somers’ considered verdict is that Mohammed was a textbook case of paranoid delusion, a self-centred belief in his own unique status as God’s spokesman, nurtured with recurring visual and auditory hallucinations. As for content, the hallucinations brought to the surface bits and pieces from Mohammed’s memory bank: his own opinions on religious or worldly matters and his own very human desires, along with elements of Judeo-Christian lore which he had learned around the campfire from Jews and Christians during his business trips. There is not a single sentence in the Quran that cannot be explained from Mohammed’s own socio-cultural background, nothing at all that indicates a superhuman source. Consequently, Islam as a belief system is nothing but a collective secondhand delusion, borrowed from a mentally afflicted Arabian businessman.
That is what I told my two fellow panelists and an audience of several hundred Muslims. For a moment, I was quite apprehensive about their reaction, but there was no outcry of indignation. A few mouths fell open in utter amazement, but it seemed nobody was ready for this. They all had learned the standard replies against the standard Western objections about Islam being intolerant (“it’s the religion of peace”) or oppressive to women (“Mohammed was the first feminist”), but this they had never heard before. Even the two Muslim panelists did not volunteer a reply and the chairman introduced another topic. After the debate some members of the audience joined me for a drink but no one brought up the question of Mohammed’s sanity again.
Years later I put those ideas in writing. My article Wahi: the Supernatural Basis of Islam (Wahi is the Arabic term for Mohammed’s prophetic trance) was published in instalments in the on-line paper Kashmir Herald in the winter of 2002-03. A Tamil translation has been published as a booklet in India. To my knowledge this has not led to any riots nor even to demands of censorship. Likewise, Dr. Somers was never troubled for publishing his diagnosis of Mohammed. Even Maxime Rodinson’s brief critique of Mohammed’s sanity, on pp.76-79 of his Penguin monograph Mohammed, available worldwide, never got him into trouble; apparently it was not even cited as incriminating evidence when his book was banned from use in some Egyptian universities (where it had been essential reading, no less) a few years ago. Yet, this is a more fundamental critique of Islam than the usual arguments about terrorism or the unequal treatment of women and unbelievers.
If Mohammed is shown to be a robber chieftain on the strength of the Hadith account of his 82 attacks on caravans, Muslim apologists can always say that Arabia and the early Middle Ages just happened to be a violent place and time for everyone. If the Quran is quoted as ranking women below men, they can reply that all established religions (including those now fashionable in Hollywood, such as Buddhism) happen to assume the inequality of men and women in one way or another. But if Mohammed is shown to have heard a voice that spoke from his own subconscious rather than from heaven, and that the Quran is nothing but a collection of all-too-human dreamspeak, the whole edifice of Islam is undermined. Not religiousness as such, not devotion to Allah, but that which distinguishes Islam from other religions, viz. the belief in Mohammed’s prophethood.
I have to touch wood as I write this, but my impression is that this radical critique of Islam is much safer to utter than the more usual criticisms. It has solid academic precedent in psychological studies of non-Islamic religious figures, most famously in Sigmund Freud’s study on Moses, so it can hardly be put down as a device concocted to hurt Islam. More importantly, it is a less sensational topic than sex and violence, less likely to make headlines in the popular press where agitators can seize upon it. Whether in words or in images, describing Mohammed as a terrorist or a lecher or a paedophile (as Ayaan Hirsi Ali has done, referring to the Prophet’s violation of the nine-year-old Aisha), or as locating his wives in a brothel (which is how many Muslims misunderstood a scene in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, where prostitutes raise their appeal by acting the part of Khadijah, Zaynab and the others.), touches an emotional nerve and provokes an emotional reaction. Questioning the legitimacy of Mohammed’s self-image as God’s spokesman, by contrast, may rather tend to provoke doubt and intellectual reflection.
I am all for the unfettered right of cartoonists to lampoon religious authorities and divine characters. In this instance, they have played a useful role in awakening us all to certain troubling realities. But if we want to make headway in the “dialogue” that everyone is now calling for, it might be advisable to move from the emotive issues to more fundamental matters of doctrine. No insult to the prophet, just some careful scrutiny. Surely Ergün Top could not regard that as “morally unacceptable.”