Claire Kohda Hazelton reviews Violence and Islam: Conversations with Houria Abdelouahed by Adonis

Translated from the French by David Watson (Polity, 2016)

Adonis’s criticism of political Islam is arguably unmatched in its ferocity. The Syrian poet, critic, and essayist, born Ali Ahmad Said Esber, is one of the most influential figures of modern Arabic literature and a recurring contender for the Nobel Prize. He has also garnered a reputation for controversy. His poems, which break with the traditions of Arabic poetry in both form and subject, question and challenge the prevalence and preservation of certain traditions in Islam; in prophetic language, they encourage change and reform. Adonis is not religious, and is outspoken about the intertwining of religion and politics, which, he believes, is a source of inequality, violence, and regression. In Violence and Islam, a series of conversations between him and Syrian psychoanalyst Houra Abdelouahed, translated from the French by David Watson, Adonis’s criticism of Islam is impassioned and uncensored; Adonis is given the space to divulge his deepest concerns unfettered by disapproval. Together, Abdelouahed and Adonis try to identify the causes of the ongoing violence of Arabic countries; they attempt to map out the history of violence in Islam and study verses from the Qur’an, the actions of various sects of Islam, and the effects of violence on the citizens of the Arab world.

This book has no introduction; a prologue differentiates between Islam prior to the death of the Prophet Muhammad and Islam since the first caliphate (Adonis and Abdelouahed refer to the latter as “political Islam,” which, they affirm, this book is about), but does not provide any other context, or distinguish between the various sects of Islam and their respective relationships to violence. Nor do Adonis and Abdelouahed actually introduce or debate the links between Islam and violence; it is taken as a given that the two concepts are synonymous. The pair’s conversation focuses on the roots of the violence they already believe to be intrinsic to that faith. In this sense, Adonis’s and Abdelouahed’s conversation starts, somewhat problematically, part way through a much broader debate.

Both Adonis and Abdelouahed, however, make clear that violence is not a characteristic of Islam alone; it is “a phenomenon common to all three monotheisms,” Adonis explains. Nevertheless, the pair stress that each monotheistic religion has a different relationship to violence:

violence in the Bible is bound up with the history of a people which has known servitude and exile. [ . . . ] In Islam violence is specifically the violence of the conqueror. [ . . . ] Islam was imposed by force; it became a history of conquests. People had to convert and pay tribute. So violence was part and parcel of the foundation of Islam.

They suggest that all current violence related to Islam has its roots in this foundational violence. This imposition by force, taste for conquest, and instinct for possession has, they argue, prevailed in the most fundamental sects of Islam; Daesh (the so-called Islamic State), Abdelouahed explains, “takes us back to a time when people had to convert to Islam or die.” It is a “return to savagery.”

Discussion of Daesh is central to this book. The pair set themselves what many might consider an impossible task, to work out why and how Daesh exists and is successful. They ask two fundamental questions: what conditions exist in Islam for Daesh to have been formed in the first place and why have the Islamic people failed to quash Daesh in revolt? For Adonis and Abdelouahed, the emphasis Islam places on power and possession goes some way to answering the prior question. “Islam awoke in people the instinct for possession,” Abdelouahed says. Adonis continues to explain how power and possession, and the drive to retain both, overrule all else in Islam. Islamic countries are rich—they own oil and gas fields, they can “buy the world”—but Islamic culture and thought suffers: “[Islam] is not a religion of knowledge, of research, of questioning, of individual flourishing.” In Islam, God is the one true creator and the Qur’an is the ultimate truth. The main priorities of Islam are to preserve and to spread that truth, both of which can be achieved through the accumulation of riches and power, Adonis explains. To create art or literature—to question, to wonder, to think, and to create—is to go against the power of God, the Qur’an, and the caliphate, and to deny that Muslims are in possession of the ultimate truth: “thinking, in Arab society, is tantamount to declaring war on that society.” Consequently, there is no “vision of the world that is profoundly Arab,” Adonis explains. “Muslims see the world through the Islamic vision that is ancient and closed.” He suggests that Arab Muslims have no identity beyond religion and that this lack of identity means that any revolution is either unlikely in the first place or destined to fail. While Daesh, they argue, was born from the importance of power in Islamic society, it is preserved by the disallowance of individual thought and creativity, and Arab Muslims’ lack of identity beyond Islam. Abdelouahed suggests that successful revolution cannot “exist in a society where we sup fear with our mother’s milk and where thought is constantly condemned, where we run the risk of being banished, even persecuted, as soon as we start to interrogate our corpus or our heritage.” She concludes, dejectedly, “we have a legacy stained with blood and no way of thinking about [or challenging] it.”

Away from discussion of Daesh, criticism of Islam, in general, is constant and candid. The pair frame Islam, in all its forms, as always violent—over its people and others—in one way or another. They identify various types of violence in Islamic society: the persecution of, and lack of rights for, women, non-believers, other sects of Islam, thinkers and artists; God’s violence against his subjects that keeps them in servitude; the violence of censorship (Abdelouahed speaks of secret police who roam universities making sure subversive texts are not being read and that certain aspects of Islamic history and rebellion are kept suppressed); and so on. In an especially revealing section, the pair discusses how the Arabic language reveals the societal inequalities between men and women. They demonstrate how some words and phrases have derogatory undertones (the word Burqa means “crawling animal” or “beast of burden”), while others make clear the lower place of women in society (the word “virgin” is only used to describe women and has no male equivalent; the Arabic word for being a man’s wife translates as being “under him;” and, due to the fact that “motherhood is seen as the sole destiny of a woman,” the Arabic word for menopause directly translates as “time of despair”). The absence of other words in the Arabic language lays bare the lack of women’s rights in Islamic countries; for instance, there are no words in modern Arabic for marital rape, sexism, and misogyny. Abdelouahed says, “our beautiful language is impoverished when it comes to thinking about male-female relations at the heart of society today.” This, Adonis and Abdelouahed believe, is symptomatic of the “extremely archaic relationship” between men and women in Islamic society. The invention in the West and absence in Islamic societies of these words reflect the social change that has taken place in the former but not in the latter.

A section on violence in the Qur’an is perhaps most controversial. “It is an extremely violent text,” Adonis states, before the pair spends some time exploring verses on torture, hell, and punishment. They linger on especially gruesome sections. While elsewhere in the conversation comparisons between Islam and other religions provide context and interesting revelations, here comparisons between the Qur’an and other holy books (which, for many, have demonstrated that the Qur’an is not unique in its violent language) are infrequent, verging on nonexistent. The result is an argument with no context, an argument that is, in its essence, divisive. In an especially problematic passage, Adonis writes, “There are sixty verses evoking paradise and seventy-two that talk about paradise as a place of infinite pleasure. Kufr (unbelieving) and its consequences appear in 518 verses; torture [in] 370 verses; 518 talk about punishment; Hell is mentioned eighty times.” Without similar statistics from other holy books and without the context of each mention, this argument has limited impact.

Abdelouahed and Adonis are sympathetic to one another’s views throughout. Because they are continuously in agreement, their arguments lack explanation and justification. For example, in the section on the foundational text, statements go unsupported and there is little, if anything, in terms of debate. Adonis and his famously controversial opinions are not challenged, nor put into any sort of context in this book and, as a consequence, there are several crucial assumptions that go unquestioned. The first is that throughout the conversation, discussion of Islam focuses solely on fundamentalism; moderate Islam is never examined. Second (and perhaps more important), no effort is made to separate Daesh from the rest of Islam, or to separate its opinions from those of other Muslims. The book suffers incredibly in this regard. The onus is solely on the reader to be informed of alternative perspectives.

Adonis now lives in Paris where these conversations took place. French translations of his work inevitably outnumber English ones; however, this is gradually changing as the migrant crisis, the war in Syria, and the recent spate of terror attacks around the world mean that dialogue about and understanding of Islam is increasingly crucial. This book, however, misses an opportunity to challenge prejudice and to educate non-Muslims on the many different iterations of Islam. Instead, it is divisive; rather than contributing to a dialogue on the diversity of interpretations of the Qur’an, it risks inciting intolerance towards Muslims and, consequently, feeding Islamophobia. Throughout, Adonis distances himself from other Arabs (for instance, while Abdelouahed describes Arab countries and people as “our countries” and “us,” Adonis says, “the Arabs are . . . ” and “the Arabs can’t . . . ” etc.). The Orientalism for which he has, in the past, been criticised emerges here; Adonis, throughout, is separate to and above other Arab people. From this position, he makes sweeping generalisations—such as that Arabs have no identity beyond Islam—that mean that, by the end of the book, when he crudely says, “the Arabs are devouring each other. They slit throats, exterminate, humiliate,” all discussion of nuances and diversity in Islamic culture are gone and Muslims, grouped together as an intrinsically violent people, are stripped of their differences and personalities and dehumanized. Considering the current political climate, in which difference is condemned and racism is rife, it is disappointing to see a book alienate and condemn an entire group of people in this way.

Adonis’s Arabic to English translator, Khaled Mattawa, has said of Adonis’s criticisms of Islam, “he’s been unsparing against the deeply rooted forces of intolerance in Arab thought, but also celebratory of regenerative streaks in Arab culture.” Sadly, while this is true of Adonis’s works of criticism and poetry, such celebration—along with the contexts of his arguments—is mostly absent here. Despite this, the book ends on a hopeful note; while Adonis fails to distinguish between Daesh and the rest of Islam, he does distinguish between today’s Islam, one that elevates and rests on history, and a possible future Islam, reformed, nonviolent, and modern: “my hope is that Daesh is the death rattle of this [current] Islam,” he says. “Like a candle that splutters just before it goes out. [ . . . ] It is possible that the younger generations are creating another space by breaking radically with the Arab context. Perhaps they will succeed in creating another history and another world. We can talk of hope in this sense. But there could be no hope in a continuity based on the Arab past.”