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Conference"Intercultural Dialogue: The Way Ahead"
28-29 October 2005
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  "European Culture: Identity and Diversity" Colloquy report
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  Memorandum of co-operation with the Anna Lindh Foundation for the Dialogue between Cultures

Coordinated programme of activities between the Council of Europe and the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALECSO)

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Colloquy on "European Culture: Identity and Diversity"
8-9 September 2005
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  Summary (pdf)
Opening Conference
9-10 December 2004
Awards Ceremony for Five Cultural Routes
The new dimensions of Europe
50 years of the European Cultural Convention (pdf)
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40 years of cultural co-operation 1954-1994 by  Etienne GROSJEAN
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Colloquy on: “European Culture: Identity and Diversity”
Strasbourg, France
8-9 September 2005

In Praise of Subversive Reason: Beyond Dialogue and the Quest for Identity

Mohammed ARKOUN

1) Introductory remarks
2) From Standard Dialogue to Subversive Thought
3) The tasks of Subversive Reason

1) Introductory remarks 

On 20-21 September 2001, the Council of Europe organised a colloquy on the challenge of religious, spiritual and cultural identities. It was my privilege to be there, and to present a paper on inter-religious dialogue and interculturalism. That meeting was one of the first responses to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001; several participants voiced their personal reactions, and various experts went confidently over the ins and outs of the tragedy which had jarred the world’s consciousness. And now here we are again, brought together by the same Council of Europe to discuss the same obsessive question – a question still asked, but rarely illuminated, let alone rendered obsolete, in terms not just of analysis, but also of practical solutions, particularly in the fields of research on, and teaching of, the various cultures and religions which now co-exist in the European political and cultural area. I can go further back than September 2001 and remind you that, on 28-30 May 1991, I acted as rapporteur for a major Council of Europe/UNESCO colloquy on a theme very close to the one we are discussing today. Specifically, we were exploring “The contribution of Islamic civilisation to European culture”. As general rapporteur for that colloquy, I made six practical action proposals, which later fed into Assembly Recommendation 1162 and Assembly Order 465. The whole report can be found in document 6497, published by Lluis Maria de Puig. Not only are the points made at that meeting as valid as they were then - events since 1991 have highlighted the responsibility of all those European institutions which spend so much money, and mobilise so many people, and are still unable to secure the political backing needed to act on clear-sighted diagnoses and realise epic visions of peace and progress for the future.

In these circumstances, it is easy to understand why the many researchers, teachers and experts who give their time and commitment to this cause, both as citizens and humanists, end by losing heart. Everything lands in the archives – if indeed any traces are kept of even the most important intellectual and cultural events. The other lesson that past experience teaches us is that today’s distinguished speakers – today’s first-time contributors – are forcing doors long open, and garnering plaudits for well-worn sentiments repeatedly aired and applauded at a long series of earlier colloquies. My own feeling is that I must - to do justice to the invitations which still come my way – keep insisting on the need for action more in line with the approaches and strategies which the challenges of our history demand.

My long experience of colloquies on Euro-Arab, Islamo-Christian and Judeo-Islamo-Christian dialogue, the clash of civilisations, interculturalism, and so on have led me to adopt a more radical stance, both on the theories, grievances and claims of our Muslim partners, and on the things which the late lamented Pierre Bourdieu attacked so fiercely in eloquently- titled books like Les Héritiers, La Reproduction and Les Méditations pascaliennes. The last opens with a “critique of scholastic reason”, which ends by declaring that “radicalising radical doubt” has now become essential. This seeming pleonasm reflects the failures, the omissions, the backings-off, the tiresome redundancies, the forgettings, the systematic elimination and the arrogance of Euro-Western attitudes to everything which has been relegated to the rest of the world since the “end of history” and the “clash of civilisations” were proclaimed in the US. That was immediately after the collapse of one of the two great powers which redrew the world geopolitical map at Yalta. Nominally, of course, there were four great powers, but it was actually the US which gained most when the USSR started to totter and finally disintegrated. The first Gulf War showed that a one-pole world had really arrived – and we all know what came of German and French resistance to the second war against Iraq.

The aftermath of 11.9.01 revealed the full extent of the crisis which now affects modern reason and the “values” trumpeted by the West as it calls for a “just war” - using terms which have much the same ring as those used by the popes who backed the crusaders against an Islam whose intellectual and cultural influence was powerfully felt throughout the Mediterranean. I employ this historical parallel, although I have repeatedly denounced its ritual use as ideological justification by many Arab Muslim intellectuals. What I am thinking of here is the persistence of a certain scholastic strain in Euro-Western thought, which briefly told us in the 1970s that the grand narratives were finished, and that post-modernity had come. What our bold talk of post-modernity actually implies is that modernity itself still thinks and acts in terms of the grand narrative which it constructed as a basis for the joint sovereignty of intellect and politics, which it substituted for the earlier sovereignty of theology and politics reimagined by Spinoza. Strengthened by the great scientific discoveries and the colonial empires, that grand narrative fed our vision of salvation through scientific progress. As happened with the grand founding narratives of the world’s religions, modern reason has - like scholastic reason - profoundly refashioned the conditions in which human existence unfolds in historical terms. The mytho-historical narratives associated with these two stages in the history of reason spoke, first, of values eternal because they were “divine” and, later, of values both secular and universal. But all the time, the really universal aspects of the human condition were (and still are) ignored and suppressed in many countries, even in those which invented modernity – and particularly when women, children and “foreigners” are the issue.

In America as in Europe, the “intellectuals” who attracted most media attention after 11.9.01 are fervent supporters of the “just war” which has been waged in the Middle East and the rest of the world since 1945. We have to go back to that date to form a clearer picture (at least in the medium term) of the successive abdications of that reason which we still call modern, although intellectual modernity is still waiting for historians of thought capable of applying to it an anthropological approach which is equally critical of the systems of thought and social constructions of reality generated by all the world’s cultures. High-profile philosophers and essayists may focus attention on “the defeat of thought”, “disposable” culture and thought, the performance society, compulsive consumption, and commodification of the body and soul, but the market still tyrannises those very countries most radically stripped of their assets, liberties and basic human dignity. In those countries, isolated elites forge ties of solidarity with their western counterparts in a social, economic and cultural environment given over to the implacable forces of structural violence. To avert global collapse of the market, the pace of consumption must be sustained at all costs. This law is simply stated, but it stultifies all the efforts of even the most inventive thinkers to restore primacy of the human person – not just in those rhetorical pronouncements which lend Machtpolitik and its priorities an ideological colouring, but in national and international institutions, duly supervised by democratic authorities which have yet to be devised.

This is where the instrumental, managerial and pragmatic reasoning employed by those human resource engineers and experts, who are becoming ever more indispensable, reveals its limitations and its hold on what I would call the rights and duties of subversive reason. I use that term because the term “modern reason” has lost all its conceptual validity, all its links with the intellectual euphoria of Enlightenment reasoning, and all its ability to resist the rise of “disposable thought” and the pleasure/leisure culture – the only things capable of pushing up the TV ratings and generating the profits needed to create jobs. In this connection, I have noticed in the last ten years the growing popularity of French-language women’s magazines in the countries of North Africa. In every detail, these are exact clones of their Parisian models. They give advertisers privileged access to the vital women’s market, which is why they have succeeded so fast and so durably - although the information and ideas circulated in these societies, where women are still so disregarded, is as superficial, hasty, fragmentary and conformist as in all other parts of the world. Nonetheless, the isolated elite targeted by these publications are proud to have a national magazine as glossily produced as any of its western models. And this lavish outlay – money which could be used to publish theses and scientific works of far more use to far more people - is part and parcel of “disposable culture” in countries where development is otherwise the main priority.

Thus, the things “special” to Europe and the West are both taken for granted and still invoked as a source of identity. Historically, the political and legal revolutions ushered in by new epistemic and epistemological departures in the exercise of reason are, undeniably, one of the main things special to Europe. The industrial and urban revolution, and the later turmoil of our computer age, are also part of that distinctive historical process which has no parallels in other parts of the world. Japan has become a major industrial player by cloning, diversifying and refining products for the market - but never by breaking radically with the Euro-Western approach, which is now revealing its limitations and indeed appearing as a threat to our species and the planet itself. China and India are both powerful because of their immense human resources, but neither shows any sign of opting out of the race to cut the cost of ordinary consumer items and coming up with an alternative production model. And the fact remains that fear of the market’s collapsing may paralyse the intellectual and artistic creativity we need to ensure that human beings themselves are not cloned in some future community very different from the one which is hanging on precariously today.

We have got used to the idea that modernity - the intellectual, scientific, cultural, legal and economic adjunct of European history since the 16th century - works by regularly plunging set ways of thinking into crisis, allowing us to transcend our assumptions, principles and procedures as soon as they become inadequate, prove ideologically flawed or lose their practical utility. As the processes of history have accelerated and become more complex, so crises have become more frequent and the simultaneous existence of disparate thought systems has increasingly sparked political and social violence. Owing to lack of time, the old rule that the validity of all scientific truths and heuristic theories must be constantly questioned and tested cannot produce all its fruitful effects, particularly in the human and social sciences. This is another constraint specific to our history, which is dominated by omnipresent and omnipotent technology. From the second half of the 19th century on, various subversive thinkers attacked an idealist, mytho-ideological philosophy, in thrall to the metaphysical musings and sociological burdens perpetuated by the still dominant theologians. Philosophy had man standing on his head; Marx arrived and put him on his feet. This marked a break with Enlightenment reasoning, whose knowledge of social and cultural anthropology was too rudimentary and imaginary to offer any clue as to how the intellect really functioned as a social institution.1 Nietzsche focused on values, and his genealogical survey won consent, even though it was restricted to the Greco-Latin and Christian traditions of a few European societies. Nonetheless, it was Nietzsche who expounded the need for a second Enlightenment. This new break with the past was badly received and badly followed dup, but it remains a recurrent strain in all the metamorphoses which modernity has undergone up to our own day. Freud reinforced the philosophy of suspicion by exploring the unknown continent of the psyche and its relationships with consciousness.

Modernity has other emphases which I cannot enumerate here. My purpose is to distinguish the tasks of subversive reason from the other functions assigned to that faculty - always known as reason, although that concept subsumes a whole range of different types of reason. To subvert is to upset an established order, in the field of politics or in that of the modes, channels and content of knowledge. There is a crucial difference between subverting a political system by taking to the streets, and subverting a system of thought by highlighting the ways in which it threatens basic intellectual hygiene (by which I mean optimum functioning of all the faculties which together constitute the human intellect). Street subversion helps by focusing attention on mental disorder, the trampling of legitimate interests and the savage suppression of basic human rights. The people who take to the streets may have legitimate demands, but not always the ability to spell out the conditions of success, or the immediate and long-term effects of action taken in response to those demands. The term “subversion” has negative connotations, insofar as the state, which is responsible for maintaining order, uses the existing system’s legal violence to quell the street’s illegal violence. Up to 11.9.2001, subversion was everywhere governed by the same socio-political mechanisms, but was always confined within the borders of a given nation-state, kingdom or empire. The Manhattan attacks put it on a new scale: we now have the subversion of Jihad v. McWorld, to borrow Benjamin Barber’s apt title.

This change of scale is crucially important for our own attempt to subvert the world historical paradigms summed up in those two metonyms - Jihad and McWorld - of such immense historical, anthropological and philosophical suggestiveness. The 11.9.01 terrorists, who are still targeting strategic capitals, declare that they want to subvert, not a local system, but a global order. Undoubtedly, this aim has no roots more explicit than those of the street demonstrations rapidly crushed by the police. To be fair, we should really say that the roots of violent subversion, whether involving street action or terrorism, remain hidden in the unarticulated experience of the dominated, as long as the dominators control free discussion of the issues which predate any clash between established order and disorder, disobedience, rebellion and street violence. It is a constant fact of history that these preludial issues are always controlled (censorship, prosecution, executions, etc.) by a practical alliance between the dominant ideology, which confers legitimacy, and the existing legal system. All the preludial issues dealt with by theologians and philosophers are subject to two limitations, which have never been overcome, and probably never can be: (1) the unthinkable and the unthought, which are part of every system of thought before the dominant ideology and its secular arm become involved; (2) the political system, which is responsible for the established order, and uses its laws to punish anyone who ventures beyond the “thinkable” recognised, and strictly monitored, by the dominant ideology. In the case of Catholicism and Protestantism, dominant ideology has been freed – not by its own choice – of the obligations and concerns of the state. In the case of Islam, however, the state directly controls the management of religious affairs. Judaism, for its part, remains in a state of lively tension with its orthodox elements.

After much violent conflict and many summary executions under monarchical and religious regimes, and later the totalitarian regimes spawned by “modernity”, reason gradually made it possible to transcend the limits of the thinkable in the two senses indicated above; but even its most subversive contributions have not so far made it possible to go irreversibly beyond all forms of alliance between dominant ideologies and established orders. Here, we have a right to be hard on modern reason, which has abandoned its critical function and is now exercising an impossible intellectual sovereignty, in constrained or calculated alliance with the various established orders. The recent re-elections of President Bush Jr and Prime Minister Blair have shown how political reason breaks down when it sacrifices democratic legitimacy to electoral manipulation. It is not just the citizens of two great democracies who have been reduced to corrosive scepticism; all the peoples ruled by “truant states” have lost the hopes raised by the world’s fight for democratic freedom. In evoking these things, I am evoking the things despairingly said and experienced in all those countries where democracy’s torch-bearers have gone the length of waging wars of conquest to install it. Where now can we find credible signs of the autonomy needed to devise new ways of linking auctoritas and potestas, and so guaranteeing the legitimacy of states in terms of their sovereign peoples? Anthropologists tell us that authority alone creates and sustains debts of meaning between citizens as people, not just abstract individuals, and between civil society and the law- governed state, in which political sovereignty resides. These principles of political philosophy are everywhere disintegrating and giving way to electoral zapping, to electoral demagogy, to ignorance among those elected by universal suffrage, and to the attention-grabbing antics of leaderships increasingly assailed from the street and stymied by structural violence.

The three great revolutions, English, American and French, took the eschatological hope of eternal salvation and replaced it with a vision of here-and-now happiness and peace through scientific progress and democracy. How much of that new hope remains after the European wars which soon became world wars, the Cold War, the so-called wars of liberation, and the civil wars which have been raging since the post-colonial party-states emerged? The question is a huge one, and is regularly dodged, suppressed, circumvented and transformed by the managers of globalisation into a mirage-version of the right of people and peoples to self-determination. A secular alliance of philosophy, politics and democratic systems has replaced the alliance of theology and politics which typifies monotheistic religions, and the monarchies and theocracies which some countries still have. The social and political sciences show that what I call the dialectic of forces and residues2 recurs, and even intensifies, in the two models for the production of the history of man in society.

2) From Standard Dialogue to Subversive Thought 

All the types and levels of dialogue practised so far have been constrained, in the course they have followed, in the things their participants have said, and in their agendas, conclusions and aims, by rules accepted as categorical imperatives - rules on listening to others, and on tolerance, self-control, self-protection and silence on anything which might offend, violate a taboo, or prevent the meeting from proceeding smoothly. Meaningless platitudes are the norm as soon as sensitive religious or political issues come up. There are even scientists who feel obliged, in the name of “tolerance”, to conceal the implications of any research which seems likely to shake the faith of people who follow other religions. In other words, as scholars, they apply all the rules of critical enquiry to their own religion, and leave other believers to do the same for theirs. Is this intellectual good practice, or simply a case of reason’s shirking its primary task of universalising scientific knowledge, which must clearly be subject to debate? What this amounts to in practice is leaving a rubble-strewn wasteland to believers who lack the intellectual and material resources needed for all basic scientific research. This is what many Western experts on Islam have done to Islam itself and to Islamic societies.

It is true that good relations and personal contacts are precious and enriching, and that dialogue promotes them – but their benefits increase if we encourage what I call subversive thought to contribute. So far, I have said nothing of the attitudes of states, civil societies, political parties, and professional groups in Islamic contexts, to the events of 11.9.01 and to the later terrorist acts triggered by the punitive war waged by the new US-led alliance. Although the US and Europe have made intercultural dialogue a necessary concomitant of a tragically unequal and unjustified war, Muslims have persisted in proclaiming their innocence, their eternal victimhood - and thus the need to “defend” themselves by any means available. But there are also many who have chased the mirage of formal dialogue, saying all the right things, swamping the media with “sensible” comment, and roundly condemning all acts of terrorism. They denounce the “false” Muslims who have gone astray and are holding the “real” Islam hostage. Real Islam and modern Muslims have become useful talking partners for Westerners who are deeply convinced that Islam has been nurturing violence ever since it was instrumentalised by lawful (but not legitimate) states, and by inflamed masses left a prey to the blind workings of a global liberalism which extends to even the poorest societies. To call for dialogue between cultures and religions in a situation like this, where radical inequality exists on all levels, is to go on giving Machtpolitik and Réalpolitik the alibi they need to realise their true designs while posing as friends of humanity. This marks a systemic break with that concern for the human spirit which is still cultivated by various ahistorical abstract spiritualities, and that practical humanism which increasingly isolated European voices are still evoking.

Many facts and examples taken from our history since 1945 could be used to illustrate these hastily made points. However, we would soon lose our way in unmapped jungles of data and practices, if we applied the same critical, searching scrutiny to the immense diversity of the Islamic world, and also of “the West”, which is hugely creative - but less and less able to curb the excesses of its own drive for power. Above all, the ideological polarisation of “Islam” and “the West” has hardened to such an extent since 11.9.01 that dispassionate, impartial analysis, which aims to be exhaustive, as well as scientifically and philosophically rigorous, has given way to lumbering erudition, which is itself obstructed by the current heavy emphasis on “disposable” thought and information. Am I going too far if I say that many of the things said and written on the various forms of dialogue are themselves in this “disposable” category?

Historical solidarity is one fruitful theme which is scarcely mentioned by the many commentators on the Islam/West antithesis. In sermon-like tones, people call for tolerance, peace, understanding, a readiness to listen to others, and respect for their values and achievements. But they rarely suggest ways of making the transition from the instinctive, “natural” forms of solidarity which exist in patriarchal families, clans, tribes, corporations, political parties, trade unions, sects, and religious and/or national communities in a given state, empire or kingdom, to broader forms of solidarity, progressively widening from one’s native area to the whole of humanity. This has nothing to do with the universal “values” which are ritually celebrated in inter-religious dialogue necessarily haunted by the eternal teaching of the divine word; or, in secular terms, by the acolytes of the latter-day rationalist “churches”. I am thinking of those practical forms of historical solidarity which allowed the EU to transcend the fervent egotism of the secularised state-nations or nation-states and achieve the transnational, transconfessional, cultural and ethnic solidarity which is its hallmark today. We know how the champions of sovereignty resist this move towards solidarity. Also against it are the people who cling loyally to “values” more imagined than lived – values which have never been subjected to that critical scrutiny which all inherited values demand. These are the “sociological” obstacles which delay beneficial changes, or even block them completely if creative imagination and a critical spirit are both lacking. The success of the EU gives us new reason to hope that humanity may yet be emancipated, and that hope rests on sounder historical and cultural foundations than those offered by the history of the US. In Europe, our memory of the past embodies several collective memories, and this plurality enriches our vision and gives us a basis for innovative approaches to global solidarity. It offers us a real possibility of shaking off outworn codes and practices, which fall far short of the challenges the EU has faced, and the things it has ringingly achieved, after the tragic lessons of the intra-European wars, and particularly the 1940-45 war.

All of this ties in with the subversive campaign to violate and transcend the binary opposites: church/state, spiritual/temporal, faith/reason, culture of belief/culture of unbelief, tradition/modernity, conservatism/progress, under-development/development, fundamentalism/tolerance, etc. These opposites still weigh heavily on inter-religious and intercultural dialogue, since European thought - which generated modernity and has managed it so far - is itself far from free of the psycholinguistic and ideological constraints inherent in binary thinking (although it was widely studied and criticised during the brief post-modernist phase). The subversive writings of Michel Houellebecq3 dissolve our era’s disposable values, and discredit deceptive reversions to false distinctions and “murderous identities” - but without offering us alternative paths to creative imagination and to plural thinking, which is obstinately innovative and systematically subversive. In the field of philosophical enquiry, one notes the same discrepancy between the noisy pronouncements of popular authors with high media profiles and thinkers who are less accessible to the general public, more traditional and, above all, confined within the European and American logosphere and systems. This would apply to J. Habermas, P. Ricoeur and E. Lévinas. I single them out because they have worked and thought on the arbitrarily drawn chronological line which leads from the Greco-Latin and biblical heritage up to our own day, without paying the slightest attention to the mediating role played by Arab thought from the 7th to the 13th centuries. Modish or traditional, many thinkers confirm, by their silence and indifference, the persistence of the ideological boundary traced by the Belgian historian Henri Pirenne in his 1936 book, Mahomet et Charlemagne, which has again become topical since the western imagination seized on the Islam/West antithesis.

The massive influx of immigrants, who first came to meet industrial Europe’s manpower needs in the 1960s-70s, and later as refugees from authoritarian regimes, is now starting to nurture the new forms of historical solidarity of which I spoke just now. Hardly anything is said about these immigrants, who are refuting the old paradigms by integrating - not along the lines more imagined than thought out by the integration councils, but within the historical dynamic which has gone into building the EU. Even the most immigrant-friendly political parties have failed to notice, and above all support, these new patterns of personal development, which some writers, artists, researchers and intellectuals have looked at boldly. The many essays and books already published encourage me to say a few words about my own career which, as will be seen, stands for numerous others.4

I am one of those new citizens who - with the same convictions, the same commitment and the same critical requirements - simultaneously cultivate several interlocking forms of historical solidarity. My starting point was the little village of Taouririt-Mimoun, 1100 metres up a hill in the Djurdjura. Solidarity there means solidarity with one’s physical surroundings, with the collective memory of a community which has shrunk to a minority, and so is united by a powerful sense of identity. Successive enlargements later extended that solidarity to the whole of Algeria, to the Maghreb, the Arab-Islamic logosphere and simultaneously, from my sixth year on, the Francophone and, later, Anglophone logosphere as well. These successive or simultaneous enlargements are so many linguistic, cultural and intellectual paths through the dialectic of forces constituted by the state, writing, academic culture, religious and political orthodoxies, and the residues left by those forces in societies which have no central state, no written tradition, no academic culture and no centralising orthodoxy (oral culture or literature, and animistic or polytheistic beliefs, termed heresies by the orthodox authorities). For me, it was at this point that the transition from the instinctive, unconditional forms of solidarity to historical forms which were thought out, freely accepted, and deliberately reinforced as a basis for new ways of coming to grips with the human condition, took on attractive meanings and fed definite hopes.

Along the way, I had to weigh the humanist implications of each successive level of solidarity. That was why I set out, in addition to my French schooling, to master the intellectual and scientific heritage of what I have called the Arab-Islamic logosphere - that language and culture known as “Berber” since the Romans and, more recently, as amazigh, in which all the various forces which have played across North Africa survive in residual form. That was also why the humanist question remained central to my process of thought and enquiry: I wanted to be able to connect my broadening solidarities with that vision, which was capable of becoming universal, but never prematurely proclaimed as such. This same desire to push back the boundaries of solidarity in a critical spirit is the guiding principle behind the things I am fighting and working for in the European area - on paths marked to a greater or lesser degree by Islam and the history of Arab thought. My doctorate thesis at the Sorbonne dealt with “L’Humanisme arabe au 4e/10e siècle” (1st edition Vrin 1970; 3rd edition 2005) and I have recently taken up the same humanist cudgels in “Humanisme et islam”, Vrin, 2005.

This brief autobiographical excursion seems essential to forestall any misunderstanding concerning the thing I practise under the deliberately provocative name, subversive thought. Why subversive? What am I subverting? And for whom or for what am I subverting it? This is not the place for a detailed account of a philosophy and practice which I have been following as individual and citizen. First of all, subversive thought is a determination to rethink and rewrite the history of all the systems of thought and culture which have marked the Mediterranean area, trying all the time to reconceptualise them. I am not, a priori, privileging the Mediterranean area over the other great centres of thought and culture. The fact is, that historically, the intellectual, spiritual, legal and cultural roots of the Europe which became the West lie in that area. The fact is, too, that this is also the area where the two main poles of that lengthy history which we rashly boil down to the merciless conflict of “Jihad v. McWorld” (Benjamin Barber’s title again) are ranged against each other today. Islam and the West have become portmanteau words filled with bombs, violence, mutual ignorance, and mutual rejections – all of which have been piling up since the days of Pax Romana in the Mare Nostrum, all the way up to that severance on which I refuse to set a date until the professional historians have done so. At present, public opinion feeds on summary official reports, themselves outrageously simplified by magazines and dailies which supposedly deal in “information”. But one cannot speak of some great original divide, of the kind wanted by monotheistic religions, each anxious to keep for itself the eternal privilege of divine election, or, from the 19th century on, by the colonialists, who set out to bring the lands conquered by Islam back to the one true faith, and the new hopes offered by modernity.5

How can we refocus the attention of the various Euro-Western and Muslim communities on a history spanning a very long period, at a time when disposable thought and the culture of leisure, pleasure and desire so powerfully promoted by the media have more or less wiped their own countries’ histories from their memories? We are urged to speak of intercultural and inter-religious dialogue even though forgetfulness of the past, as national historians have recorded it since the 19th century, is either semi-irreversible, or likely to remain, for many years to come, an endemic part of the Euro-Western vision of the things now regarded as constituting Europe’s identity. Who shapes this vision of an identity distinct from all the others which compete for “universal” recognition? The “new history” proclaimed and practised in the 1970s-80s set out to admit other collective memories, and incorporate them into a critical historical consciousness, focused on achieving a shared knowledge of our various pasts. Since we were told that history had ended and the clash of civilisations had begun, political failures, murderous and devastating violence, the aberrations of economic thought, the arbitrary operations of the great monopolies, and the growing effects of unchecked liberalism have been compromising the first tentative steps towards more effective and more durable forms of liberation.

To complete this outline defence and illustration of subversive reason, we still have to consider its cognitive intervention strategies in the various historical contexts which have so far been left to specialists - “orientalists”, “Islamists”, “Africanists” and others. This is neither the place nor the time to start discussing such issues. I shall merely propose one possible way of linking themes and processes which may allow us to rethink the history of the Mediterranean area.

3) The tasks of Subversive Reason 

A) Questions of method: Defining the problems posed by religion. Why start with Islam?

A-1) Knowledge in the human and social sciences, the before and after; combine linear history “from the beginning to our own time”, and history read backwards from the present. Rethink long, medium and short-term connections in the light of recent debates on journalistic knowledge, which is constantly expanding, and historical and anthropological knowledge, which is recognised and practised, but scarcely propagated. Examples: from the Hebrew Bible to the state of Israel; from the Koran to nationalist party-states; from the prophets to the culture of unbelief; in reverse, from the present vicissitudes of the State of Israel to the Hebrew Bible; from post-colonial party-states to the Koran and Islam. The tasks of an applied subversive Islamology6.

A-2) Typology of “truth-based” and political regimes set against the topology of knowledge; magical, religious, metaphysical in the traditional sense (theological/philosophico-political); theory of fields and their theoretical and practical articulation.

A-3) The dialectic of forces and residues; the three themes of subversive cognition: the intellect as social institution; images generated by societies and social constructions of reality; meaning and power; Machtpolitik and the double criteria discourse exemplified by Robert Kagan after 11.9.01.

A-4) Three examples of critical knowledge: 1) linguistic, semiological and semiotic; 2) history “as anthropology of the past and archaeology of daily life”; 3) anthropology as critique of cultures, coupled with philosophical interrogation of human and social sciences, and the identification of anthropological triads, e.g. violence, the sacred and truth, language, history and thought, etc.

A-5) Is there any escape from institutionalised structural ignorance? Apart from working on “exiting religion”, it is urgently necessary to extend to modernity the three subversive operations: transgression, displacement, transcendence.

A-6) The hermeneutic question which arises at all stages, before and after; reading and reception protocols.

A-7) Boundaries of “truth”, justice and hope in building the European area.

B) Islam challenged by emergent reason

B-1) The conditions for exercise of emergent reason; critique of the “Islamic exception”: from historical-critical enquiry to subversion of mytho-historical and mytho-ideological heritages.

B-2) Loci (topoi) of subversion in the full Islamic tradition. Religious discourse and the Closed Official Corpus (COC); the great living tradition. Religion into state and clericalisation of politics: the historical and political scandal.

B-3) Founding thought and the impossibility of founding as subversive counterpart of fundamentalist violence. The destructive genesis of meaning and values.

B-4) Principles of archaeological and deconstructive hermeneutics: language→←history→←thought; violence→←the sacred/the holy→←truth.

B-5) From inter-religious dialogue to the transcending of overvalued heritages, revalued by contemporary mytho-ideologies to compensate for cultural vacuums and regressive behaviour generated by strategies for geopolitical control of material resources and liberties in the world.

B-6) Extension of the critique of Islamic reason to all forms of reason which reproduce, following the logic of belief, ideals, meanings and values which have never been subjected to empirical verification and epistemological critique.

We are repeatedly told, as self-evident, that Islamic thought today is still at the reformist stage of invoking the ancients, or the rationalistic tinkering of the 19th century. There is no denying that these strains – represented by so-called moderate Muslims - do exist. But we need to pay more attention to the bolder attitudes reflected in the writings of young scholars, who are played down, ignored or dismissed unread by the political militants. These brave minority voices deserve a better hearing among Europeans – pending their triumph among Muslims.

1 L’institution sociale de l’esprit. Title of an essay by Jean de Munck, PUF 1999. On this question with immense implications for subversive reason, see also Christian Roy: Sens commun et monde commun, L’harmattan 2004-09-21 ; Paul Ricoeur, La mémoire, l’histoire et l’oubli, Seuil 2000 ; Todorov, Tzvetan : Le jardin imparfait, Grasset 1998 ; Max Poty : L’illusion de communiquer. Le compromis de reconnaissance, théâtre de vie, L’Harmattan 2004.

2 For the anthropological implications of this dialectic, see my Humanisme et islam, chapter 3.

3 Cf. his last, highly suggestive title, La possibilité d’une île, Fayard, 2005.

4 Among many other first-hand accounts, I would like to mention the autobiography, Al-Ayyâm, Les jours, of the Egyptian writer and humanist, Taha Hussein, originally published with an introduction by André Gide.

5 For more on the status and future of the Mediterranean area, in terms of a history remembered and shared by all the protagonists in the conflicts which have marked it, see M. Arkoun and J. Maila, De Manhattan à Bagdad. Au-delà du Bien et du Mal, Desclée de Brouwer, Paris 2003.

6 For this notion of applied islamology see, M. Arkoun, The Unthought in Contemprary Islamic thought, London 2003