Years later, I resigned both from my post as a dean and as president of the Helping Hand Cooperative (called Coopération Coup de Main in French) that promoted the “pedagogy of solidarity” discussed above. I needed change and to return to the sources of my faith and spirituality. Around me, moreover, the issue of Islam had taken on growing importance over the last ten years : from the Iranian revolution in 1979 to the Rushdie affair or the “Islamic headscarf ” controversy in France in 1989. Islam and Muslims had become popular topics.
That was when I decided to engage in what I already considered a major challenge for the future : building bridges, explaining Islam and making it better understood, both among Muslims and in the West which I knew so well, having lived there and studied French literature and philosophy. My master’s dissertation in philosophy was The Notion of Suffering in Nietzsche’s Works; the PhD dissertation that I had then undertaken (entitled Nietzsche as a Historian of Philosophy) had led me to earnest, in depth reading of the greatest Western philosophers from Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle to Schopenhauer, through Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, and Marx in order to confront the substance of their views with Nietzsche’s sometimes very free translations and interpretations. My time was then spent on reading (and a little on sport), and I used to spend between five and eight hours a day poring over texts. I also decided to resume intensive study of the Islamic sciences. I set myself a specialized reading program, then I decided to go to Egypt with my family. Each of us was to benefit from this: my wife and children would get to know the country, learn Arabic, and study Islam. As for myself, I had set myself a demanding program aiming to cover a five year university curriculum in twenty months. The traditional training mode (private tutoring with a scholar—`âlim) allowed for an intensive individual rhythm starting everyday at five in the morning and finishing at eleven p.m. or midnight. I will never forget this training period: it was intense, difficult, but ever so luminous and enlightening. I achieved my aims, thanks be to God, and I have since kept completing my training through reading, encounters, and of course writing articles and books about Islam in general or Islamic law and juris-prudence (fiqh) in particular.
The same values and the same principles that had inspired my initial commitment to solidarity, human dignity, and justice in the societies of the South as well as of the North, nurtured my commitment as a Muslim. I now meant to stand up for my religion, explain it, and, above all, show that we have so much in common with Judaism and Christianity but also with the values advocated by countless humanists, atheists, and agnostics. I meant to question prejudices, to question the false constructions of Europe’s past (from which Islam was supposed to have been absent), and of course, help open the way confidently to living together in harmony as our common future requires.
A point should be noted: multicultural society is a fact; there is no being for or against it. This basic truth must be highlighted before engaging in the debate over “multiculturalism,” “integration,” or “citizenship.” Whether we want it or not, our Western societies, in the United States or Europe, Canada or Australia, are culturally diverse, as South American, African, and Asian societies have long been (and even Eastern Europe, so often overlooked when speaking of Europe). This must be accepted, and means must be sought to bring greater harmony to the “multicultural citizenship” discussed by the philosopher Charles Taylor or the sociologist Tariq Modood. The challenge of diversity requires practical solutions and compels citizens, intellectuals, and religious representatives to develop a balanced critical mind, always open to evolution, analysis, empathy, and of course self-criticism. Voicing one’s own needs while also listening to and hearing the other, accepting compromise without yielding on essentials, challenging deep-set beliefs and rigid or dogmatic minds on all sides and particularly within one’s own cultural and religious family: that is not easy and it requires time, patience, empathy, and determination.
I had decided to engage in that process of mediation between universes of reference, cultures, and religions. I fully accepted both my Muslim faith and my Western culture and I claimed that this is possible and that common values and hopes are more essential and more numerous than differences. Conveying that message is difficult in this time of impassioned debates dominated by confusion and mutual deafness. A mediator is a bridge, and a bridge never belongs to one side only. Thus the mediator is always a little too much “on the other side,” always suspect of double loyalty. I was always “a bit too Western” for some Muslims and “a bit too Muslim” for some Westerners. On both sides of the divide, then, the bridge-mediator had to prove that he fully belonged. When passion and emotion get the upper hand and colonize debates, any balanced, critical, and self-critical intervention becomes suspect and is soon perceived as ambiguous, as an interlocutor suggested on my website. The mediator becomes the object of projections that sometimes relate to a distant past and to deep disputes and traumas. Nothing is simple. You make enemies on both sides, so to speak, and on both shores you are sometimes seen as a traitor, a “turncoat,” or a manipulator specializing in “doublespeak.”
For years, I have been facing such criticism, doubt, suspicion, and rejection. I have always known that such would be the price, since I set out to undermine a few certainties, to confront prejudices, and to challenge some over-simple conclusions. The political price soon became obvious as bans came in succession: I was banned from Egypt after I criticized its regime, then for similar reasons from Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Algeria, and Libya. On the other side, I was banned from entering France for six months between November 1995 and May 1996, and my U.S. visa was revoked for no valid reason in July 2004. In both universes I had to face restrictive measures, and to this day I am often denied venues in France and sometimes in Belgium. It is never easy to mediate between two cultural and religious universes between which communication has been a problem historically, whether on the philosophical or on the political and economic level. “Values” are put to the fore, while the essence of alliances and conflicts is very often—quite simply—power.
That was the origin of the figure of the “controversial intellectual” who is always accused, “on both sides of the divide,” of being unclear, dubious, unreliable—if not altogether dishonest. I have kept asking my detractors to point out the ambiguities in my positions so that I could clarify them. They sometimes did, but most of the time my detractors find it difficult to state precisely the so-called ambiguities in what I say. That is most often because they simply have not read my books and articles. Sometimes it is either self-persuasion or a deliberate intention to blur my position with a haze of suspicions, rumors, or doubts fostered by repeating the same accusations of “doublespeak” or “rhetorical skill” unsupported by any serious argument. Frequent repetition (in the media and on the web) brings lasting credibility to the doubtfulness and controversial character of the intellectual. To express that “truth,” journalists and intellectuals alike often introduce me as “highly controversial,” whether to protect themselves or to hint at the surrounding atmosphere.
Charles Taylor, discussing my work, once used a very apt formula: he said that I did not use “doublespeak” or “ambiguous statements” but that my discourse was clear between two highly ambiguous universes of reference. Taylor’s statement epitomizes what I knew from the beginning of my commitment: coherent discourse between two universes of reference, “civilizations” and cultures, shot through with doubts, crises, inconsistencies, and power plays, must expect to come under double critical fire. At least for a while, for history shows that time levels things out and normalizes what our current fears and tensions cannot conceive.