Debates on the renewal of religious rhetoric

There's a fierce competition to not be traditional when terrorists execute their plans

Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran
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In 1999, Lebanese news presenter Giselle Khoury, who hosted the show “Dialogue of a Lifetime” interviewed Arab authors Nasr Hamed Abu Zayd, Radwan al-Sayyid and Ali Harb. Abu Zayd was worried about the problems that have surrounded religious rhetoric since the beginning of the 1990s. Many research and critique papers have been written in response to his work, and Ali Harb was one of the most prominent authors to criticize his concerns. During the interview, Harb addressed the problem of Abu Zayd's ideas and described him as a "preacher." He then said: "Abu Zayd wants to change people's understanding of Islam, and this is impossible."

Harb made his statements on a basis he has defended since he began writing critique. These bases depend on making use of philosophies of difference and dimensional modernity. He's a prominent thinker in this field. He based his work on the concepts of differences as the rising modernity that declares the death of classical modern philosophy. For example, this rising modernity does not think changing the understanding of religions is an important project because people's cultures and religions with all their content are confined within a private space for those who believe in them. The concept of rising modernity also raises the question of why French heritage is more important than that of Brazil or Indonesia, for instance.

Dimensional modernity is not interested in religion as a standard for truth or an as introduction to enlightenment. This is what led to the disagreement between two Arab thinkers; one perspective believes it is possible to find other analyses that adapt with the era, while the other does not attach importance to a universal intellectual figure who's responsible for sabotage and destruction and who's obsessed with himself and with the outdated facts he carries.

There's a fierce competition to not be traditional when terrorists execute their plans

Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran

This topic has been addressed during a panel between philosophers Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo. Their discussion was published in a book called "Religion in our world." Derrida, through the strict approach of going beyond the dualism of the right and wrong, the light and darkness and the central and the marginal, guards his necessary lack of methodology via examining, testing and scandalizing other methodologies. He said: "Regardless of the relation that links us with this or that religion, we are neither clerics nor an elite of theologists. We are also not enemies of religion in the meaning which some enlightenment philosophers may develop." This pattern goes beyond the traditional understanding of concepts and examines religion within philosophical analysis and addresses all the components of believers. Derrida then reviewed Immanuel Kant's study on religion and rational theology.

The main point here is that religion in terms of dimensional modernity is no longer a central topic that the philosopher is concerned with, as was the case with Ludwig Feuerbach, Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel and Friedrich Nietzsche. Religion has become one of the topics which dimensional modernity has gone beyond being concerned with. This is why Harb responded to Abu Zayd as such and told him that if he wants to change Islamic religious rhetoric, he will be introducing an alternative religious rhetoric.

Given the dangerous escalation of terrorist ideology since the late 1990s, which rose to its peak with the 9/11 attacks, talking about Islam and religious rhetoric has become essential during philosophical seminars and while conducting research papers and studies. Derrida himself talked about terrorism and its concepts during seminars, as seen during his panel with Jurgen Habermas, as well as in his book about the 9/11 the peak of the deconstructive approach which overcomes dualism and facts and the pattern where it's necessary to address what people want to understand. During this latter phase, dimensional modernity with its vivid trends was fading away in favor of methods which are more expressive of humans' crises in their current era.

Terrorism in today's world

It's not possible to gain a sense of luxury when we're searching for the bases required to create a vision about terrorism in today's world which is intertwined, as seen during recent events. There's some sort of special attraction to perform new and unique acts of terror. Most of this terrorism includes a specific religious reference, and according to some news reports, some of those who committed recent acts of terror suffer from certain psychological or mental disorders. It's as if modern terrorist operations are leaving their own special fingerprints among other producers of terrorism in a manner which resembles competition between cola factories and global fast food chains. There's a fierce competition to not be traditional when executing plans. There are different images between one incident and another, from terrorism in Nice to the Munich attack. Future attacks may be more dangerous and may be more innovative when targeting civilians.

Discussing this subject of changing ideas is no longer a luxury but it's one of the most important subjects of our time. Abu Zayd adhered to what Harb describes as “preaching till the end of his life.” Meanwhile, Harb continues to oppose this cultural elitist orientation which adheres to the truth.

We've lived through a cultural path between Abu Zayd and Harb but has any of their projects succeeded? And has any of them escaped from preaching?

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on July 28, 2016.

Fahad Shoqiran is a Saudi writer and researcher who also founded the Riyadh philosophers group. His writings have appeared in pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat,, among others. He also blogs on philosophies, cultures and arts. He tweets @shoqiran.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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