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A Call for Heresy: Why Dissent Is Vital to Islam and America

A Call for Heresy: Why Dissent Is Vital to Islam and America

Book Description

Confronting the fundamentalism that afflicts both Islam and the United States through traditions of dissent, A Call to Heresy discovers unexpected common ground in one of the most inflammatory issues of the twenty-first century: the deepening conflict between the Islamic world and the United States.

Moving beyond simplistic answers, Anouar Majid argues that the Islamic world and the United States are both in precipitous states of decline because religious, political, and economic orthodoxies have silenced the voices of their most creative thinkers–the visionary nonconformists, radicals, and revolutionaries who are often dismissed, or even punished, as heretics.

Majid argues that the United States and contemporary Islam share far more than partisans on either side are willing to admit, and this “clash of civilizations” is in reality a clash of competing fundamentalisms. Illustrating this point, he draws surprising parallels between the histories and cultures of Islam and the United States and their shortsighted suppression of heresy (zandaqa in Arabic), from Muslim poets and philosophers like Ibn Rushd (known in the West as Averroës) to the freethinker Thomas Paine, and from Abu Bakr Razi and Al-Farabi to Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. He finds bitter irony in the fact that Islamic culture is now at war with a nation whose ideals are losing ground to the reactionary forces that have long condemned Islam to stagnation.

The solution, Majid concludes, is a long-overdue revival of dissent. Heresy is no longer a contrarian’s luxury, for only through encouraging an engaged and progressive intellectual tradition can the nations reverse their decline and finally work together for global justice and the common good of humanity.

Table of Contents


Introduction: Saints in Peril


1. Death in Cancùn

2. Specters of Annihilation

3. Islam and Its Discontents

4. Regime Change

5. America and Its Discontents

6. Vital Heresies



Reviews and Reader’s Comments

“Open-minded readers will gain many insights from Islamic and early American ‘heretics’ bestowing a rich appreciation for the value that voices of dissent bring to any society.”

ForeWord Magazine

“An important fresh perspective on us history. … This book is fascinating and traces many of the themes in today’s Islamic societies that fuel terrorism, as well as helping us understand why Western societies and capitalistic consumption-led globalization is seen as such a threat, not only to Muslims, but many other cultures around the world.”

– Hazel Henderson, President of Ethical Markets Media

A Call for Heresy: Why Dissent Is Vital to Islam and America. I hope a lot of people read it.”

– Bill Moyers

“Insightful and eminently readable …”

Q and A with Anouar Majid

1.’Why did you write this book?

I have been thinking about the basic idea of this project soon after I finished writing Freedom and Orthodoxy in 2003. There was much talk about the United States changing the Arab and Islamic worlds by promoting democracy and freedom. There was also a great deal of talk about reaching out to Arabs. Much money was spent on such ventures, but I kept asking myself, ‘How does a nation that is in deep financial trouble and lots of social problems promise to do for foreign nations what it has not been able to do for itself?’ I knew that the Islamic world and the United States are both enslaved to the might of global finance. The whole military and diplomatic offensive struck me’and continues to strike me’as unrealistic, more theater than reality.

2. Have your ideas changed since 2003?

Actually, not my ideas, but my approach to the topic. Our five-year-old son’s struggle with leukemia in 2004 exposed me to another aspect of American life, the one that brings back the great spirit of this nation. It was unsettling to me to be a witness to the war in Iraq in a hospital room where caring and dedication for children of all nations never stopped. It was then that I wanted to write a book titled Why America Matters. Much of the research into that project is now in A Call for Heresy. I felt that the United States had utterly failed to introduce itself properly to Arabs and Muslims. I may still get back to that book.

3.’What else changed?

The publication of Sam Harris’s book, The End of Faith. That book raised serious issues that everyone ought to wrestle with and think about.’ The book attacks all three monotheistic religions’Judaism, Christianity, and Islam’but it is Islam that gets the worst press. I agreed with the basic premise of the book, but I wanted to show that much is left unsaid or unexamined in it. That led me into yet another adventure, reading up on the histories of Gnosticism in Christianity and heresy (zandaqa) in Islam.

4. What is A Call for Heresy about?

The book examines the social and cultural conditions in the Islamic and American worlds simultaneously. It is also critical of both, since both civilizations have failed to adapt to the times and changing realities. In the case of the United States, it seems to have regressed into a sort of unprincipled quest for money and power; whereas in the case of Islam, Muslims have failed to move away from doctrines and tenets shaped by people more than fourteen centuries ago. Sam Harris is right: We cannot live by the worldviews of men who had no inkling of what life in the 21st century would be like.

5. Why do you address globalization in the first chapter?

Because we are trapped in it. Nothing’absolutely nothing, including the publication of this book’can be explained without a proper understanding of the flows of globalization. The capitalist economy also leads to a lot of violence and suffering; it has terrorized many nations and communities. So, in addressing the question of Islamic terrorism, I situate the problem within the larger context of the global economy. Otherwise, we fall into the all-too-common simplistic explanations. It’s religion or genes that make people do things.

6. You seem to be rather tough on secular Muslims?

My goal has long been to offer a progressive interpretation of the Islamic faith in order to help move the culture from its impasse. Growing up in Morocco and studying in Fez, I knew that Muslims respond to the familiar language of their faith. It’s an emotional thing. The Arabic language is loaded with religious motifs. My challenge has always been how to translate progressive ideas’many of which are from European traditions’into an Islamic idiom. The progressive and humanitarian outlook should not be bound by geography. Secular Muslim intellectuals struck me as modernizing without any critical examination of the West and its legacies.

In this book, however, I ask: What does it mean to say, ‘I do my prayers but I am secular?” I am not interested in whether someone is secular or not; I am much more interested in whether people can examine their faith critically, with an open mind, with no preconceived ideas whatsoever. When it comes to looking at the pillars of the Islamic faith, Muslim intellectuals have not dared to trespass the boundaries of orthodoxy. The talk is always about ‘ijtihad”intellectual effort. I say, why not heresy? It’s time to take a further step in questioning the pillars of the religious culture.

7. Is this why you discuss the Gnostic tradition within Christianity?

Exactly. We can draw lessons from it. It seems to me that all sorts of people’Christians included’used to be accused of heresy in the early history of that religion. We are all potentially someone else’s heretic.

8. You also address Iraq and the failure of the United States to effect change?

Well, yes. The administration that led the charge ‘ crusade? ‘to change that country comes out of religious, even fundamentalist, matrix. There are economic and other issues at stake. But both the U.S. government and several prominent intellectuals have failed to realize that introducing new political structures, such as voting, does not free a people. Iraqis, like most Arabs and Muslims, need to acquire the right to think freely first, before they can engage in free politics. The constitutions of Afghanistan and Iraq both assert the supremacy of Islam. This is why regime change failed. Bombs do not change long entrenched mental habits.

9. What then is the solution to the Iraq conundrum?

I don’t know. The only positive outcome of U.S. military intervention is the freeing of the Shiites from the Baathist apartheid regime. But now, the Sunnis, supported by the same Wahhabi ideology that has inflamed the world, are furious. The United States seems to be siding with the Wahhabi cohort because it fears Iran. It’s all sound and fury. Religion should be kept away from politics. Perhaps a new constitution could help.

10. You mention that dissent is vital to Islam and the United States in your subtitle. Can you explain that?

Sure. Since both societies are in serious trouble’culturally, economically, and politically’neither one can afford to preach to the other. As I mentioned, Islam needs to liberate itself from the stranglehold of tradition by finding examples within and, if necessary, outside its history.’ There have been great figures in Islamic civilization who have rejected prophecy, for instance, and questioned all revealed religions. In the case of the United States, American dissenters must take off where the Revolution of 1776 ended. The American revolutionary project is far from over. With so many social casualties and victims’the uninsured, the homeless, the poor, the indebted, the simply confused and disoriented’dissenters, or freethinkers, need to chart out a viable and humane path for future generations. In fact, why not join hands with fellow Muslim dissenters, or heretics, and work toward a global culture of freedom, one that is governed by the sacredness of all living things, not by the dictates and short-term interests of financiers and preachers of hatred.

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