Twenty years after his last visit to the Cairo International Book Fair, renowned Syrian poet Ali Ahmed Said, who is known as Adonis, gave a speech about the city he believes is at a decisive historical crossroads. He lashed out at Arabic culture and Islamic history, describing it as a “bloody history that terrorism has always been a part of,” a history that gave birth to most contemporary forms of terrorism, as represented by ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra.
Adonis, 85, who described himself as a non-religious person, participated in 46th Cairo International Book Fair, which is held under the theme of 'Culture and Renovation'. The title of his speech was, 'Towards a New Religious Discourse'.
Expressing his pleasure to be in Egypt again, the country that once made huge contributions to human civilisation, as he put it, Adonis said that Arab modernisation is way behind us, it is not with us neither in front of us, it lies very far back in time. The treatises and ideas that were raised in the 2nd Hijri century (8th century), were more deep, radical, daring and progressive than any of the ideas being discussed now in the 21st century, he said.
The renowned poet, who was nicknamed after the Greek god of beauty and desire, used harsh terms to describe Egyptian culture and Islamic civilisation, saying that 14 centuries after the emergence of Islam "1.5 billion Muslims do not have a single intellectual, poet or contemporary philosopher, there are only clerics and religious men."
"Our modernity is behind us, the only way to reverse that is to reverse the path of our thinking. The best poets who moved from the language of the city and carved a new language that suits the metropolitan life like Abu Nawas, or those who restructured the poetics of the Arabic language, like Abu Tamam, and reinterpreted the inherited religious and social legacy, like Al-Maarri, all existed in the early era of Islam. Now the question is how all these achievements happened in the past and not the present is the big question that is challenging us," he said.
Moving into a different era does not only require a reverse of thinking but a cognitive and aesthetic break with the past, Adonis said.
The renowned poet does not believe in the possibility of renovating the religion, as every renovation of a religion creates a new religion, rather he thinks the only way towards a different religious discourse is by reinterpreting the religious texts, "to make it them something different."
He thinks that the whole Quran now has been reduced into 150 verses that tackle the Sharia law, rituals, and sex, while the verse that urges the Muslims to think critically and think about the vision of the world, and inventing new methods has been excluded from interpretation. "Shifting into a new reality requires a break with all that," he asserted.
"Today we don't need tolerance we need equality, tolerance has played a great role in human history but today, we need equality, tolerance implies a higher position, implies a hierarchy between the one who tolerates and those who are being tolerated, but now we need equality more than at any other time, we need not speak out of the grounds of absolute truth but from equality."
Adonis, who spoke to a huge audience that filled the main hall at the book fair, refused the distinction between true Islam and false Islam, rather he believes there are moderate Muslims and extreme Muslims, as Islam is one.
"There is no true Islam and false Islam, it is one Islam, there is a moderate reading and an extreme reading of Islam, it is wrong to say so, and this is one of our big mistakes and ills," he explained.
The renowned poet believes that Arabs have no vision to combat terrorism, and that the Arab regimes which are fighting each other are bankrupt and have nothing to provide, thus the people of this very unique area have to face the picture that is drawn for Islam now.
"The extremists represented in ISIS or Jabhat Al-Nusra didn't fall from the sky, they are the extension and the result of a long Islamic history. Arab-Arab wars have never ceased during the past 14 centuries, since the establishment of the first state in Islam, which was built on violence and the exclusion of others, contemporary terrorism today is just a part of the long history of terrorism that we have."
"We lack critical thinking and we are very self righteous, the Arab man is always right, he exists, grows up and dies infallible, innocent of every wrong, the other is always the one at fault, the real revolution has to be against ourselves first, and then we will know how to rebel against the world and against others."
"I hate giving speeches, instructions and guidelines because the greatest teacher of every man is himself, but I say that mainstream Arab culture teaches nothing but lying, hypocrisy and insincerity, censorship is an organic component of Arab culture, not only the one imposed by authority. It is just part of the wider social and political censorship, I can't say all that I'm thinking, even to myself."
Building on all that he had said, Adonis told his audience that there is no role for the intellectual in such a culture.
"There's no value to a culture that does not say the truth," Adonis said, and the way out he summed up in four points.
The first is a complete break with the common interpretations of religious texts, which were meant to be texts of mercy and compassion but have turned into a violent and vengeful texts.
"I'm not a religious person but I respect those who are religious, as long as their religiosity is individual and they do not seek to impose it on others."
Islam for Adonis is never a state and the prophet Muhammad did not seek to establish an Islamic state and left the affairs of the people to be determined by them, and turning Islam into a state turns religion "from a spiritual horizon into a prison."
Thus the second thing is to separate Islam from the state.
The third is to liberate Arabic culture from its functionalism, and the fourth is to establish a democracy, yet he ended his speech by saying that this is hard to reach at the moment.
Adonis ended his speech by saying, "I didn’t mean for this to give any answers, I have no answers or solutions, I only have questions and I hope I have given you things to think about."