'I am very concerned for the well-being of Western culture'
Professor Afshin Ellian was born in Iran, was persecuted by the ayatollah regime and was granted asylum in the Netherlands • He then became a philosopher and harsh critic of Islam • He talks about Europe's weakness in the face of Islam and says that "without the State of Israel, the Iranian utopia is meaningless."
The problem isn't with Muslims, but fundamentalism. Iranian-born Professor Afshin Ellian. | Photo credit: Ziv Koren
Upon his arrival to Israel, Afshin Ellian was informed by Immigration that they would waive the stamping of his passport. He could not understand. "You were born in Iran," he was explained. "Despite holding a Dutch passport, you are also Iranian, and an Israeli entry stamp in your passport is a punishable offense in Iran." Ellian insisted. "No, please stamp my passport. It is an honor for me to be in Israel."
Dr. Afshin Ellian, a Dutch professor of law, philosopher, poet and sharp critic of Islam, was born in Iran in 1966. The Iranian Revolution broke out when he was thirteen, and three years later he became a fugitive, wanted by the Ayatollah regime for forbidden political activity. He fled to Pakistan and from there to Soviet-ruled Afghanistan. In 1989, Ellian received political asylum in the Netherlands and subsequently pursued a career in legal academia. He also writes columns for several newspapers in the Netherlands and abroad. Due to his consistent criticism of the Iranian regime and certain aspects of Islam, a death fatwa has been issued against him.
Ellian's visit to Israel was made possible by a joint initiative of the Dutch Speakers Oleh Association, the Netherlands Embassy in Israel, Haifa University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
He lectured on "courage in troubled times" in memory of Rudolph Cleveringa a law professor from Leiden University, who in 1940 dared to publicly denounce the Nazi occupier's dismissal of the university's Jewish lecturers and sanctions against its Jewish students, which led to his detention and arrest.
Q: Is this your first visit to Israel?
"Yes, this is indeed my first visit to Israel. Surprising as it may be to those who see me as a mercenary of Israel and the Jewish people.
"It was an amazing experience to see Jerusalem. I now see how much Israel's image is warped by Western media. This is a multicultural society, with normal people, working people. Western journalists say that Israel is an occupier, that Israel is evil, and that it deploys heavy weapons against the Palestinians. But that is not the whole reality of Israel. Look at Tel Aviv. It is a very normal city just like The Hague, just like Amsterdam. Israel is the one spot of abnormality in the Middle East. At the same time it is like Europe at the heart of the region. I can understand why Israel arouses such fury among radical Muslims.
"I visited many Arab villages as well as the city of Haifa. My recollection of Iran upon visiting Haifa left me quite emotional. My thoughts turned to the goals of our struggle, how we aim to return to pre-revolution Iran, to bring back democracy, human rights, freedom of speech. I thought to myself that the kind of society I met in Israel would be of great interest to secular Iranian students and citizens. Israel actually serves a very important example for other Middle Eastern countries. But this is not something I hear from Western journalists. They take the perspective of radical Muslims, actually."
Q: Indeed, why is it that when Arabs slaughter Arabs the world is silent but when Jews arise to defend themselves, the whole world jumps up in condemnation?
"Neither the Western media nor the Arab countries are interested in the Palestinians. At this very moment, many Muslims are being killed in Syria, in Iraq, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, but they do not receive the focus of attention. The focus is the enemy, the State of Israel, the Jewish people. Unfortunately, many European politicians have adopted the Western journalists' outlook on the conflict. The military operation [Pillar of Defense] that took place recently here was neither a major conflict nor a major tragedy. The real problem was, and is, in Syria, in Damascus, where [Syrian President Bashar] Assad has bombed hospitals and is killing his people. There a humanitarian disaster is unfolding.
"The West considers it 'natural' for Arabs to kill Arabs. In regard to the Jews, it seems that the Western world is fixated with the eternal image of the crucified Jew, and is unable to replace it with someone who bears arms to defend himself, resolute not to be crucified again. Incidentally, since the Shia came to power in 1503, all minorities in Iran, especially the Jews, were severely persecuted.
"Perhaps every nation, each culture, needs some eternal fictitious enemy. Not a political enemy, because at the end of the day you can speak with them, negotiate with them. But a fictitious enemy is an eternal one. Without the state of Israel, the Iranians would have to turn to Allah in prayer for guidance. The Iranians need Israel. Without you the Iranian regime is nothing, an empty shell. This is now Iran's nucleus of identity."
"Growing up in Iran, we learned about Cyrus the Great but never about Jerusalem or about the Temple. [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini mentioned the name 'Urshalim' [Jerusalem] a single time. During the Iran-Iraq war he said that we could not end the war but would have to go through Karbala to Jerusalem and reconquer it from the Zionists. After that speech he never mentioned the name Urshalim again but used only the Muslim term 'Bayt al-Muqaddas.'
"But Bayt al-Muqaddas is also a Jewish term as it means the house of the temple, which is interesting since the Muslims deny the historical presence of the two temples on the Temple Mount.
"Indeed, the use of the Arab translation shows that Omar [Caliph Omar ibn al Khattab] did in fact recognize this history. But I suppose that together with one's fictitious enemy one also needs a fictitious name. Bayt al-Muqaddas did not exist in the Persian language. However, especially after that speech, road signs were erected every 200, 300 kilometers indicating the distance between Teheran and Jerusalem. It became an obsession. From that moment, only the term Bayt al-Muqaddas was used.
"If you recognize that very essential name, Jerusalem, you recognize the claim of the other people. You recognize their story. That is why tyrants and dictators endeavored to change names and histories. To this day, in Iranian media Israel is only referred to as 'the occupier regime.' In the Iranian passport there is a written instruction forbidding any Iranian passport holder to visit the territory occupied by the Zionists."
Q: How do you explain this obsession?
"It is explainable if you look at the basic character of the regime. Iran is a totalitarian regime, not an ordinary tyrant regime like Pinochet's in Chile or Fidel's in Cuba. This is a totalitarian regime just like the Soviet regime, just like Stalin, Hitler or Mao Zedong. And one very important element of the totalitarian regime is the fictitious enemy. This is really important because if you cannot understand yourself, you cannot explain to your people their goal in history. A totalitarian utopia needs a fictitious enemy. Without you, without the State of Israel, the Iranian utopia is meaningless."
Q: Are you saying that the Iranian regime is different to other tyrannical countries?
"Saddam Hussein was a 'normal' dictator, very brutal and cruel but without any ideology apart from wanting to be in charge, him and his family. Just like Gen. Pinochet in Chile. But the Iranian regime is not built on the personal ambition of any individual or family. It is built on ideology. Like the Soviet Union under Stalin. Khomeini's book, "Velayat-e faqih" ("Islamic Government: Governance of the Jurist"), published in 1970, opens with the issue of Israel and the Jews. It is so tragic that Iranian intellectuals did not read that book during the revolution. Most of them read it several years after the revolution, if they were not arrested before that.
"Khomeini writes that from the beginning of its history, Islam was undermined by the clan of the Jews, who now, with the aid of the colonialist countries, has a base, a government, in the heart of the Middle East, which is unacceptable.
Q: Let me understand, for Khomeini, was the existence of the state of Israel more dangerous than the United States?
"Yes, because the U.S. is far from here. The U.S. is the great Satan, absolutely. The little Satan is Israel, but Israel is situated in the heart of the region. If you want to defeat the U.S., you must defeat Israel."
Q: So Israel serves as a kind of bastion.
"Khomeini's theory was that if Israel is destroyed in the heart of the Middle East then so is the U.S. This also happens to be the theory of Hamas and other groups. Hamas did not represent the ambition of the Palestinian people for a separate state, but the ambition to defeat Israel."
Q: How do you explain the connection between the Sunni Hamas and Iran? Just because they have a mutual enemy?
"Yes, Khomeini claimed that it was American and Zionist tactics, to separate between Sunni and Shia Muslims. He said that their differences were not important. It was more important that they shared the belief in Allah, in Muhammad, in the Quran. The rest was not important. To establish justice, an Islamic religious ambition, they needed political unity between people. Take for example the Week of Unity. According to the Sunnis, Muhammad was born on Monday while according to the Shia he was born on Thursday. Khomeini declared this not to be a problem. From Monday to Thursday they would celebrate the birth of the prophet and they would have no war with each other. From that moment this was the policy of government, to promote the unity at the level of political Islam. And how can you unite the people? Through the enemy. Because of that fact, [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei — the contemporary leader of Iran — stated that the Shariah debates between factions of Islam are not significant. What is important is the enemy, the Zionist state they have to defeat."
Q: What is the main ideological and theological claim of the Iranian ayatollah against the State of Israel?
"First of all, it is forbidden to establish a non-Muslim state on Muslim ground. In their opinion, this ground is waqf, Islamic ground, and it is therefore forbidden. The second theological argumentation is that Islamic jurisprudence made a distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims — Jews, Christians and latter-day Zoroastrians — these people are called dhimmi, and it is forbidden for dhimmi to rule Muslims, and Israel has many Muslims under its rule. There are additional political argumentations but those are the religious ones."
Q: What about Europe as a focus of Muslim immigration?
"Bernard Lewis wrote that this issue was a turning point for many Muslims because for the first time in history, Muslims were living as a minority. This was something Muslims had no tradition of. Bernard Lewis wrote very rightly that the effect of this issue was like dynamite on Islamic Shariah and Islamic thought. And because of this, radical Muslims taught the younger generation to claim the rights to the Shariah and to build themselves ghettos. In my opinion, it is very good for them to learn to be a minority. But they will have to accept the fact that the infidels are deciding about their health, about traffic, about their security. However, for them, if you accept the rule of the infidel, according to Islam you have lost. This is a huge problem for Islam."
Q: But what we see now in Europe is that they do not accept it.
"Absolutely. In Europe this is a huge problem, especially in England, because of the concept of multiculturalism which is essentially ideological. This is a leftist, post-modernist idea whose time has passed. It originated with the old elites of Europe who believe in nothing. They think everyone is good, and if one strayed from the right path it must be because they just needed money, or a vacation. And for these people it is very difficult to accept that their theory, their ideology, has failed. This is a source of a huge tragedy for the governments and for society, who are at a loss how to deal with the issue; but mostly for the immigrants. Because as myself and others see it, if you live in Europe and wish to remain in Europe, you must become integrated into society. By acquiring the language, learning a trade, accepting the rule of law, accepting democracy, respecting gay rights, women’s rights. For years, no such demands were made of the immigrants."
Q: What is the agenda of the old elite as you saw it?
"They have no agenda, they are completely decadent. Nihilists. After the Second World War they lived the good life and thought of bringing over workers to Europe. Now the old elites hate Europe. Europe, according to them, is the source of injustice, of colonialism, just as Edward Said thought. They brought damage to the immigrants because they did not encourage them to learn the local language and to become integrated and promote themselves so that one day they could be mayors of cities, poets, writers.
"Instead they encouraged them to stick to their native language, as they deemed it better than the European language."
Q: Did this attitude have a goal? Did they see in their vision world peace for instance?
"No, they only wanted to pay for their guilt, the historical guilt of Europe, the murderous continent, and they acted out of some atheist kind of Christianity which I call nihilistic. For them, myself and others like me were considered troublemakers."
Q: Because you wanted to become integrated.
"Yes. I arrived in the Netherlands in 1989. It was really very strange for the elite that people like me wanted to establish themselves, wanted to acquire a good level of the Dutch language, or to adopt some basic cultural aspects of the society. They found it unacceptable, for example, if I defended some rational aspect of Dutch culture against Iranian culture. In their opinion I was busy insulting other peoples."
Q: Dealing in a kind of heresy.
Q: So in Iran you were persecuted for being different and then you find yourself persecuted once again in Europe, intellectually, because you wanted to be like them. ...
"Yes. My focus was my desire for freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom of thought, justice for everyone and no religious rule, especially no Islamic rule. When I arrived in Holland I was happy with the regime. I was young and enthusiastic and wanted to point out to everyone the problematic way of life in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and the changes that should be introduced. The problem was that the western elite viewed this kind of debate with anger. They claimed that my approach had the inklings of racist behavior, of discrimination. I was perplexed. What is the problem with this? I spoke of the constitution of Holland, of Immanuel Kant, of the right to criticize religion. For instance, I said in an interview on a television program that Christianity and Judaism were already on the operating table of reason and rationality. They are in court, so to speak, under critique by many great philosophers. Now is the time for Islam to be placed on the operating table and to be examined rationally and philosophically.
"I have no desire to eliminate Islam. I am an intellectual, I ask questions. Just like Nietzsche asked about Christianity or Spinoza about Judaism."
Q: And no one posed these questions before?
"Genuine critique of Islam from within Islamic culture really appeared only after September 11, 2001. I can think of only four such people who did this: Salman Rushdie, [Somali-born female Dutch parliament member] Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ibn Warraq and myself."
Q: What was the reaction of the old elite to 9/11?
"They were shocked that the attack occurred in New York which for them was the same as an attack against Europe — Amsterdam or London. They realized that they could be the victim and that the enemy does not pause to ask your name."
Q: So has something changed in their way of thinking?
"Not really. They are afraid, and want more checkpoints, more control. But it is too late for them to undergo a real change in ideology. They don't want to argue with Islam, they only want Intelligence operations against radical Islam. They don’t want a discussion about cultural differences or rationality - a very dangerous issue for them. Their way of thinking has not changed. They are only afraid for their own lives but not for the well-being of western culture. And I am very concerned for the well-being of Western culture."
Q: This makes me think of "L’etranger" by Albert Camus. You are the stranger who came from outside to point out home truths.
"This is the situation at the moment. I know what lack of freedom means, and I know about the tyranny of a regime based on Islam. I know how important it is to develop culture. During my stay in Israel I have been thinking that this is what we need for the whole Middle East. In Israel both religious and secular can find a peaceful way to guarantee freedom for all. But the old elite in the West doesn’t understand that Israel is an example of what is good in Europe: the rule of law, democracy, freedom of expression, and so forth. This decadent elite has forgotten what tyranny means."
Q: Have they lost their survival instinct? Because it reminds me of "The Decline of the West" by Oswald Spengler, which he wrote in the 1920s. He said that Western culture had lost the basic instinct to live.
"This is the present state of affairs in Europe and this was the main motive for the rise of a new elite in Europe and in America."
Q: Tell me about this new elite.
"The new elite is not only European in origin. It consists of immigrants, too: for example, the Mayor of Rotterdam — a huge, important city — Ahmad Abu Taleb, lived in Morocco until he was 14. He is a social democrat. A leftist but completely different to the old elite. He encourages the integration of immigrants, wants the rule of law, opposes the use of violence against gays, against women, and seeks tolerance for everybody except radical Muslims. He believes in Islam but not in political Islam. Then there is also Ayaan Hirsi Ali. We are allies against radical Muslims and the old elites in Holland. And the situation is that it is much easier today to raise debates on sensitive issues than ten years ago. It is no longer considered unusual to debate about Islam. And you see the process of change has spread throughout Europe. In France, too, there is a new-thinking elite which no longer accepts Edward Said or Jean-Paul Sartre. However, this is a slow-changing process."
Q: But in the meantime Europe is becoming more and more Islamic.
"Yes. The unofficial numbers tell of 50 million Muslims in Europe. But the number is not the problem, Fundamentalism is. How many radical Muslims are there in Europe? How many Muslims in Europe are ready to integrate? This is a real struggle in Europe at the moment. A book was published a short while ago by a French-Algerian, the brother of the terrorist who instigated the attack against Jews in Toulouse. He writes that the killer absorbed anti-Semitism at home. He then sought and found the ideology of terrorist organizations. But the fundamental problem was the anti-Semitic hatred and hatred of the west in the killer's education at home. The killer's brother says that both his mother and father are at the root of the problem. What influenced the parents? Culture. The anti-Semitic element in Islamic culture."
Q: In the common Islamic culture?
"Islam, just like Christianity, has a very strong anti-Semitic element, and with anti-Semitic I mean anti-Jewish. You get this with Muhammad in Medina — a political leader, general, judge, who developed a very strong anti-Jewish element and killed Jewish people. However, criticism of the anti-Jewish element in Islam is not necessarily criticism of Islam as a whole. This is not my aim. The point is that you have to accept this element, criticize it, and find the way to change, to reform religion, just as was done in Christianity."
Q: Perhaps the real problem of Islam is its state of stagnation?
"Yes, because Islam's basic movement at present is the political aspect of Islam. Islam's intellectual poverty is the danger, for Islam itself first of all. Look at Iran. Nevertheless, there is the beginning of a process of change within the Islamic countries. See, for example, Saudi Arabia, engaging in an historical debate on women's rights."
Q: But if the root for the hostile approach to Jews and the West is found in the Quran and the hadiths, is inherent to Islam, perhaps any attempts for change are doomed to fail?
"But that is not so, because most Muslims prior to the Iranian Revolution did not know anything about jihad, Judaism and so on. They held a very simple perspective of Islam. Because of that fact, Khomeini said after the revolution 'we have the obligation to re-Islamize the people.' Most Muslims develop a practical relationship with Islam without having to deal with the contradictions and difficulties. I call this the 'Catholic way' in Islam. This is possible for most Muslims. See countries like Indonesia. Because if you're serious about the political and judicial aspects of Islam, you have to be a terrorist or jihadist. But you are not obligated to take it seriously. We must minimize the pressure of radical Muslims on normal Muslims. We have no moderate Islam but we have moderate Muslims. Contrary to what [U.S. President] Barack Obama said, that the problem was not Islam but radical Muslims. I say the reverse. As a critic of Islam I have a humanistic approach, because it is not the Muslims who are the problem but these elements in Islam. And I believe that most Muslims, just like members of other religions, will find a way to reconcile their belief in a pragmatic way."