Monday, June 25, 2007

PROFILE: Writing About Muslims (in English & Spanish) cont ...

Just over a year ago, I started writing about a Spanish author the New York Times described as “The Anti-Orientalist”. Juan Goytisolo is regarded as the greatest living writer in the Spanish language. He writes extensively on medieval Islam’s impact on Western civilisation as well as on the plight of Muslim immigrants struggling to find a place in modern Europe.

With continuing interest on Islam in Europe, it is perhaps a good idea to re-visit this author who was profiled at length in the New York Times Magazine in an article by Fernanda Eberstadt on April 16 2006.

[01] During the 1990’s, Goytisolo wrote a series of essays on the Muslim world entitled Landscapes of War. In that series, he warned that radical Islam is mobilising a generation impoverished and disenfranchised by the disastrous experiments of post-colonial Arab governments with the rhetoric of nationalism and secular socialism which thinly veiled the reality of military dictatorship.

[02] Goytisolo compares more theocratic regimes like Saudi Arabia as being like centuries of Spanish monarchy following the Reconquista of Ferdinand and Isabella. This was a society characterised by “intransigent homogeneity” and “autistic self-absorption and inquisitorial vigilance”. That regime used gold from the American colonies in the same way Saudis use oil wealth – not on real development or reform but rather on hounding dissidents and providing religious and political elites with ever larger castles.

[03] Bush’s invasion of Iraq is described in a recent essay as “the illegitimate war of an illegitimate president”, a crowning catastrophe in a series of US blunders in the Muslim world. That series included American backing of Saddam Hussein and the Afghan Mujahideen/Taliban during the 1980’s as well as US support of unpopular and repressive regimes in Egypt, North Africa and the Gulf.

[04] Goytisolo is not all negative. He describes “seeds of modernity” in the Arab world, and hopes Islamist parties are tempered and matured by their participation in national politics.

[05] Goytisolo lives in the Jemaa el Fna in Marrakesh’s old quarter. This is a square where open-air storytellers, snake charmers and witch doctors ply their trade. Goytisolo has struggled to keep Jemaa el Fna’s original character against attempts by the government to turn the place into a parking lot. It is now classed by UNESCO as a site preserving “the oral history of humanity”.

[06] Goytisolo is a strict secularist, allergic to the mingling of state and religion. He loves the popular Islamic traditions of North Africa and Turkey as well as the rich cultural and religious heritage of Arab civilisation. However, he isn’t pleased by some puritanical strains of political Islam that are trying to displace this heritage. Goytisolo says:

I am against all fundamentalisms … The Muslim world needs to do an autocriticism, to take what’s good from other cultures, prepare the way for social and economic change and not merely recall the extinct glories of Al Andalus.
Goytisolo supported the 2004 ban in France of religious symbols in state schools.

... to be continued ...

Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf

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