Lafif Lakhdar: A European Muslim Reformist
In many Islamic countries "non-Muslim citizens are still treated as "dhimmis"

Introduction: A Short Biography

Lafif Lakhdar is a Tunisian intellectual living in Paris. The name "Lafif Lakhdar" is the French transcription of his Arabic name, "Al-'Afif Al-Akhdar." He is one of the foremost reformist intellectuals in the Arab world today. His articles are published regularly on the liberal websites Elaph and Middle East Transparent, and afterwards are taken up by dozens of other reform-oriented sites. He is an outspoken and relentless critic of Islamism and Islamist terrorism.

On October 24, 2004, the liberal Arab websites and published a manifesto written by Arab liberals – among them Lafif Lakhdar – in which they petitioned the U.N. to establish an international tribunal for the prosecution of terrorists and people and institutions that incite to terrorism.

The special significance of this petition was that it not only spoke of terrorism and terrorists in general terms, but specifically mentions by name a number of leading Islamist clerics as promoters of terrorism who should be prosecuted at the tribunal – among them, the prominent and media-savvy Islamist Sheikh Yousuf Al-Qaradhawi, one of the leading authorities of the Muslim Brotherhood.

It is not surprising then that the banned Tunisian Islamist movement Al-Nahdha, headed by Sheikh Rashed al-Ghannushi, has declared Lafif Lakhdar an apostate, which many Islamists understand as a call for his assassination.

Lafif Lakhdar was born in 1934 to a poor peasant family in northeastern Tunisia. Of the nine children in his family, seven died in infancy, with only him and one brother surviving. Because of the family's poverty, his only schooling was half a year in a French school and Koran studies in the village. When he grew up, he went to the Al-Zaytouna religious university, where not only were studies free of tuition, but which also offered room and enough "board" to get by. Afterwards he studied law, and practiced law for a number of years.

In 1958, he represented at trial a Tunisian oppositionist, who was convicted and put to death, following which Lafif Lakhdar's movement was restricted by the police. In 1961, he escaped Tunisia and fled to Paris, where he joined the circle of Algerian FLN leader Ahmad Ben Bella's supporters, and eventually, when Ben Bella was elected President of Algeria, Lakhdar became one of his closest advisors. When Ben Bella was deposed in 1965, Lakhdar fled Algeria, and spent several years wandering throughout Europe and the Middle East.

In the late 1960s, Lafif Lakhdar was in Jordan and was close to the PLO leadership. In 1970 he moved to Beirut, where he was a prominent figure in Marxist and left-wing circles. In his own words, hunger had made him into a socialist. However, the civil war in Lebanon brought about a rift between himself and his onetime left-wing associates, for he could not accept their support for the forces which undermined and threatened to destroy the only democracy in the Arab world. He then returned once more to Paris, where he lives to this day.

In 2005, a study of Lafif Lakhdar's thought was published in Beirut under the title The Devil's Advocate. The author, Jordanian-American political thinker Dr. Shaker Al-Nabulsi, explains that he took the title from one of Lafif Lakhdar's articles in which he describes himself as the devil's advocate, explaining that he is not only ready to defy common wisdom, but is also ready to constantly challenge his own views in search of the truth.

"Arab-Islamic Education Turns a Lover of Peace into an Aggressor, and an Aggressor into a Terrorist"

Lafif Lakhdar's views on Islam and Muslims in Europe stem from his views on the general question of the relationship between religion and state on the one hand, and his view on the need for reform in Islam on the other. A paper he sent to be read at the Congress on Modernity and Arab Modernization, which was held in Beirut during April 30-May 2, 2004, is an effective summary of his views on these issues. The article's main focus is on the need to transform education in the Arab world – education in general, and religious education in particular, at all levels of schooling. This emphasis on education is a central feature of Lakhdar's thought. In a paraphrase on Jean Piaget's quip that the French educational system turns the genius into the talented, and the talented into the mediocre, he said that Arab-Islamic education – with the exception of the Tunisian school system – turns a peace-lover into an aggressor, and an aggressor into a terrorist.

According to Lakhdar, the reason why Arab-Islamic elites, throughout the Arab world, opt for this kind of religious education is that the political elites in the Arab world, who lack democratic social legitimacy, compensate for this deficiency by promoting Islamist education, which is by its nature anti-modern and anti-rationalist.

For Lafif Lakhdar, secularism is the very basis of a healthy society. To be sure, it is not the only prerequisite, but it is certainly an indispensable one. He defines "secularism" as the separation of religion from politics. He distinguishes three categories of countries: theocracy, the secular state, and countries in a state of transition between the two. According to Lakhdar, theocracy was widespread during the Middle Ages, and while it is extant in the Christian world today only in the Vatican, in the Islamic world there are several theocracies: the Islamic Republic of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and, until 2002, the Taliban state in Afghanistan. Most Islamic countries, though, are in a state of transition from theocracy to a secular state.

Lakhdar says: "A state in transition from theocracy to secularism is one whose constitution determines that the shari'a [Islamic religious law] is the first source of legislation...

"Women and non-Muslims in this state of transition are second-class citizens, and sometimes even zero-class citizens. For example, a woman is forbidden to run for the presidency or even for a lesser office, because in many Islamic countries women are still considered as lacking the intelligence needed for governing, and lacking the religious standing needed to perform religious ritual. Non-Muslim citizens are still treated as dhimmis…"

Muslims Are Destined, Like the Rest of Humanity, to Adopt Modernity and Secularism

According to Lafif Lakhdar, Arab and Muslim countries cannot escape becoming secular. The direction of historical development is toward secularism, which is the hallmark of modernity. Muslims are destined, like the rest of humanity, to adopt modernity, and, as a result, secularism.

"The separation of the sacred and the mundane is a consequence of modernity. The farther back we go in history, the more we see that the separation of the two is the rare exception, while the rule is that they are tied together, particularly among primitive tribes.

"The Islamists' psychological slavery to their forefathers – that is, to the Prophet, his Companions, and their followers – paralyzes their minds no less than ancestor worship [paralyzes] the mind of primitive [tribes]. The divine logic brought by the forefathers is everything, while the human logic of our minds is nothing…"

"So far, secularism has failed in the attempt to make headway in the Arab world, because Islam has not yet undergone the necessary religious reform that Judaism and Christianity underwent in Europe. A religion that has undergone reform is a modern religion that recognizes the separation of religion and state, and agrees to restrict itself to the religious sphere, with the state being responsible for mundane matters.

"The second reason for the failure of secularism to make headway [in the Arab world] as a complete political system is the cowardice of the political leaders. Islam did not undergo reform in Turkey… yet despite this, thanks to the leadership of the Muslim Kemal Ataturk, the Ottoman theocracy – the Caliphate – came to an end, and on its ruins arose a secular state that is not ashamed of its secular identity."

Lakhdar highlights the role of the leader Kemal Ataturk in extricating his country from a medieval form of regime into a modern one. In other words, Lakhdar suggests that the Arab countries would be better off if their leaders had the courage to establish secular regimes as did Kemal Ataturk. Here we can see Lakhdar's dual role: on the one hand, he is a scholarly observer of social history who describes what he sees as the inevitable outcome of social development (namely, secularism); and on the other hand, he is a passionate reformist, who is anxious to have secularism now and castigates the Arab leaders for not choosing the way to progress.

Secularism Is Not Anti-Religious

Lafif Lakhdar rejects the argument that secularism is anti-religious. He says that those who make this claim are either ignorant, or else disingenuous – like some of the Islamist leaders. Secular France, for instance, does not prevent the construction of mosques in the country.

By the same token, he states that there is nothing to prevent the secular state from offering religious education – provided that it is a modern religious education that has undergone reform. For religious education to be modernized and reformed, he adds that "the pupil must study religion with the help of modern sciences – comparative history of religions, sociology of religions, psychology, religious anthropology, interpretation of sacred texts, and philosophy – in order to develop critical thought in the next generations.

"In Tunisia," he explains, "students at the religious Al-Zaitouna University learn Islamic and modern philosophy throughout all four years of study. Those studying the sciences, including medical students, learn modern philosophy throughout their studies. There is nothing like philosophy and the humanities to strengthen thought against the Islamists' religious-political propaganda. This kind of reformed, modern religious education is not merely desirable for the secular state in the Arab and Islamic region – it is a necessity." This, he believes, is the antidote to religious extremism.

Lafif Lakhdar emphasizes that secularism does not mean a rupture with Islam. He explains that it is a break with autocracy and theocracy in the Muslim world, but on the other hand is a renewal of other elements in Islam – such as the rationalist theology of the Mu'tazila, Muslim philosophical thought, which subjected holy texts to interpretation by the human mind, and Sufism, that is, Islamic mysticism.

Lakhdar, a self-declared secularist, does not deny a role for religion in modern life, so long as it is a personal, private – and, of course, voluntary – form of religion. He writes that he admires the mystical experience in general, and is particularly attracted to the writings of the great medieval Islamic mystic, Muhyi al-Din Ibn al-'Arabi. (In this respect, Lakhdar's attitude is reminiscent of that of the late Egyptian Nobel laureate, Naguib Mahfouz.)

European Muslims Must Integrate into European Societies and Adopt Modern Cultural Values

In a recent interview, Lafif Lakhdar summarized his views on the crucial issue facing Europe and Muslims in Europe – namely, integration vs. multiculturalism. "Within Islam in Europe, there are two conflicting trends. [The first is] the trend that insists on the Muslims' cultural independence and separation from European societies and preservation of all Islamic customs – including those which stand in contradiction with the universal human values prevalent in contemporary human societies, such as European ones. The other trend, to which I myself belong, says the opposite: It insists on the cultural integration of European Muslims into European societies, and the adoption of Europe's universal cultural values, in order to modernize their traditional values, most of which are not adapted to the needs of our time."

"This necessary integration does not mean that they give up their spiritual values, but only those customs that contradict the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the other international conventions that derive from it..."

Lakhdar states that the first trend – which may be termed the communalist trend – is dominant. He also notes that they refuse to speak about "European Muslims," and insist on referring to "Muslims in Europe," so as to highlight the separation of cultural identity between Muslims and Europeans, whereas he himself purposefully speaks of "European Islam."

According to Lakhdar, the Islamists have attained their dominant position among Muslims in Europe through a virtual monopolization of the media – not just the Arabic media, but also of the French and European media, which gives preference to speakers who support the communalist view – like Tariq Ramadhan – and virtually ignores the many Arab intellectuals who are in favor of integration (such as Taher Ben Jaloun, Muhammad Arkoun, Malek Chebel, and Lafif Lakhdar himself).

The flow of petrodollars strengthens the enemies of integration, and allows them to establish their own printed media, publish translations of Islamist preachers into European languages, and dispatch preachers of Islamism to all the poor Muslim suburbs and communities.

There is another factor operating in favor of the Islamist-anti-integrationist trend, namely, the attitude of liberal western intellectuals. Here is how Lakhdar presents this issue: "Why do some of the European intellectuals and the English and American media support the anti-integration trend?"

The answer given by Lakhdar is as follows: "The first explanation is that it is the result of political demagoguery: when the right wing is in power and it makes a decision or assumes a certain position, the left wing, that is, the opposition, automatically opposes it – not because they are convinced that the decisions are wrong, but because they must assume a different position.

"Second, the guilt feeling [on account of European colonialism]… which affects many European intellectuals pushes them to support the [Islamist demands that Muslim girls wear] hijab in school or [the claim that it is all right for Muslims,] on the occasion of the Muslim feast of the sacrifice, to slaughter sheep in their bathrooms, or the right of Muslim families to circumcise their daughters."

Lafif Lakhdar angrily calls this guilt-ridden approach "pathological": "The third reason is cultural relativism, which is even more dangerous than the former two factors, because it derives from a philosophical conviction which has become prevalent in Europe, indeed in the entire Western world."

Lakhdar indignantly continues: "A sound mind recognizes that there are universal human values, such as human rights, and if one does not accept this, then every human society can become a Darwinian society, that is, a society of 'the survival of the fittest' and the whole world becomes a jungle ruled by the law of the jungle."

Lakhdar explains that the religious-ideological underpinning of the separatist, communalist approach is the Islamist doctrine of al-wala' w'al-bara'. This doctrine states that Muslims must ally themselves with and have allegiance to Muslims only, and that they should dissociate themselves from all non-Muslims. The Islamists' insistence on the hijab – a custom which Lakhdar rejects – is one of the expressions of this doctrine: Muslim women should have an appearance that differentiates them from their surrounding environment. He says that the hijab, both in Europe and in Muslim countries, is a clear expression of the subjugation and humiliation of women – an attitude that must be changed in order for Muslim societies to progress.

He rejects the criticism of the French government's ban on the hijab in schools, criticism that often employs the language of human rights and religious freedom. Lakhdar argues that those who criticize the French policy make it appear as though there is a ban on the hijab in general – which is, of course, not the case; the ban applies only to wearing the Islamic head covering at school, but not elsewhere at home or in public. According to Lafif, the hijab in the school is a form of religious propaganda, and therefore, should rightly be prohibited.


Lafif Lakhdar's views on Islam in Europe are rooted in what he holds to be universal values, and which he has made his own: humanism, liberalism, democracy – all of which naturally imply the equality of women and non-discrimination on religious or ethnic grounds. He makes it no secret that he believes modern European societies to be far more advanced in these respects than Arab Muslim countries, and it is his view that the Muslim world should adopt the Western norms of democracy and separation between church and state. Hence, he is strongly in favor of full integration of Muslims into European society. In a recent interview, he proposed an interesting source as a model for this integration: he recommended to Muslims that they adopt none other than the old Jewish principle of dina de-malchuta dina, or "the law of the land is binding," as the basis for European Islamic minority law – a daring choice indeed. Thus in form, as well as in content, Lafif Lakhdar is a courageous and original voice in contemporary Arab thought, a reformist without a hint of apologetics.

*Menahem Milson is Professor of Arabic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Chairman of MEMRI

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