Where God and Caesar Are One

PARIS — Paris -- The case of Taslima Nasreen, the Bangladesh novelist condemned by Islamic fundamentalists, demonstrates the plight of Islamic intellectuals who struggle in their own countries not only to write what they want to write but in order to establish the larger freedom to debate ideas.

The Salman Rushdie case in Britain has tended to obscure rather than illuminate the problems of those Islamic writers and intellectuals who are remote from the West's promotional and publicity machine and its fashionable causes. They are instead in the midst of their own societies, where no strong tradition of secular thought exists.


Taslima Nasreen did not write to shock. She first became controversial with a novel addressing the issues of Hindu-Muslim relations in Bangladesh, after Hindu fanatics in India destroyed a mosque in 1992 and provoked a communal crisis.

She subsequently spoke frankly about the condition of women in fundamentalist Islamic society. The "fatwa" condemning her was issued last year by an obscure rural religious group and has no standing in law, but the Bangladesh government has since accused her of offending religious feelings. Under these pressures, she eventually felt compelled to take refuge in Europe. She now lives in Sweden.


Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian Nobel laureate, was stabbed in October by a militant and very seriously injured. Egypt's minister of information has called him the conscience of the Arab world, but one of his novels was banned for many years after being attacked as heretical in 1959 by religious authorities at Al Azhar University.

He accepted that ban with equanimity, but recently came under new verbal assault from fundamentalists, and has refused police protection. The October assault followed, in front of his Cairo apartment. This all occurred in the political context of the Egyptian government's attempt to repress the fundamentalist movement.

The most serious struggle is in Algeria, where something close to a civil war is going on between the fundamentalists, who won the last national election but were prevented from taking power, and the corrupt and incompetent "revolutionary" government, which has ruled the country since Algeria gained its independence in 1962.

Non-fundamentalist Algerian intellectuals, teachers, writers and journalists -- as well as the foreign residents of the country -- have become the particular targets of integrist gunmen. All stand for what the fundamentalists consider contamination by Western ideas and the challenge of impious thought. One fundamentalist group has been attacking students and schools. They hold that to be taught mathematics, literature and science is a distraction from God.

I have said before that I consider the fundamentalist movement less important for the outside world than it often is made out to be. It must eventually fail because its goal is impossible. One cannot re-establish society on a romanticized and unhistorical notion about how Muslims believed and lived in the 8th century.

However there is a historical explanation for why the fundamentalist movement exists and for why it makes the claims it does. In Western language, it is Islam's lack of the God-and-Caesar distinction. Western Christianity from the beginning distinguished the claims of the state from the claims of religion. "Caesar" was rendered what was his: his taxes, obedience to his civil laws, service in his army. Religion's claims were in the spiritual order. Religion demanded faith, virtue, charity, penitence.

After Rome's fall, when Charlemagne was made the new "holy" emperor of the West, he was crowned in the year 800 by the pope, which signified not his submission to the pope but his consecration by the pope. Charlemagne was acknowledged sovereign in his realm, the political realm. He was the state. The pope was the church.

Later in the Middle Ages, when Greek thought was rediscovered in the West -- thanks to its having been preserved by Arab scholars! -- Aquinas and other church thinkers made a similar distinction between philosophy and theology.


Philosophy was reasoned thought about human issues, including politics. Theology employed both reason and divine revelation in order to reach conclusions about God, morality and religion. The theologian might deal with higher matters, but the secular thinker -- the philosopher -- was sovereign in his own field.

This is the tradition lacking in Islam. Islamic thinkers never succeeded in separating religious thought from secular thought, religion from politics. The purpose of government was never understood as being simply to govern -- to sort out the practical issues of life and rule the community. It had to be to save souls.

Bernard Lewis, the eminent American specialist on Islam, writes that for Muslims a government's principal purpose is "to enable the individual Muslim to lead a good Muslim life. This is, in the last analysis, the purpose of the state, for which alone it is established by God, and for which alone statesmen are given authority over others." The Islamic fundamentalists follow this belief.

Here is the dilemma of the intellectual in Islamic society. He or she can simply reject Islam and leave. But by staying, he or she assumes a role that the Islamic religion has never recognized as entirely legitimate. The role is essential. Muslim societies sooner or later must come to terms with the modern world outside Islam. But the role is tragically difficult, and very dangerous.

8, William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.