An interview with Turki Al-Hamad, prominent Saudi liberal
Professor Turki Al-Hamad is a prominent Saudi liberal who stirs controversy wherever he goes. Sometimes controversy starts when one of his books or novels is banned, but it doesn’t fade when a fatwa declares him an apostate or permits killing him. In his interview with The Majalla, Al-Hamad describes those who have issued fatwas against him to be “the pharaohs of this age,” asserting that he is not afraid of these fatwas and doesn’t believe in invariables in this life. For him, life is similar to a flowing river, and one cannot bathe in the same river twice.
Professor Turki Al-Hamad is good at swimming against the current, for example he considers that there is no contradiction between Islam and application of liberalism. He says that true liberalism can never mean exclusion, as the core of liberalism is freedom of choice and its essence is multiplicity. A true liberal who believes in the values and philosophy of liberalism can but be tolerant.
The Majalla: You’ve lived in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the US and Saudi Arabia again. How have these places affected your body of work?
It brought me multiplicity and rich experience [to live abroad]. At the end, man is a result of his experiences, along with his gifts, which crystallize all these into a philosophy of life.
I was born in Jordan in the 1950s, when political and social changes were taking place. This country combines traditional tribal order and a political party system. This influenced me in my beginnings, especially the political side where nationalist and leftist ideas were established in my thought. Indeed, I was a six or seven year old child at that time, but these were my years of formation. Even if these early thoughts did not form an apparent awareness, they were deeply rooted in my subconscious, contributing eventually to my personality and philosophy. Thus, I always emphasize on paying attention to young minds, because who forms those minds is forming the whole world in the end.
I spent my teenage years and early youth In Dammam in the 1960s. It was then that primary ideas started to materialize into an awareness and a behavior. There was an openness to the world of knowledge and political and intellectual streams, and engagement in underground organizations and political trends, especially national and leftist, that were overshadowing the regions.
In the 1970s, in Riyadh, after the six-day war, the death of Nasser, and Black September in Jordan, I began a self-revision, and tried to reconsider ideas which were previously undisputed. Nevertheless, one’s soul still hangs to such ideas like a mother who still hangs to her child though he has grown up.
In the US, it was a stage, or an attempt, of rationalism and liberation from old ideas, by finding a new criterion based on filtering any and every idea through a balanced mind, and an approach of doubt until certainty is established. Then, it will be a primary certainty as there is no absolute certainty in this life.
In Riyadh in the eighties, nineties, and the beginning of the new millennium, the approach has become clear, and my view has been largely determined: mind is the only balance, doubt is the sole method, and life has no meaning without diversity, multiplicity and difference.
Q:Does Hisham Al-‘Abir, the hero of your trilogy Atyaf al-Aziqah al-Mahjurah (Phantoms of the Deserted Alleys), represent Turki Al-Hamad, or just portray part of your character?
Hisham Al-‘Abir is not Turki Al-Hamad, despite carrying many of his features. Similarly, Kamal Abdel-Jawad held many characteristics of Naguib Mahfouz in his famous trilogy. The hero of any novel must have something similar to his creator. This hero has not fallen from heaven, but a portrayal, in some way, of the author, even if the similarities are simple. I can say that as God has created man in his shape, the author has invented the hero according to his stereotype. I think this clarifies the difference between Turki Al-Hamad and Hisham Al-‘Abir.
Q: You have confronted religious and social norms with defiant statements that break taboos. Do you have any regrets?
Should I ever regret something? I don’t believe in invariables in this life. Life is similar to a flowing river, and we cannot bathe in the same river twice, even if we think that we can do so, because the water is never the same—though it looks like the same river. Some people may say that denying norms, especially religious ones, is heresy and blasphemy, if not apostasy. Here, I say that everything has a source or reference determining its track. For example, the gravity of the sun determines the track of planets around it, but let us remember that even the sun is following a cosmic orbit too. Thus, I would say that nothing is invariable except for change, despite the apparent contradiction in the sentence.
Q: Three fatwas have been issued calling you an apostate and permitting your assassination. Are you afraid?
Absolutely not. I have deep faith in our creator, despite all the allegations. I believe in destiny. Thus, I say what I believe true regardless of who is satisfied and who is angry. Their fatwas do not intimidate me, because I know that they claim they are speaking on behalf of God, our Lord, Muslims and non-Muslims, he is not theirs only. Their fatwas are a means to impose their influence on thought and society, so one should stand against them. An Arabic proverb says, ‘Pharaoh, what has made you tyrant.’ He replies, ‘I’ve found no-one stopping me.’ Those people have turned out to be the pharaohs of this age, and they should be stopped for the sake of humanity, and even for the sake of religion which they monopolize, steal and twist.
Q: Some time ago, the Egyptian thinker Nasr Hamid Abu-Zayed passed away. Will those who previously called him an apostate regret it?
Al-Jabri, Arkoun, Ahmed Al-Baghdadi and others also died. Those who called them apostates will not regret it, but the ones who have not benefited from their existence and thought in their lives will. Those who brand people apostates cannot regret, as regret requires minds, and revision of one’s thoughts and beliefs. Those callers of apostasy still brand Averroes, Avicenna, Ibn Arabi, Al-Razi and others apostates, though these names are sources of pride in Arab and Muslim civilization. So what will make them differentiate today between Abu Zayd and Averroes, for example?
Q: You reject the politicization of religion and the interference of religion in politics. Do you want complete isolation between religion and politics?
Yes to isolating religious institutions from politics. There is a difference between religion and a religious institution. Religion is a wide space that can have multiple interpretations and understanding. In essence, it is a relationship between man and God. Thus, we may find two people belonging to the same religion but having two different understandings of it, which is not a problem. As for the religious institution, it embodies unilateral interpretation and understanding; consequently, it is incapable of absorbing the flowing and changing stream of life. Hence, there is a shortcoming in the relationship of the religious institution and its thought that is essentially dictatorial. Eventually, politicization of religion and interference of religion in politics will inevitably lead to despotism, and history proves it.
Q: Do you think there is contradiction between Islam and application of liberalism?
On the contrary, if we understand religion as a wide space, liberalism will be the air in which religious thought can breathe. Here, I speak about religion, not a unilateral interpretation of religion or a religious institution as a representative of religion. In the latter case, contradiction is inevitable, because liberalism is an enemy of unilateral thinking, which the religious institution represents.
Q: Some people see no difference between liberals and fundamentalists as both exclude and belittle each other. Is there a need for more tolerance between the elite, whether Islamists or liberals?
True liberalism can never mean exclusion, at its core is the freedom of choice, its essence is multiplicity. A true Liberal who believes in the values and philosophy of liberalism can but be tolerant. To be liberal, one has to accept the existence of all views and trends, religious or non-religious, providing that these views and trends accept each other’s existence. That is to say tolerance is the environment in which all can coexist.
Q: In your column entitled “They Planted…We Ate” you analyze the reasons that led to the Riyadh bombings and the aftermath of 9/11 attacks. How can we combat terrorism?
We can combat terrorism by uprooting its ideology from the beginning, and implanting a culture of tolerance in the youth. I think this is an educational and instructional issue in the first place.
Q: You speak about a difference between the job of the intellectual and that of the politician. Which one is yours?
Maybe I’m a political analyst, but definitely not a politician. If the job of the intellectual is to “sting” in order to restore awareness then I think this is my role, or rather I’m trying to do so.
Q: In your book Arab Culture in the Age of Globalization, you wrote that history is influenced by competition and survival of the fittest. How can Arabs live under globalization?
They have to globalize and free themselves from their illusions, especially the illusions of uniqueness, superiority and progress in the past.
Q: You retired early as an academic professor to devote yourself to writing. Is it difficult to combine an academic career with writing?
In a contradictory culture snapping itself and claiming to be what it is not, and under educational institutions lacking freedom along with societies missing the spirit of tolerance, I say yes.
Q: What is the difference between a thinker who writes a novel and an author who writes a novel? And what do you say in your novels that you can’t say in your articles?
What is important is the quality of the product, as well as its message and truth. Otherwise, there are details that have no effect. A novel can express the warmth of experience and the vigor of life, but an article cannot.
Q: What is your readership, the average man or the elitist intellectual?
My reader is rather someone in-between. The elitist thinks I am below the sought level, and the average man thinks I’m higher than what he wants. I’m in-between them both, I am only keen on conveying the idea in the end.
Q: How do you analyze the level of the Saudi novel? And how do you assess the experience of female novelists in Saudi Arabia?
The Saudi novel is moving forward, but has not reached full maturity, even though it is approaching it. As for the Saudi women’s experience in writing novels, I think that, in general, it is a literature of revealing what was socially silenced, more than being a novel.
Q: When it comes to you, are your books banned because of your name or their content?
Probably in the past the reason was the content, but now I doubt that. Today, there are Saudi male and female writers who are more daring than me in the past, yet they are not “disliked.”
Q: What is your forthcoming project? Do you intend to write a new trilogy?
There is a time for everything, in its own time.