It’s easy to see why so few western leaders have come to Emmanuel Macron’s defense: when they scrutinize extremists, they are accused of being ‘Islamophobes’. Since the French president’s speech last month about Islam in the West, he has been accused — by populist Muslim politicians such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Imran Khan, as well as publications that should know better, such as the New York Times — of being anti-Muslim. Yes, he was frank about the dangers of Islamism, but his speech was also a defense of what he called the ‘Islam of the Enlightenment’. Rarely for a political leader, he was able to point not just to the problem but to the alternative too. He understands that Muslims have faced these internal enemies before and won. Those portraying Macron’s speech as anti-Islamic tend not to report the bit where he promised €10 million for research into Islamic culture, history and science, and the creation of a ‘Scientific Institute of Islamology’.
‘I want France to become a country where we can teach the thought of Averroes and Ibn Khaldun,’ he said. To hear these figures mentioned in a political speech is quite something — it shows Macron is preparing for intellectual battle, invoking the Islamic adversaries of the extremists.
Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) was one of the greatest philosophers of the Middle Ages. He rejected the notion of creating a caliphate, and applied Aristotelian methods of thought to write on history, identity, divisions of labor, low taxes, small government, and supply and demand. In naming him, Macron underlined the importance of capitalism to the West. Islamists and the far left are often united in their hatred of capitalism, but Ibn Khaldun shows that this should not be the case for Muslims. After all, for most of his life, the Prophet Mohammed was an Arabian trader. Or, in modern terms, an asset manager.
Ibn Rushd (1126-1198) — a polymath Latinized in the West as Averroes — is the only Muslim to feature in Raphael’s ‘The School of Athens’. His inclusion in the fresco in the Vatican, alongside Pythagoras, Archimedes and other great western thinkers, makes Macron’s point: there is no inherent tension between Islam and western values. Both have an enemy in religious literalism.
The intellectual threat to Enlightenment Islam came from the East where the Persian theologian Al-Ghazali (d. 1111) took a literalist approach to scripture and attacked Muslim philosophers as irreligious. He advocated bila kaif, literally ‘not asking how’, on questions of God and theology. It was a manifesto for closing the Muslim mind, the divorce of faith and reason.
Averroes penned the Decisive Treatise against Al-Ghazali’s disastrous ideas. He appealed to scripture to explain how devout Muslims should ask questions and follow evidence. He argued that the pursuit of knowledge was a pious obligation of believers, and religious literalism a dangerous mode of human interpretation. Reason, he wrote, deepened the meanings of scripture.
His work influenced Aquinas and Maimonides, and the Enlightenment was an advance of the scientific method and the primacy of independent human reason as defended by Averroes.
Today’s Islamic world is mired by the legacy of Al-Ghazali and the rejection of Aristotelian philosophy. That way of unscientific thinking — literalism and dogma — is inimical to the values of the West shaped by the Enlightenment. The problem is that today many Muslims have been dragged into a new Dark Age of fanaticism, unable to accept modernity. Averroes, Ibn Khaldun and the Enlightenment offer the way out.
In Britain, we are worryingly blind to the dangers of the narrative of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and their allies. Boris Johnson is a Renaissance man who debated the superiority of the Greeks with Mary Beard at night while he was mayor of London by day. To take on this debate in support of the Enlightenment is to join Macron in defense of civilization. It is to remind the West again of who we are and confidently invite Muslims to come on board. Time is not on our side.