The original title of this lucid, eloquent book is La Maladie de l'Islam - Islam's sickness. The English title echoes Freud's Civilisation and its Discontents . The countless books that have flooded the market since September 11 2001 divide roughly along the lines of those that find in that horrific event confirmation of Samuel Huntingdon's theory of "the clash of civilisations" - as if the action of a tiny group of crazed fanatics constitutes "a civilisation" - and the pleas of Muslim scholars anxious to defend Islam's message of peace and harmony.
Abdelwahab Meddeb tries to tackle "the troubles inherent in Islam... which arguably exist, and to identify and analyse them". He distances himself from the writers who blame Islam for the decline of Islamic societies (Bernard Lewis is their doyen) and from the late Edward Said, who, while recalling "Islam's contribution to universality... evades the specificity for understanding its tendencies, if not its sickness".
Meddeb describes himself as "a European Arab" - born in Tunisia, educated in Paris, a professor at the Sorbonne - rooted in the French Enlightenment.
His knowledge of Islamic and European thought is immense - his text scintillates with apposite quotes from Plato to Hallaj and Sade. But the tutelary genius of his book is Voltaire - especially his Treatise on Tolerance , in which Voltaire uses "sickness" in relation to the "convulsive fanatics" who commit massacres in the name of religion.
Meddeb argues that after the golden age of Islamic civilisation - the 9th to 14th centuries, when "the cultural capital of the world was Baghdad under the Abassids and Muslims led the world in science, philosophy and the arts - "a kind of entropy took hold of minds and set them on an inexorable curve towards decline". The cleavage with the West occurred with Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Descartes, whose ideas led to the Enlightenment.
He traces "the genealogy of fundamentalism" to a literalist interpretation of Islam by theologian Ibn Hanhal (780-955AD), the "deranged Damascene" Ibn Tymyya (1263-1328) and finally Mohammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), the originator of Wahhabism, "whose doctrinal mediocrity and illegitimacy was denounced" by theologians across the Islamic world, yet spread in the Arabian Peninsula. "Thus was launched at the heart of the 18th century and contemporaneous with the European Enlightenment the puritanical movement that brought today's Saudi Arabia." It would have remained a local phenomenon and faded away were it not for the billions of petrodollars spent on spreading the disease all over the world, through "mosques" and phoney "sheikhs", with the encouragement of the US, as an antidote to communism.
Meddeb blames the West for its "exclusion of Islam" and colonialism for the plight of the Middle East, starting with the conquest of Egypt by Napoleon - the decisive event that made Muslims "conscious of their defeat". Today the US is the sole imperial power, but unlike the empires of the past it "is imperialist without being imperial ... wants power without responsibility... The inventor of rogue states has become a rogue state par excellence ."
Meddeb pleads for "European nuance", "to temper American hegemony", as Simone Weil had urged as early as 1942. Yet he accepts that in the present circumstances, only if the unique superpower acts responsibly - brokers a just peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, stops backing tyrannical regimes and promotes real democracy - will fundamentalism, "the sickness of Islam", be eradicated.
Shusha Guppy is London editor, Paris Review .
Islam and its Discontents
Author - Abdelwahab Meddeb
Publisher - Heinemann
Pages - 241
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 0 434 01140 1