Today's Chronicle of Higher Education notes a new book: Islam and the West: A Conversation With Jacques Derrida (University of Chicago Press). The focus or hook is Derrida's Algerian roots. The Chronicle's summary:
Just out in translation, Mustapha Chérif's Islam and the West: A Conversation With Jacques Derrida (University of Chicago Press), blends several of those approaches. In it, Chérif brings Algeria, a shared place of origin, front and center in his encounter with the philosopher.
The genesis of the book was an invitation extended by Chérif, a professor of philosophy and Islamic studies at the University of Algiers and a visiting professor at the Collège de France. In May 2003, he invited Derrida to a colloquium on Algeria and France at Paris's Institut du Monde Arabe. What made the occasion unusual and in fact poignant was that Derrida arrived from the hospital only having just learned of the cancer that would kill him 15 months later. "For any other meeting," Chérif says Derrida told him, "I wouldn't have had the strength to participate."
In a foreword longer and more telling than forewords tend to be, Giovanna Borradori describes the two men as an "odd couple" and says that a profound love of Algeria is almost all they share. However, the Vassar College philosopher argues that the book advances the "crucial but largely underestimated role" Algeria played in Derrida's "philosophical itinerary." She also says that despite his anti-institutional bent and preference for "fluidity over rigidity," Derrida was a highly guarded man. The book, she argues, "pierces that reticence at a moment of great vulnerability, revealing the depth and complexity of Derrida's feelings for Algeria." Asked by Chérif what his Algerian origins have meant, Derrida responds that "a Judeo-Franco-Maghrebin genealogy does not explain everything, far from it, but can I ever explain anything without it?" He goes on to discuss his experience of Arabs and the Arabic language in Algeria in wistful terms as "an other, who was the closest of the close."
The book's format is impressionistic. Chérif paraphrases his questions to Derrida from that day — "confidences" he calls them — and then transcribes in quotation Derrida's answers. That material is then embedded in Chérif's own running commentary.
On the book's titular theme, Chérif argues for an end to historical amnesia and for the need to understand Islam's contributions to modernity and its continued emancipatory potential "beyond the deviations of some of its own followers today" — violent usurpers of the faith. "Is it reasonable," he asks Derrida, "to view our worlds as opposites?" Derrida agrees to the need to "deconstruct the European intellectual construct of Islam" and rediscover the "reciprocal fertilization of the Greek, the Arab, and the Jew."
Where the two men struggle more is on what Chérif capitalizes as the Mystery and the Divine. At one point, Derrida casts faith in earthy terms of social interaction. "One's relationship to the other, addressing the other, presupposes faith," he tells Chérif. "The act of faith is not a miraculous thing; it is the air that we breathe."