Will the Arab Spring turn into winter?

Some courageous Muslim thinkers could create a beachhead for the development of Arab democracy.
Robert R. Reilly | 12 September 2011
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With the lunatic tyrant Moammar Gaddafi almost gone from Libya and the ground shaking under Bashir Assad’s feet in Syria, one could only wish that hopes for the Arab Spring were on as solid a foundation as many seem to think. One's heart naturally goes out to those who have been trampled for generations by one-party states or megalomaniac supreme leaders. These people are getting their first taste of freedom, and it is exhilarating for them and for all in the West who wish them well.

For example, John O’Sullivan celebrates that “Egyptians, Tunisians, Syrians, and Libyans have now proved that they too value liberty and that they are prepared to make terrible sacrifices for themselves and their fellow-countrymen. That does not establish that liberal democracy can thrive in the Middle East, but it settles the question of whether Arab societies want it. They do.”

Well, if they want liberal democracy, why not establish it—especially after having sacrificed so much to overthrow the tyrants? What possible obstacles might there be to achieving this?

Some think the obstacles are few. In “The Arab Spring Is Still Alive”, Matthew Kaminski, of the Wall Street Journal, makes a direct comparison to the democracies that emerged after the fall of the Soviet empire and suggests that this will be as easy a transition for the Arabs.

However, this leaves aside a critically important ingredient: culture. The peoples of Eastern Europe had a far better time adapting to democracy because, despite the depredations of Communism, they had roots in a Judeo-Christian culture that holds that all people are created in God’s image. Part of that image is the primacy of reason, founded in God’s own logos. The integrity of reason and its ability to know morality is the foundation of freedom of conscience and the freedom to choose.

In asking where the Arab Spring might go, we would do well to consider sources of legitimacy. Upon what accepted principles might the new order establish itself? In Islam, sovereignty is exclusively God’s because, in the Qur’an’s account of creation, man is not made in the image and likeness of God. At a recent inter-faith Iftar dinner, a rabbi and an evangelical preacher both spoke movingly of everyone being made in the image of God. The Sunni imam also spoke movingly, but not in these words. I asked him afterwards and in private if he, too, as a Muslim, could proclaim that man was made in the image and likeness of God. He blanched, but recovered by simply saying that we were all equally made by God. Yes, but that is not the same thing.

The Islamic doctrine of tanzih teaches that God is so infinitely transcendent that absolutely no comparison can be made between Him and anything else. There is nothing “like” Him, certainly not man. The Judeo-Christian notion from Genesis of man possessing the imago Dei is a scandalous blasphemy in Islam. There is nothing God-like in man’s reason, which is unable to apprehend morality and has no integrity of its own. This is why there is no freedom of conscience acknowledged in Islamic jurisprudence.

This helps us understand the huge support – some 84 percent, according to Pew Research – for the death penalty for apostasy from Islam in Egypt today. Freedom of conscience remains an alien notion. Therefore, one must ask whether the desired freedom of the Arab Spring is truly based upon the proposition that all people are created equal. How many Egyptians actually believe that Copts and Muslims, men and women, believers and nonbelievers are equal – to say nothing of Jews and Muslims? Where is the underlying support in their culture for the truth of this proposition? If it is not there, it will be freedom for some and oppression for others. As Bernard Lewis has pointed out, the discourse in Egypt today is still "religiously defined" and "the language of Western democracy is for the most part newly translated and not intelligible to the great masses."

Yes, as Kaminski says, “the voice of the people... is heard loudly in Tahrir Square.” But one should recall that the largest such gathering of several million people was in February for Muslim Brotherhood spiritual leader Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who had recently returned from exile. The Muslim Brotherhood is the quintessential Islamist organization, founded in 1928 to restore the caliphate. In his book Islam and Secularism Face to Face, al-Qaradawi stated that “secularism is atheism.” Not a good sign.

Until the problem of the underlying culture is addressed, there will be no soil in which the Arab Spring can permanently root itself. As has been the case in the past, the transition may be from one set of oppressors to another. Speaking of the desolation in which Gaddafi’s ruinous rule has left Libya, Fouad Ajami writes, “There are no viable institutions to sustain it...”

Indeed, there are not, which is why the Transitional National Council has turned to traditional sources of authority in Islam. In a constitutional declaration, the rebel council stated that Libya will be democratic but that “Islam is the religion of the state and the principle (sic) source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence.” This statement closely parallels a provision in the Egyptian constitution, placed there by Anwar Sadat when he was the ruler. It did not betoken democratic development. It remains to be seen whether democracy can prove in any way compatible with a literal, or any other, understanding of this constitutional declaration.

Are these obstacles insurmountable? Must the Arab Spring turn into winter? Must these people's dreams of freedom be dashed once again? Are they forever prisoners of a dysfunctional culture? In my book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind, I tried to give the background to these questions, but it may be best to let Arab intellectual reformers answer them. There is an exciting new venue in which to see what they have to say – the website: Almuslih.org. (It is in both Arabic and English.) According to its mission statement, Almuslih.org aims to maximize the exposure and distribution of journalism and analyses promoting progressive thought in the Arab Middle East and the Muslim world.” Go there to see how some of the most brilliant minds in the Arab world, like writer Sayyid al-Qimny, Abd al-Hamid al-Ansari, the former Dean of Islamic Law at Qatar University, and Hassan Mneimneh, director of the Iraq Memory Foundation, understand the situation today and what must be done to secure a democratic future. Invariably, they address the problem of the culture.

Contrary to al-Qaradawi’s condemnation of secularism, Tunisian philosopher Latif Lakhdar, one of the brightest lights in the Muslim world, calls for "an acceptance of the division between the domains of faith and politics." He also states that a reformed Islam "ends the conception of the world divided up into an Abode of Islam destined for expansion and an Abode of War destined for ‘Jihad unto the end of time,’ as al-Bukhari's Hadith has it." Lakhdar says forthrightly, "our faith today constitutes a part of the problem, and it is incumbent upon us to reform it, in the school of religious rationalism, so that we turn it into a part of the solution."

I am particularly delighted by the most recent posting on Almuslih, an article titled “Freedom and the Progress of Civilization”, by Mohammed al-Sanduk. Al-Sanduk confirms my thesis in The Closing of the Muslim Mind that the greatest scientific and cultural achievements of the Arab Muslim world occurred during, and because of, the ascendancy of the rational theologians, the Mu‘tazilites, whose thinking "laid emphasis on the freedom of choice and on the responsibilities that accompany this." Likewise, its decline resulted because of their suppression. He even provides a chart which tracks the rise and fall of Muslim scientific achievement parallel to the rise and fall of Mu‘tazilite thought.

One of the best essays on the website is “A Manifesto for Reform”, by the eloquent Hasan Hanafi, chairman of the philosophy department at Cairo University. He writes that "no real change can take place if there is not a change in the mindset first." This is the reason, he says, that prior efforts at reform have failed because they "started with social, political and economic structures rather than with inherited intellectual substructures, which remained unchanged even as liberal, western enlightenment-derived structure was superimposed over them." This has not worked because “the imported freedom therefore perches on an infrastructure of inherited fatalism, while the imported Rights of Man sit atop a substructure of the inherited Rights of God, in the same way that the imported sciences are superimposed over an infrastructural legacy of miracles." As this brilliantly insightful sentence implies, the real problem is theological, and it is at this level reform must take place.

Without a different theology, can one have democracy? Iranian philosopher, Dr Abdulkarim Soroush, explicitly answered this question: "You need some philosophical underpinning, even theological underpinning in order to have a real democratic system. Your God cannot be a despotic God anymore. A despotic God would not be compatible with a democratic rule, with the idea of rights. So you even have to change your idea of God."

Can this be done? Can what seems to be the bedrock of Islam change? This seems a very tall order, though there is precedent for it in Muslim history. However, if it is going to be done, it will no doubt be accomplished by courageous Muslim thinkers such as those appearing on Almuslih.org. Read it, and you will feel spring in the air.

Robert Reilly has worked in foreign policy, the military, and the arts. His most recent book is The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis.

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