Western observers should not confound a complicated political
landscape in North Africa and theMiddle Eastby neatly dividing
between those advocating liberalism, on the one hand, and those
promoting Islamic values, on the other. From such ground an Arab
Spring will not blossom.
The skeptical perspective which has engaged the vast majority of
contemporary western scholars, pundits and politicians has fueled a rather simplistic narrative. Those trumpeting Iran and Algeria rather than Indonesia and Turkeyas evidence that Islamic parties in newly liberated Arab lands will push an anti-liberal agenda have based their arguments on a familiar, if ultimately bankrupt, logic.
While it is obviously unfair to predict that fundamentalist Islam will prove adaptable to the high bar set by theUnited Statesin the two centuries since our Republic was first set on its constitutional course, there are good reasons to doubt the wisdom of publishing Sohrab Ahmari’s recent article in Commentary Magazine, “The Failure of Arab Liberals: How a Celebrated Freedom Movement Fostered The Success of an Islamic Order” (May 2012).
In the years following the ratification of the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote or the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education overturning a hundred years of de jure racial segregation for black Americans, we can say that our democracy has moved closer to insuring that Thomas Jefferson’s declaration that “all men are created equal” is translated into positive law.
In this first phase of Arab democratization, it is is unfair, then, to assume that just because Arab liberals have not achieved all the goals set out in their pro-democracy agenda, and some Islamist politicians continue to espouse anti-liberal views, then ipso facto political Islam is incompatible with cherished liberal ideals.
While debate continues over how to assimilate liberalism with
Muhammed’s prophetic tradition, what is undeniable is that
Muslim parties are far from monolithic—and many of the most prominent politicians from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen have not only espoused liberal values like freedom of speech and assembly, religious tolerance and a free judiciary, but have provided reasons steeped in the Islamic tradition for why Islam, democracy and liberalism are not nearly such strange bedfellows.
Ahmari’s conclusion is that “If liberal values are worth fighting and dying for when it comes to confronting autocracy, they must be guarded more jealously against Islamists, who hate liberalism even more than did the likes of Mubarak and Ben Ali.” While this comports nicely with a whitewashed version of a Mubarak regime that consistently doctored election results, curbed free speech and put into place a security apparatus with millions of informers rivaling the the KGB, Stasi and SAVAK, there is no reason to believe that the rich and gaudy Mubarak or Ben Ali regimes were ever so devoted to liberal values. There is room, however, to argue whether they hate liberalism less than Islamists.
“Whoever sleeps full while his neighbor is hungry is not a believer”, the foremost candidate for president ofEgypt, Abdoul Moneim Abol Fotouh, once referred to “as one of [the Muslim] Brotherhood’s most respected members,” recently stated.
David Kirkpatrick and Mayy El Sheikh write in the NY Times
(“Conservatives inEgyptBack Liberal to Oppose Brotherhood,” Sunday
April 29, 2012)”:
“Amongst other things, [Fotouh] often argues that the first
priorities in advancing Islamic law should be individual
freedom and social justice.
Addressing a rally of thousands in [a] Salafi stronghold in
the Nile Delta this week, he argues that Egyptian Muslims are
not waiting for a president to teach them to follow their
faith. They want a president to develop their agriculture and
industry, as he said Islamic law also requires.”
The winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, human rights activist
Tawakkul Karman, is also a senior member ofYemen’s main
Islamic opposition party, Al Islah. Named “Mother of the Revolution,” this hijab-wearing activist was at the forefront of the movement to unseat the Saleh regime that ruledYemenfor nearly thirty five years.
To make her point that much of what is said in the name of
Islam is merely cultural, Karman decided to replace the traditional niqab, a veil which fully covers the face, for a scarf on national television. Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, a former dean ofCairo’s Al Azhar University reaffirms Karman’s position, stating the “niqab is a cultural tradition and has nothing to do with Islam.”
Like many of her counterparts inYemen’s opposition, she has advocated religious freedom and human rights values. She went so far as to state in a 2011 speech at theUniversityofMichigan, “I am a citizen of the world. The Earth is my country, and humanity is my nation.” With reference to women’s rights, Karman writes that:
“The solution to women’s issues can only be achieved in a
free and democratic society in which human energy is
liberated, the energy of both women and men together. Our
civilization is called human civilization and is not
attributed only to men or women.”
Sohrab Ahmari’s rather glib conclusion, notwithstanding, that “Islamists…hate liberalism even more than did the likes of Mubarak and Ben Ali”, it is important to consider the extent to which remarks like Karman’s are beginning to especially resonate amongst religious Muslim women. Western critics should not assume that political Islam will inevitably follow the course of Saudi Wahabism orIran’s ultra-conservative regime. The question is as much a matter of progressive (re) interpretation of Sharia-law as the fire and brimstone flourish of some Islamic public officials. “The only problem is the misunderstanding from the people who act –Islam, Christian, Jewish or any other religion—,” says Karman, “(as if to say) ‘this is the religion.”
Cherry picking quotes by leading liberal writers, activists and
intellectuals from the Arab world to suggest widespread liberal
accomodation to a fundamentalist brand of Islam on the ascent, as
Ahmari does, distorts what ought to be the central focus of an article highlighting the incompatibility of political Islam with liberal ideals. But rather than consider what is a very serious interpretive debate over the best way to integrate Islamic precepts with liberal value schemes, those most severely represssed under autocrats like Ben Ali, Mubarak and Saleh have all been tarred and feathered as medieval obscurantists.
Given widespread political gains amongst formely-banned Islamic
parties, how Sharia law is debated in light of liberal ideals will
have a great impact on the fate of democracy movements throughout the region. Moreover, an Egyptian society that decides
to push back against U.S. calls for liberal reforms will ultimately threaten its annual aid package, trade and foreign direct investment. Will religious political parties associated with the Brotherhood and Salafists in Egypt chance an economic downturn in the name of anti-liberal repression? Will Egyptians voter both secular and religious accept a repeat of a Mubarak-style police state? Will Yemenis let the Islamist Al-Islah party revoke gains made by the millions of Jasmine Revolution protesters in the name of free speech and assembly?
Must an “Islamic Order” as Commentary’s editor’s have chosen to
essentialize what is certainly a plural debate be the end or beginning of this discussion? Is it not possible that scholars of Islam and Islamists will inevitably accommodate core liberal values in the name of democratic political stability? Can democracy work without a free and impartial judiciary, a free press, the freedom to speak and assemble, the right to property and other liberal provisions? And if democracy can’t work in this region because liberal ideals can not be accomodated to Islamic principles, then will a predominantly religious citizenry inEgypt, for example, be willing to repeat a Mubarak-style police state?
The Koran does not mean one thing. However, the monolithic
phrase “Islamic Order[s]” clearly implies that there is only one way of interpreting Muhammed’s prophetic words? It is like contemporary Jews opining that the now-deceased chief rabbi of the Satmar branch of hasidic Judaism, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, who used to quote the tractate Ketuboth in the Babylonian Talmud to claim that no Jewish State couldbe established before the messiah had arrived would have agreed with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Zionist, on the relationshiop between religion and state. Or that Rabbi Meir Kahane, who headed the rabidly anti-Arab Kach party would see eye to eye with Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Jewish renewal movement on the relationship between liberal values, religion and the manifest destiny of Jews to settle the lands of greater Israel. Or that Ovadia Yosef, former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israeland spiritual leader ofIsrael’s Shas party, should be taken as the final word on Jewish –Gentile relations when he says “Gentiles were born only to serve us. Without that, they have no place in the world – only to serve the People of Israel.”
The same American Jewish Committee (AJC) that founded Commentary Magazine in 1945 condemned Yosef’s remarks after he made them in 2010, stating that “Rabbi Yosef’s remarks – suggesting outrageously that Jewish scripture asserts non-Jews exist to serve Jews – are abhorrent and an offense to human dignity and human equality [...] Judaism first taught the world that all individuals are created in the divine image, which helped form the basis of our moral code.”
Political Islam is in its infancy stage. As time moves on we will
certainly have a better idea of the degree to which Islam and
liberalism are compatible. There will be religious politicians who
will continue to promote a retrograde version of Islam, who will
attempt to restrict women’s’ rights, and who will advocate the death penalty for crimes like adultery and religious heresies.
This should not mean, however, that there is only one version of Islam that will be promoted. Tawwakul Karman and many of the other young leaders of Yemen’s uprising, members of the religious Al-Aslah party, believe this narrative. If sodomy was a crime punishable in many U.S. states up until the 2003 “Lawrencev.Texas” Supreme Court decision reversed established law, then surely political Islam can accommodate more liberal ideals.
A special thanks to Rabyaah Althaibani.