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Losing your only friend: a liberal Muslim's letter to the west

Tarek Osman
10 April 2007

Amidst the talk about militant Islam's holy war against the west, Europe's phobia of homegrown Islamism, and academic theorisation of the eminent clash between the liberal west and the fundamentalist Islamic world, the west is slowly but steadily losing its main ally in the Arab and Islamic worlds - liberal Arabs and Muslims.

Most liberal Arabs, like most Arabs of all intellectual standpoints, don't savour the fact that foreign forces - predominantly western powers - occupy parts of their lands, have significant influence over their economic interests, and preach them about progress and socio-economic development. But the view of the liberal Arab or Muslim differs from that of his/her local cousin in a key respect: the deep belief that the post-renaissance value system of the west - based upon social liberalism and the sanctity of individualism, freedom, and free choice - is inherently superior to the value system propagated by the three socio-political systems currently dominating the Arab and Islamic worlds: dogmatic theocracy, patriarchal absolutism, and tribal traditionalism.

In the west, this would be the equivalent of stating that the sun rises from the east; throughout most of the Arab and Islamic worlds, it is highly debatable; and in some corners, heretical.

Tarek Osman is an Egyptian investment banker covering the Gulf and United Kingdom markets.

Also by Tarek Osman in openDemocracy:

"Egypt: who's on top? "
(7 June 2005)

"Egypt's crawl from autocracy"
(30 August 2005)

"Hosni Mubarak: what the Pharaoh is like"
(16 January 2006)

"Can the Arabs love their land? "
(22 May 2006)

"Egypt's phantom messiah"
(12 July 2006)

"Mahfouz's grave, Arab liberalism's deathbed" (23 November 2006)

A universal inheritance

Liberal Arabs and Muslims have adopted the European mindset of separating the church (and of course, mosque) from the state, and subscribed to a universal value system that is based not on one religion, one heritage, one culture, but is rather the product of different social experiences throughout different ages, and across different cultures. In effect, then, they have aligned their societies with the dominant value system in the west.

Their message to the west thus becomes: we can work together, live together in harmony, and interact smoothly because there is so much in common between us, and because we do appreciate that the social contract that you (the west) has developed over the past 300 years could be the backbone for any modern society today; we (Arabs and Muslims) will never be shades of Europeans or Americans; actually most of us do not want to be so anyway; we will retain our distinct identity, yet adopt the social framework that you (the west) has developed - simply because it is working better than the ones we have, and because it is not actually western, but inherently universal.

Liberal Arabs' message to their own societies, by the same token, becomes: there is no conflict between democracy, freedom, individualism, free choice on one hand, and the Arabic heritage and Islam on the other. We (Arabs and Muslims) can develop and progress by adopting a system that is certainly working and that we have heavily contributed to its creation - through our (Arabs and Muslims') contributions in philosophy, socio-political thinking and have even created its first historical example: Arab, Muslim Andalucía.

That message is not in any way self-deprecating. It's not like those - prominent in the west post-9/11 - which portray Arabic/Islamic culture as inferior and western thinking as superior. On the contrary, it is a message based entirely on facts, history and a dose of humility. Facts and history reflect the Arabs' heritage in advancing human thinking and civilisation when Europe was still debating whether women have souls or not; it reflects the fact that Arabs and Muslims, throughout history, were not exporting suicide-bombers and wild-eyed fundamentalists, but throughout ages and across vast parts of the world, from Samarkand to Córdoba, were producing scientists, intellectuals, thinkers, artists, enlightened rulers, and societies that are exemplary in tolerance and progress. Humility enters in the realisation - and admission - that in the past 300 years, we (Arabs and Muslims) have lost our way; and in remembering Sheikh Mohamed Abdu's succinct words on returning from Paris in the 1890s: "I saw in Paris Muslims without Islam; in our society, Islam without Muslims".

The liberal Arabs' and Muslims' message is inherently one that looks for a common ground with the west; a hand extended for a handshake. The disastrous problem is that the west's response - or at least, the official response - is not another hand to shake, but a mixture of violence, hypocrisy and degradation.

Violence is conspicuous in Iraq, Palestine, Chechnya, let alone the ugly war of summer 2006 against Lebanon. Hypocrisy takes centre-stage when Tony Blair preaches Arabs about democracy and freedom of expression, then visits Libya to meet Colonel Gaddafi and speak of his re-entering the international community (so, the problem wasn't really his three decades and more in power or his track-record). Hypocrisy also pours out from Condoleezza Rice's change of heart - and tone - about democracy in the middle east (so, democracy was desirable when it was expected to bring in moderate liberals who were expected to guard American interests, but with the Iraq plan in tatters and when Hamas and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad come to power through fair elections, America rediscovers its decades-old infatuation with traditional Arab regimes).

Degradation is the inherent message in counting the causalities of the American and British troops in Iraq, but not of Iraqis; in equating the deaths of thousands in southern Lebanon, many of them children, with the inconvenience of relocating some northern Israeli settlers for less than three weeks; and in listening to President Bush preaching to Muslims about Islam.

The liberal demolition-squad

That potent trio - violence, hypocrisy and degradation - not only disenchants liberal Arabs and Muslims; it undermines them. It was logical to preach the potential coexistence of the Islamic culture alongside imported liberalism, when Bill Clinton was earnestly mediating a peace settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians (it's not crucial here to assess the viability of his proposal; the point was the earnest trial). It was logical to invoke liberalism and modern western thinking when countries such as the United States, Britain, and most of western Europe were perceived as beacons of democracy and the rule of law.

But, at the time when the US waits for more than three weeks during which Israel was demolishing the entire southern Lebanon and Beqa'a valley, killing hundreds, before commencing to "mediate"; at the time when the European parliament finds a large number of western European democracies collaborating in the CIA's programme of transferring detainees to locations where they can be tortured; at a time when the leading nominee for the French presidency appeases the far right by describing French nationals of Arabic origin as "scum" - then it becomes very difficult for any rational, liberal Arab or Muslim to propagate a framework based on a smooth mix between Arabism and Islam on one hand and the progressive liberalism of the west on the other.

The intellectual opponents of that framework employ two especially piercing pieces of artillery. The first is that the west's liberalism and freedoms are just facades, extended only during the easy-going days; when the going gets tough, the west conspicuously divides its people into "we" and "they" - the Gauls versus the "scum", the "Americans" versus the "Americans born in an Arab or Muslim country", the "us" versus the "Muslim community". In the smooth sail, America's face is Hollywood, Harvard, Silicon Valley; but in tough waters, Abu Ghraib, Guantànamo, and the semi-literate mid-western soldiers who fight the "evil Arabs who hate us" take centre-stage.

The second strong point that opponents of liberalism use is that the west inherently rejects the notion of equality with Islam and Arabism; that the west's cultural heritage is, to a significant extent, shaped by defining itself through Christianity, imperialism, and the moral obligations of the superior culture (be it "God's own country" as many Americans believe, or the "civilised gentleman" as England's Lord Curzon used to put it). The opponents argue that it is impossible to reconcile two parties if one of them, basically, disdains the other. As Mohamed Selim el-Awa, a leading Egyptian Islamist, put it: it was Edward Said, the Arab liberals' hero, who exposed beyond doubt in his Orientalism, how a significant portion of the west's modern culture is based on solid stereotyping, characterisation and the notion of moral superiority. How come then would such a scornful party be reconciled with the one it detests?

A long-term settlement

The foundation of the argument, however, is that the reconciliation is not between the west and the Arabic/Islamic worlds, but between the values of the two cultures. The key premises are threefold:

  • the deterioration that the Arabic and Islamic worlds have undergone over the last three centuries has nothing to do with the inherent values of Islam or the foundations of Arabic culture - rather with repression and backwardness
  • the values upon which the west has built its progress since the Renaissance are fundamentally universal, and have been in the fabric of the Islamic religion since its early days
  • the early days of Islam - whether the Prophet Mohammed's small community in Medina, or the heydays of Baghdad under the Abbasid caliphs or Arabic-Islamic Andalucía - are prime examples that such reconciliation between values is realistic, indeed achievable and workable.

If the west is seriously interested in streamlining its protracted encounter with the Arabic/Islamic worlds, it should recognise that in the long term only a settlement accepted by the Arabs and Muslims will yield a lasting intellectual and actual peace and coexistence; violence is futile at best, counterproductive at worst. The long-term settlement will certainly be based upon the common ground between the two cultures, and it is interestingly vast. In the Arabic/Islamic world, that message needs to be propagated and strengthened; in the west it should absorbed.

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