Why Arab Liberals Had No Chance

Reviewing David Govrin’s The Journey to the Arab Spring: The Ideological Roots of the Middle East Upheaval in Arab Liberal Thought (2014), Tzvi Mazel notes that already in the late 19th century there were Islamic scholars who sought “an appropriate internal religious response to the cultural and technological challenge posed by the West,” some of whom tried to find a theological basis for constitutional government. Their ideas gained little traction, and the recent “Arab Spring” has seen yet another failure of liberalism:

The history of the first Islamic reformists is important to understanding the problems inherent in realizing democracy and individual freedom in Islam. . . . Already at this early date, and even more so afterward, one could see “the tension between Arab culture, which stresses the collective, the tribe, and ties of blood, and Western liberalism,” Govrin writes, quoting an Arab liberal from our own time, Khaled al-Dakhil, who does not hesitate to state that in Arab society liberalism is still a set of foreign ideas discussed among a narrow elite. . . .

The concept of individual freedom has clear meaning in the West, but it has a more legalistic connotation in the Islamic world, referring to things such as exemption from taxes or from social limitations. According to Islam, the concept of individual freedom contradicts the concept of the sultan, who is unlimited and whose powers are based on sharia, the divine law. . . .

Today, it’s clear to [reformers] that religion will need to be separated from the state to implement democracy and its values, but only a few will say this out loud, as it is an attack on the foundations of Islam. We saw what happened, for instance, to Faraj Fawda, a liberal journalist and writer who was murdered, and to the philosophy professor Nasr Abu Zayd, who called for a new interpretation of Islam, was tried for heresy, was forced to divorce his wife, and fled to Holland. The work of the Arab liberals is a tragic, ongoing example of a Sisyphean effort with little hope of actually reaching the top of the mountain.

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Arab Liberals Had No Chance

This piece was first published on the Hebrew-language website Mida on October 21, 2016, rendered into English by Avi Woolf, and republished here with permission.

Liberal thinkers trying to promote reforms in the Arab-Islamic world have failed again and again, and the hopes they pinned on the “Arab Spring” also shattered in the face of reality. The former ambassador to Egypt writes on the new book by the present ambassador.

 

The Journey to the Arab Spring, by David Govrin, who is currently Israel’s ambassador to Egypt, tells the story of Arab liberals and in doing so demonstrates the tragedy that has befallen the Arab world since the decline of the Ottoman empire in the 19th century. This is the story of the failure of Arab-Muslim civilization to break out of the stagnation which took hold during the 500-year-reign of the sultan.

True, from the beginning of the 20th century until today, various thinkers have arisen who endlessly debated the need to implement political, social, and religious reforms to create a democratic framework and rescue the Arabs from their increasing backwardness, but to no avail. The Islamic religion of Islam and Arab tribalism always triumphed.

The book is timely, coming as it does in the wake of the turmoil of the Arab Spring which became an Islamic Winter (Govrin refers to it as a series of “shocks”), whose results do not bear any good news in the foreseeable future. This book, which is a reworking of Govrin’s doctorate, traces the Arab liberals throughout the generations and the ways in which they understood the concepts of democracy, individual freedom, and basic human rights and their calls for change, and describes their helplessness and failure to put their plans into action.

Does the thought of Arab liberals have a part in sowing the seeds of the present storm, even if in a way that is yet to lead to the desired results? Govrin tries to answer these questions in his book. The author is a veteran diplomat, who has served as diplomatic adviser to the Israeli delegation to the UN as well as the Jordanian desk in the Foreign Ministry. Two months ago, he entered his present job in the embassy in Cairo, where he has carried out other diplomatic roles in the past. He also holds a doctorate from Hebrew University and has dealt throughout his academic career with the Middle East.

A Clash Between East and West

Govrin sees the conquest of Egypt by Napoleon in 1798 as the first, fateful encounter between East and West, and as he puts it, “a turning point not only in Egyptian history but also in that of the entire region. The invasion became a massive clash between the culture of the Christian West and Arab-Islamic culture, and led to a long and drawn-out process of the westernization and [relative] renewal of the whole region.”

In the years that followed, with the decline of the Ottoman empire and the expansion of Western imperialism—such as the French conquest of Tunisia in 1881 and the British conquest of Egypt in 1882—the Arabs formed “a new conception of the challenge involved in the meeting of Western and Islamic civilizations. They realize that they were faced not just with a political, military, technical, and scientific one, but rather with an existential challenge and a cultural threat.”

The establishment of the two Arab nation states of Syria and Iraq by the two Western powers after World War I exacerbated this clash because it led to the penetration of western values into the heartland of Islam. In response to these fateful processes, and after Ataturk abolished the Caliphate in 1923, the Muslim Brotherhood was established in 1928 in order to restore Islam’s former glory—by stopping the penetration of western values into the Muslim realm and renewing the Caliphate based on sharia, the divine law according to Islam.

Except that before that, at the end of the 19th century, an intellectual awakening began whose main pioneers were Islamic scholars who wished to find an appropriate internal religious response to the cultural and technological challenge posed by the west. These include Sayyid Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī, a son of Persia who operated mainly out of Egypt, Muḥammad ‘Abduh of Egypt, and the religious scholar Muhammad Rashid Rida, born in Tripoli, Lebanon, then in Ottoman Syria.

Afghani wanted to strengthen Islam so it could absorb Wester science and technology, which he saw as a central factor in Western superiority. He even believed, in contrast to other Islamic scholars, that the public should be included in lawmaking through elections to a legislative body.

Muḥammad ‘Abduh supported the reform of religious institutions and accepting European laws regarding state management and the status of women. He was the first to believe that Muslim concepts could be fit to European ones. The shura (consultation of the ruler with an advisory council regarding a matter of religious law) could be like an elected parliament, and the ijmāʿ or “consensus” (an interpretation of religious law accepted by many Islamic scholars) is similar in his view to what we would call public opinion. These ideas are accepted today by a number of pro-Arab intellectuals such as John Esposito who see Islam as either a liberal or liberal-leaning religion, even though it’s clear that this is a complete distortion of the Quran and Islamic traditions.

Rashid Rida, who grew up under the influence of the Salafi school was, despite his education and deeply held religious convictions, a student of ‘Abduh, who called for “the modernization of Islam and the adoption of a rationalist approach to the interpretation of the Quran and the implementation of sharia.” He even supported a reform of Islamic law with the aim of limiting the tyranny of the government. However, he believed the Caliphate should be renewed.

Over the years, the more he became aware of the penetration of Western values into Islam and the secularization processes brought in the wake of the new nation states and Arab nationalism (itself a Western innovation), Rida distanced himself from his teacher’s thought, supported Saudi Wahhabism, and developed an independent position which focused on the need to return to Islam’s roots. Thus he became an Islamic fundamentalist who was ahead of his time and the godfather of radical Islamist movements, which grew out of the principles of the Muslim Brotherhood.

True, what we call today radical Islam has much older precedents and a solid theological basis, which the West tries to ignore. From the 7th century Khawarij which established the concept of the takfir [declaring certain Muslims to be heretics], to Aḥmad bin Muḥammad bin Ḥanbal, the founder of the strictest of the four major schools of Islamic interpretation, and Taqi ad-Din Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah, one of the greatest Islamic scholars, who called for a return to the original interpretation of the Quran and the sunnah [religious traditions] and is considered the father of Salafism, Wahhabism, and jihadism (even if he himself opposed the sanctification of Jerusalem by Islam on hermeneutic grounds), and ending with Sayyid Qutb, the central theologian of the Muslim Brotherhood whose thought was dedicated to practicing takfir against what was, in his view, sinful Arab society. Qutb advocated jiahd to enforce the true Islam. The thought of Rida also had a major impact on his contemporary of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Religion Encompasses All

The history of the first Islamic reformists is important to understanding the problems inherent in realizing democracy and individual freedom in Islam in the following generations of liberals as well, some of whom were graduates of Western universities. Already at this early date, and even more so afterward, one could see “the tension between Arab culture, which stresses the collective, the tribe, and ties of blood, and Western liberalism,” Govrin writes, quoting an Arab liberal from our own time, Khaled al-Dakhil, who does not hesitate to state that in Arab society liberalism is still a set of foreign ideas discussed among a narrow elite, “which cannot turn them into an ideology which will serve as a source of values, explicate the outlook, and guide behavior.” According to al-Dakhil, there is not “much room for individualism in the trial and ethnic Arab society.”

To understand the debates of Arab liberals and the wall of Islamic reality they kept running into, Govrin devotes a fairly long introduction to explaining the meaning of terms regarding democratic functioning in the Middle Eastern context, and the main approaches regarding democratization in the Arab world.

Thus, for instance, liberalism—seen in the West as the freedom of the individual from the tyranny of the state—has different connotations in the Arab world, and has more to do with liberation from foreign rule, which the Arab world underwent in the first half of the 20th century.

Likewise the concept of individual freedom has clear meaning in the West, but it has a more legalistic connotation in the Islamic world, referring to things such as exemption from taxes or from social limitations. According to Islam, the concept of individual freedom contradicts the concept of the sultan, who is unlimited and whose powers are based on  sharia, the divine law.

Over the years, the Western meaning of these terms has been absorbed in the Arab world, but with quite a few caveats deriving from a fundamentally different culture than that in the West. In this context, Govrin quotes Elie Kedourie, who wrote that “there is in the Arab and Muslim traditions nothing similar to the ideas of constitutional and representative government. The idea of the state as a territorial unit based on popular sovereignty, representation through elections, universal suffrage, a sovereign legal authority, and a civil society composed of . . . autonomous groups—all these are entirely foreign ideas to Islamic tradition.”

The first chapter is dedicated to a short and matter-of-fact overview of Islam and its political essence. Govrin sums up the matter as follows: “The foundational concept of Islam—both in tradition and practice—is based on the acceptance of tahwid, the unity and sovereignty of God and his will, which constitutes a commandment and instruction to all. Absolute sovereignty is only God’s, and no man, class, group, or even the whole populace may demand this right. The Quran is the basis for Islamic thought, and independent political theory does not exist in Islam. Religion encompasses the totality of private life and it is the source for identification and legitimacy.” This brief summary shows the difficulties which stood—and still stand—before Arab liberals wishing to promote individual freedom and democracy in Islam.

Most of the book’s chapters focus on presenting Arab liberals throughout the generations, primarily in Egypt but also in Syria and Iraq, and their attempt to formulate a theory or a formula which could promote democracy in the Arab world. They spent their days trying to find out how a democracy based on separation of powers, limited government, individual freedom, human rights, and gender equality can nevertheless fit with Islam. There work was and still is difficult and complicated, and the right formula still hasn’t been found.

Today, it’s clear to everyone that religion will need to be separated from the state to implement democracy and its values, but only a few will say this out loud, as it is an attack on the foundations of Islam. We saw what happened, for instance, to Faraj Fawda, a liberal journalist and writer who was murdered, and to the philosophy professor Nasr Abu Zayd, who called for a new interpretation of Islam, was tried for heresy, was forced to divorce his wife, and fled to Holland. The work of the Arab liberals is a tragic, ongoing example of a Sisyphean effort with little hope of actually reaching the top of the mountain.

The Tahrir Youth Are Not the Egyptian People

However, alongside revolutionary events around the world or in the Arab states, waves of Arab liberals have sprouted up. In the wake of the liberation of the Arab nation states of Egypt, Syria, and Iraq from the yoke of colonialism, the sparks of democracy were felt. Under the sponsorship of the colonial powers and as an imitation of the West, these states founded political parties, conducted elections, and formed parliaments.

Faint voices of change were heard, but very quickly the Arab and Islamic traditions won out. On the one side stood extreme pan-Arab nationalism and on the other Islamism—and the first victim was those same states. Military coups broke out in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Libya, ostensibly to fight growing nepotism and corruption, but which threw the Arab world into a whirlwind of hatred and civil wars, harmed economic development, and stopped any advance towards democracy and development.

The Arab defeat in the Six-Day War, the Gulf Wars in which non-Arab armies penetrated the Arab world and defeat its armies, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the development of globalization via electronic communication and the Internet—all these earth-shattering events show the Arab world to be a place of backwardness, but also encouraged many intellectuals to present proposals for modernization.

Govrin focuses on the new Egyptian liberals of our time, a varied group he divides into establishment liberals, semi-establishment liberals, and independent liberals. Among the establishment liberals are Abdel Monem Said, former head of the al-Ahram think tank, with whom most of Israel’s ambassadors to Egypt have met. He continues to be active, and one can read his articles on the Arab world’s travails and the need for democratization on many of the Arab media outlets. Among the semi-establishment people we can mention Hala Mustafa, a senior researcher at al-Ahram’s Center for Strategic Studies and former editor-in-chief of al-Dimuqratia on behalf of the al-Ahram center.

Among the independent liberals we can mention secular Egyptian Sayyid al-Qemany, perhaps the greatest internal critic of Islam and Amin al-Mahdi, an Egyptian journalist and author who supports normalization with Israel and who owns a publishing house that has translated our best authors into Arabic. The list is long and includes Syrian, Iraqi, and Tunisian liberals, all of whom are still active and part of the Arab landscape, but it seems that all they can do right now is watch anxiously at what’s happening to the Arab world.

Govrin thinks that the work of Arab liberals nevertheless had a part in the awakening of the populace in various states to understand their condition and demand reforms, and in encouraging it to come out against the government. He also points to new means of communication, including satellite-TV channels such as Al-Jazeera and social media, which allowed the public to follow events in the areas of society and the economy and organize strikes and demonstrations throughout the Arab world—serving as a source of inspiration and imitation.

However, he warns against distorting of reality and emphasizes that media coverage created the impression that the Tahrir youth, with their highly developed political awareness, represented the ostensibly enlightened and educated Egyptian majority, part and parcel of the Facebook and Twitter revolutions. In practice, most Egyptians live in towns on the periphery in conditions of poverty and without Internet access, and they are dependent on Muslim aid agencies which filled the void left by the state. This is the explanation for the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in the first elections held after the removal of the heads of state in Tunisia, Egpyt, and Libya.

However, Govrin says, the wall of fear separating the citizens and the government has nevertheless come down, and that may be the most prominent characteristic of the Arab Spring, which may provide a degree of optimism regarding the future. Given events in Arab states today, the question remains an open one. The Arab Spring also refuted the idea that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the central problem in the Arab world today. This issue is at present not at the heart of the Arab agenda today, but it may return there due to unexpected events or the decisions of Arab rulers. It should be noted that most liberals do not see the conflict as the cause which delayed the democratization of the Arab world, but rather an issue exploited by Arab rulers to distract their subjects from their poor condition.

Europe is Next

Govrin’s book is important for both Israel and the West. While the region witnesses unending violent clashes between Sunnis and Sunnis and Sunnis and Shiites, and after at least five Arab countries have collapsed (Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia) and the dead are counted in the tens of thousands, we need to understand what is happening and why this absurd situation, which even the most pessimistic Arab liberal did not foresee, came about. Govrin presents a comprehensive picture chock-full of information, which allows us a peek into the complexity of Islam’s problems, through the struggles of generations of liberals to reform a civilization which naturally rejects any renewal of the sort.

It is important that the English version of the book, which came out in 2014, be distributed throughout Western Europe and the U.S., where the effort to ignore events in the Islamic realm and whitewash Islamic culpability are common in the hope that a new and moderate form of Islam will arise which will find a path of compromise with Christianity.

But there is only one Islam. Its foundations are the laws of God, the sharia formed from the Quran and the sunnah. For believers, the religion is valid always and everywhere, and as we saw from the struggles of the Arab liberals, this isn’t about to change in the near future. Moreover, it seems that the presence of Islam in Western Europe will only increase, which will only increase the power of its believers who will do everything to implement sharia in their new homeland.

Tzvi Mazel, an orientalist and Israeli diplomat, served as Israel’s ambassador in Egypt, Romania, and Sweden. Today he serves as a research fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

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