Islam and the Arab Awakening: As Islamists across the Arab World continue to enshrine sharî’a concepts in their constitutions, noted academic Tariq Ramadan asks, are other alternatives available?

August 10, 2012

Guernica:

Do the secularist intellectuals of the Global South have an alternative to propose for their own countries? Over and above the simulacrum of a debate pitting them against religious conservatives and Islamists, do they have a vision of society drawn up for the people, with the people, and in the name of the liberation of the people? The debate over secularization and political Islam is to the secularists of the Global South what the foreigner (and today, the Muslim) is to the populist xenophobes of the North: a pretext, and an alibi.

The true challenge of the day is to choose the right battle, to mobilize the creative energy of the people in the attempt to find real solutions to real problems. The march toward democracy in the Global South entails a thorough reconsideration of the three “fundamentals”: economic (and agricultural) policy, educational policy, and cultural and media policy (in the general sense). The secularist elite would be well advised to acknowledge that it truly has nothing new to offer in these three vital policy categories. At the risk of sounding repetitious, there can be no true political democracy without a profound restructuring of the economic priorities of each country, which in turn can only come about by combating corruption, limiting the prerogatives of the military and, above all, reconsidering economic ties with other countries as well as the modalities of domestic wealth distribution. Concern for free, analytical, and critical thought must take the form of educational policies founded upon the construction of schools and universities, revising the curriculum and enabling women to study, work, and become financially independent.

Despite their parents’ fulsome declarations, the children of the secular elites often end up pursuing their studies in the West. While progressive statements about women have never troubled entrenched traditional and patriarchal attitudes within those elites, their fine words must at last be translated into genuine social and educational policy at the local and national level. These are the issues; they must now be addressed.

Much has been made of alternative media and the internet culture, of social networks and virtual relationships. Given that they helped generate mass mobilizations strong enough to overthrow regimes, any humanist thought worthy of the name, particularly if it defines itself as secular, must study and assess today’s internet culture and, more generally, the media. Though it has empowered the masses, this same cult tends to relieve individuals of their personal responsibilities, hidden as they are behind virtual relationships, anonymity, and an obsession with surveillance, manipulation, and conspiracy. The internet, paradoxically, may represent the marriage of communication technology and regression in human interaction; of the power of networking with the dispossession of the person. When combined with a certain fascination for the West, it may exert a powerful influence on young people who enjoy little freedom, have no social opportunities, no educational prospects, and no jobs. The consequences can be serious; just how serious can be observed in the timeworn debate between secularists and conservatives or Islamists, which is not only inappropriate, it is a historical blunder.

Traditionalist, literalist, and conservative religious organizations, as well as Islamist movements and parties, have more often than not accepted the terms of the warped debate between “secularists” and “Islamists”–and occasionally imposed these terms themselves. Their point was to challenge the legitimacy of those who claimed to be speaking for the people. If the (literalist or Islamist) supporters of tradition are often right when they point out that the secularists belong mostly to a western-influenced elite cut off from the population, their own critical arguments only deal at a superficial level with the real issues that have undermined Muslim-majority societies in general and Arab societies in particular. They are more concerned with giving “Islamic” legitimacy to their rhetoric than with providing concrete answers to contemporary challenges. Once again, they may be sincere and well justified in fearing alienation or westernization.

The fact remains, however, that in the confrontation of ideas, religion is more frequently exploited to provide symbolical credibility and power than it is employed as an inspiration and a reference by minds that refuse to deny the complexities of reality. The endless conflicts between secularists and the advocates of “tradition and Islamic references” make it impossible for them (as for the secularists) to take critical stock of a century of struggle, achievement, and failure.

In the first place, it should be noted that it is difficult, just as it was with the secularists, to discern any concrete or innovative contributions made by the conservatives, and a fortiori by the Islamists, on the three broad issues outlined above. What concrete proposals have they developed to reform the economic policies of the societies of the Global South? Terms like “Islamic economy” or “Islamic finance” are bandied about, but in the realm of fact, on the national and international levels, no real alternative that can claim to originate in Islamic ethics has been put forward. Much the same can be said of educational policy, which should be concerned with the training and the intellectual and critical autonomy of peoples. The conservatives and the Islamists may indeed be closer to the population than the secular elite, but they are lacking in terms of need management. Their social work is important, but what are their proposals for public instruction and education? The reforms they would enact are primarily structural, focused on religious instruction, which–even in private Islamic institutions–continues to be marked by the lack of a critical approach to teaching methods and curricula.

Recurring in such institutions, these features point to an absence of global vision: They tend to concentrate on religious instruction using traditional methods of rote memorization, give undue weight to purely scientific disciplines (medicine, engineering, computer science, etc.) and relegate the humanities to a subsidiary position. A similar dearth of innovative cultural policies is also striking, as is their inability to meet the challenges of the new media environment. Aside from criticism of the West and its cultural imperialism, the ways and means advanced by the conservatives–in the petro-monarchies for example–and by the Islamists to conceptualize new, forward-looking cultural and media policies are striking in their poverty; projects that deliver on their claims can be counted on the fingers of one hand in North Africa and the Middle East.

In the realm of facts, the political rhetoric and vision of conservative traditionalists and of the Islamists have more often than not been trapped in themes relevant in the early twentieth century when the struggle for decolonization made it normal and necessary to think in terms of the nation state. Against the French, British, Dutch, or Italian colonial rulers, it was of vital importance to envision the structure of a free and autonomous state that would emerge from the cultural and historical references of the peoples fighting for independence: precisely what the slogans of Islamist and pan-Islamist movements wanted to express when they referred to the “Islamic state.”

Behind the label that identified the state as “Islamic” lay the desire for reconciliation with their heritage, and the imperative to break free from western domination and to chart an original path leading to independence. Traditional classics, like al-Mawardi’s al-Ahkâm al-Sultaniyya or Ibn Taymiyya’s al-Siyâsa al-Sharr’iyya, were revisited in the light of the challenges facing modern states. The aim was to gain (or claim) “Islamic” legitimacy for political projects, state models, and structures. An example is Saudi Arabia, where the idea of democratic elections was–and still is – seen as contrary to Islamic tradition. The issue has been a subject of fierce debate among the various Islamist trends since the 1940s (within the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and between different currents of thought in North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia). The early stages of the Iranian revolution were also marked by intense exchanges of ideas over the specific features of the “Islamic Republic,” exchanges and contradictions that still fuel the respective positions of conservatives and reformists within the system itself…

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