It is all too easy today to look at the Middle East and throw up one’s hands in deep despair, at the constant drumbeat of sectarian conflict, restless and angry populations and the steady unraveling of still fearsome but seemingly weakened states. The region’s future all too often seems to be set – sectarian, bloody and grim.
Reform, the issue of deep political reform, in the Middle East seems to go in and out of fashion. The word has meant different things to different people, from the idea of Western-type democracy to that of ideological reform. It was the great issue of the George W. Bush administration in the much derided “Freedom Agenda.” Under President Obama, the reset implied by his much-lauded 2009 Cairo speech ended in seemingly cynical statements by the President and his senior staff dismissing the region as “fundamentally broken societies” constantly angry and in conflict and beyond the ability or desire of the United States to help in any significant way.
In broader society, the “reform in Islam” issue has been used as a club and as an excuse. Some have pointed out the futility of reform and that movements like the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafism are actually themselves reform efforts. Others, bitter critics, have pointed out the futility of reform because the “problem” is supposed to be inherent in Islam, in its foundational documents and worldview. Some have embraced this fatalistic concept of Islamic essentialism as largely set in stone, as in one well-regarded book. Islam may be “different” but it is not THAT different and indeed the difference may be in the Arab world, rather than Muslim countries worldwide.
In the region, many reformers, civil society and non-governmental organizations, are facing some of their most difficult days since the breakout of the Arab Spring, as authoritarian governments gain their second wind and sectarianism and extremism squeeze the perilous space for independent voices.
We at the Middle East Media Research Institute have seen the issue of reform as an important area of focus and research since the beginning. We believe that reform in the Muslim world, specifically in the Middle East, is a legitimate, urgent, much needed call and not an unobtainable fool’s errand. Indeed, there is something obscene in the notion that Muslims are somehow unworthy or unable to appreciate what are truly universal values of striving for freedom, dignity, justice and equality.
With a new American administration entering into office in the next few months, and a region wracked by historical levels of turmoil and violence, it is an appropriate time to revisit the issue of reform in the Middle East and ask how and why it could be advanced.
First of all, it is important to note that the current situation we find ourselves in, with sclerotic authoritarian regimes hanging on and lashing out, and contending forms of Islamists waiting in the wings is not always the way things were in the region. As far as the rise of Islamism over the past decades – whether political Islam or its psychotic cousin, Salafi-jihadism – this is a reality that was more invented, invested in, and cultivated than one that just sprang up organically on its own.
Islamism: A Manufactured And Funded Movement
Certainly the failure of Arab socialist regimes – whether in the marketplace, in the ballot box, or on the battlefield – played a significant role, but the broad, loose, amorphous and contending political spectrum which is Islamism today is in large part an artificial creation, a Frankenstein’s monster which has escaped its master’s control and runs rampant, even turning on those to whom it owes its unnatural existence.
For decades, state actors in the region, principally Saudi Arabia but many others, invested in the Islamist – Muslim Brotherhood or Salafi or Salafi-jihadi – project. This intensified as Sunnis reacted to and competed with the challenge unleashed by the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. It is mostly governments and those made wealthy from their connections with government who invested in broadcast media, publishing houses, university scholarships, schools of shari’a, and political activism that brought us to the world we see today. This was the work of decades, patient, focused, unrelenting and zealous, to change the face of the region and, to a considerable extent, it has succeeded.
The fact that much of what is the Islamist/jihadi “moment” today was manufactured should not be used to dismiss the sincere desire of many Muslims to live more religiously authentic lives. The search for meaning, faithfulness, and fulfillment among Muslims is no less real than that of other people of faith – East or West – struggling with the challenges of modernity and a seemingly cruel and Godless age.
It also must be acknowledged that in the region today, you have Salafis actually fighting terrorists. Certainly that is true in Saudi Arabia, but it is also true on the battlefields of Syria and Libya as well. You also have a civic, non-sectarian and pluralistic “underground” of activists and freethinkers which is probably larger than it appears on the surface, if it can be allowed to breathe. One must also recognize the ongoing efforts of Tunisian Muslim democrats to experiment with a political formula that is both truly democratic and Islamic.
The Negative Role Of Non-Islamist Regimes
While it is easy to beat up on the ideological poison propagated by the Saudis, governments that are ostensibly opposed to the Islamists not only at times create conditions of oppression or brutality which set the stage for radicalization but actually often do the work of ideological policing themselves. Lebanese singer Marcel Khalife was three times threatened with prosecution in Lebanon for using a bit of poetry by Palestinian bard Mahmoud Darwish that contained language from the Qur’an. He was actually charged with “insulting religious values by using a verse from the chapter of Yusuf from the Qu’ran in a song.”
In 2016 Egypt, courts sentenced Muslim freethinker Islam Al-Buheiri to prison for blasphemy. The same year, Jordanian Prime Minister Hani Al-Malki brought charges of blasphemy against Christian secularist Nahed Hattar (who was subsequently assassinated by a Salafi outside the courthouse). One would be hard pressed to think that the Lebanese government, the Egypt of Abdel-Fatah Al-Sisi or the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan were controlled by or pro-Islamist, and yet in all three of these cases they took concrete actions which strengthened the stranglehold of Islamists on not just the ideological discourse but even setting the rules of such a discourse.
So it is not as if there was a great struggle between liberals and Islamists in the Middle East and the Islamists fairly and openly “won.” Governments and the coercive powers of the State have had their fat fingers on the scale all along. And the fact that many of these governments considered themselves to be pro-Western and actually were in terms of foreign policy makes the situation all the more bitter. Reform was not tried and found wanting; it was not tried at all.
What are some of the concrete steps needed to turbocharge a Middle East reformist agenda?
A Broadcaster That Prioritizes Reform
An approach to seek to empower and grow the voices of reformers in the region would do well to look at how and why that infrastructure built by the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood was created. Al-Jazeera is, of course, a pro-Muslim Brotherhood broadcaster, while specialized Salafi stations are too numerous to mention. Reform-oriented or liberal material CAN be regularly found in broadcast media such as Al-Arabiyya or MBC or the U.S.-controlled Al-Hurra or BBC Arabic, but there is no Arabic-language television channel that is “all reform all the time” in a way that the Islamists broadcast. The channels that currently allow these voices also have their own agenda, in which reform takes a back seat to whatever short-term national policy is being prioritized.
A Library Of Reform And Secularism – From The Mutazila To Today
The same gap is true in publishing, both physical and online. I remember seeing on sidewalks outside Cairo mosques – places where the sermon was controlled by the Mubarak regime at the time – all manner of cheap, easily available Islamist pamphlets on a wide range of topics. The works of reformers, secularists and free thinkers do exist in Arabic, and are published, but all too often this is material by a tiny elite for a tiny elite; it does not circulate in the language of the people, much less in the venues where the people are.
Such a compendium would include voices of reason and reform from Islamic history to this day, just like takfirists range from Ibn Taymiyya of the 13th century to the terrorist-scholars of today. It would seek to rescue both religion and Islamic history from the artificial monopoly of the extremists. There have been fine, thoughtful intermittent efforts through the years in places like Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, such as Beirut’s Dar Riyad Al-Rayes and Dar Al-Jadeed, but it is nothing like the flood of content available on the other side. This needs to be made readily available, both in print and online, with the same ease and accessibility that the virtual library of jihadism is available. The voices of reform also need to be seen in the language of the people on the sidewalks and alleys of the poor in the great cities of the region.
Liberal Reform In Academia
Higher education represents a slightly different challenge. There certainly are reformist university faculty scattered throughout the Arab world. Anyone who knows the career of, say, Qatari professor Dr. Abd Al-Hamid Al-Ansari or former professor Dr. Turki Al-Hamad in Saudi Arabia can only be heartened by their struggle. There are certainly some universities in the region that offer something like a Western-style education – the AUC, AUB, AUK and KAUST models and those connected to Catholic education – but again, these are relatively small and do not offer the scope and breadth of conservative Islamic universities in the regions, let alone a liberal and enlightened propagation of Islam. And shari’a faculties and departments of religion of even non-Islamist or state-run universities are not free from favoring dominant conservative interpretations of Islamic theology and jurisprudence.
A Broad Reform Movement, Not Isolated Individuals
All too often, well-intended efforts towards liberal coalition building have been too short cited and isolated. What needs to be addressed is what one brave soul saw as missing: “The mechanisms that make a group of people a movement are absent, and thus the building blocks for democracy – ideas, narratives, leaders, iconography, and end goals – were not there either. This is where we need to start again.” All too often we see isolated individuals, rather than even loose movements; we have islands rather than archipelagos. A basic problem is that reformers, secularists, and liberals have no true and steady international or regional patron – it could have been the West but it hasn’t been.
Some may well say that it should not be the job of Western states to try to engender reform in the Middle East – that this constitutes political interference and even arrogant meddling with the religious views of others. To this one can answer that the Islamist and jihadi wave has been no respecter of national or religious boundaries, but rather seeks aggressively to conquer, convert, or convince, and will continue to do so. The “Muslim moment” the world is experiencing today includes much that is good, but also both the creation of new spaces for extremism as well for greater understanding. Aggressively and smartly promoting a broad reform agenda – hopefully with a bit of both humility and realism – should be seen not only as an act of self-defense by the West but as a mark of respect for the real Middle East reformers who actually sojourn on, often in the catacombs.
A patient, considered and consistently-funded approach towards engendering those tolerant and liberal traditions within the Islamic context still awaits a committed and aware patron, whether in the region or outside it. Such an unashamed and unafraid policy would not yield immediate results, but over time would contribute to leveling the playing field for political-religious discourse in the region. Reformer Adam Deen recently noted the importance of re-establishing “the primacy of reason within the Islamic faith is essential in any effort to reform how we understand the faith.” There is no better time than now for people of good will within and outside the region to work boldly with renewed energy and determination towards that end when the present looks so dark.
*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.
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