The Decline-and Rebirth-of Arab Moderation

January 8, 2003

The Decline-and Rebirth-of Arab Moderation

It is true that on the current world stage we can see elements of a "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West.

It is true that on the current world stage we can see elements of a "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West. However, a more serious (if slowly emerging) clash of competing visions for the future is unfolding within Arab and Islamic civilization.

In the Arab world, this clash is occurring in a "political vacuum" where governments have ossified and have been slow to respond to change. Regimes (with very few exceptions) embraced inaction during the last decade, failing to renew themselves by embracing younger capabilities and effective systems. They have relied on privilege and a variety of repressive techniques in order to preserve a rigid status quo. On the other side is a tiny but committed opposition group of extremists capable of skilled operational and logistical feats. But groups like Al-Qaeda have no solutions to offer for the Arab world's grave problems that have been caused by the existing set of regimes. They offer only anger while relying on destruction to pursue their ends. The extremists are puritanical; they offer simple platitudes instead of any comprehensive program for coping with the region's exploding population, smothering poverty, vanishing water supply, collapsing social welfare systems, rigid governments, and overall diminishing chances for successful entry into and competition within a globalized economy.

Squeezed in between the repressive status quo and the violence of the extremists are the vast majority of Arabs. Over time, mainstream Islamic opinions and the political inclinations of the educated classes (in which Moslem liberal, moderate and pragmatic views far outnumber extremist ones) have gone silent, squeezed out both by political systems obsessed with preserving a non-democratic status quo against any challenge and by smaller, fanatical groups of extremist opposition.

The existing governments of the Arab world have blocked the calls voiced by moderates and liberals for renewal and accountability. Much of their nonviolent intellectual activities were not tolerated. Seeing little hope for change and frustrated by the present order's inertia, too many activists and intellectuals have given up and have chosen silence.

The few who decided to proceed in their activism for encouraging pragmatic, moderate reform along liberal lines have suffered many losses. For example, in 1990, Dr. Nasr Abu Zaid, formerly a lecturer of Islamic Studies at Cairo University, provoked a national controversy in Egypt over his book The Concept of the Text Zaid argued that the only way to understand the Koran is to reinterpret it according with today's circumstances and needs. To do that, it needed to be understood as a text and to place it in its proper context of time and principles. After publicizing these views, Zaid received death threats from extremists, and in 1995 he was branded an apostate by Egypt's highest court. The court ordered him to divorce his wife because under Islamic law, marriage between an apostate and a Muslim is forbidden. He left Egypt with his wife to seek refuge in Holland.

Another example is that of Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the Egyptian sociologist and founder of the Ibn Khaldun center. Ibrahim was jailed by a state security court (an extraordinary court that operates outside the purview of the regular judicial system and has only minimal safeguards for the rights of the accused). He was jailed last July (at 62) for seven years with hard labor (his sentence is now before a civilian court for appeal and he already spent long months in jail waiting his trial). The sentence came in the context of his articulation of critical opinions about the status quo in Egypt and his pro-democracy views. His acceptance of funding from the European Union and other well-known international institutions for the work of the center was used to further buttress the accusations that his activities sought to undermine Egypt.


The environment in other countries in the region has contributed to the collapse of moderation. In Algeria, after decades of dictatorship, the country prepared for free elections. The army did not like the winners (the Islamists) and canceled the election results. Since then Algeria has been in a constant civil war, in which tens of thousands have been brutally murdered. In Sudan, national democratic elections were also cancelled in the mid-1990s when a coup ended the elected government of al-Sadiq al-Mahdi. Many other Arab countries from Saudi Arabia to Syria and from Egypt to Libya and Iraq have not yet accepted the concept of a functioning opposition (whether it is loyal or not). Public critical opinion (and in many cases private opposition) is not welcomed in most structures. The nature of difference between people and interests, and the nature of change and politics has not yet been accepted in much of the Arab world.

Given such an environment, it is not surprising that the moderate voice has grown silent. However, other significant factors have also contributed to the retreat of the moderates from the Arab street-in particular, two unaddressed conflicts. In spite of the "New World Order's" optimistic inauguration in 1991, Saddam Hussein has remained a looming regional menace for more than a decade. His intelligence apparatus prowls for dissenters to silence and eliminate while his propaganda machine blames the suffering of Iraq's children on those countries maintaining sanctions (including those in the Arab world). His emissaries openly menace Arab leaders. Eleven years after the Gulf War, Saddam still influences Arab and Muslim perspectives and adds to the poisoned atmosphere of politics in the Arab world.

United States policy after the liberation of Kuwait in 1991 contributed to Saddam's ability to subdue to the people of Iraq. The policy of ensuring a "balance of power" was predicated on the premise that a Saddam contained is better than Saddam overthrown. Yet this logic contributed to the radicalization of the region and the alienation of the people of Iraq. A real policy of change in Iraq may have the end result of liberating the people of Iraq from a repressive nightmare. Any American intervention should be sensitive to the Iraqi context. Working genuinely with the forces of change in Iraq is key to a peaceful and independent Iraq-and also critical to the revival of liberal Islam in the Arab world.

At the same time, the failed Arab-Israeli peace process has crushed dreams of a new dawn for the Arab world. Leaders like Israel's Shimon Peres once promised a "New Middle East", an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian "Benelux" of open borders and economic prosperity, but the reality promised by the Oslo Accords soon shimmered like a mirage, and now the former peace partners have hands empty of the fruits of peace. As Oslo evaporated so did the liberal dream of peace, common markets, interdependence, and a Gaza "Hong Kong" or a West Bank "Singapore." Any injection of hope in the region must and should find justice for the Palestinians and permanent peace and security for the Israelis. The requirements of peace seem clear, and should take place within an overall regional context. American policy cannot ignore the necessity of solving this conflict after Iraq. It is a truth that will contribute to the kind of moderation and democratization many Arabs aspire to.

All of the above-an underlying lack of democracy, the lack of peace, and the unaddressed conflicts-have produced dramatic shifts in public attitudes throughout the 1990s. The Arab and Muslim mainstream shifted rightward. This has been manifested by the rise in puritanism, increased suspicion of the West and a growing tendency to fuse religion and politics. In most cases religion and puritanical manifestations became the only uncensored public expression in most Arab countries. In some ways September 11 marked the climax of a complex trend that was destined to explode at the world stage, because it could not at the regional level. Most of the regimes have developed excellent security mechanisms and even won the wars against terrorism in the 1990s, as occurred in Egypt (and somewhat earlier in Syria). Yet none of the regimes declared victory over terror and did not subsequently move to open up the systems for democratic processes able to absorb and mediate the frustration and anger of their populations. In many ways the "victors' burden" was absent in Arab politics.

The task today is to unlock this move to the right among the mainstream. It is a task of opening the political process to the younger generation and addressing some of the dire problems of the region. The resolution of the clash within the Muslim world-between the moderates and the extremists-will determine its very future.

The problem with moderation may be that it is in fact too easygoing, too accommodating, too ready to appease. The moderates and liberals lack the extremists' organizational structure, their well-organized hierarchy, conspiratorial secrecy and group cohesion. The moderates and liberals lack the extremists' certainty and sense of righteousness. Unlike the extremists, Muslim moderates value cultural pluralism. They are not obsessed with changing or erasing the thoughts of others. They do not forego all comforts in a single-minded quest. Perhaps more motivated and "fanatical" moderates are needed in the Arab world.

Yet with so much at stake, the pragmatists, liberals and moderates must re-engage. This is a trend that is expressing itself in private and public debate in the region. It is a trend found among small groups of intellectuals, younger policy makers (the second and third generations in ruling families and policy makers) and even among many members of the silent majority. This trend supports the democratic process in order to reclaim the Arab and Muslim heritage hijacked by the extremists and to bring about a different future for the region. The extremists have shown that there is a far worse alternative to the status quo's quagmire. An organized, committed, skilled network of liberal moderates and enlightened Muslims is desperately needed. Moreover, it needs to disabuse itself of the notion, so often articulated in the 1970s and 1980s, that "99 percent of the cards" are in the hands of the United States, which encouraged a type of fatalism about the possibility of bringing about real change in the Arab world. It is the power of change, development and democratic life that has not been tried yet. This could be the only new order able to help the mainstream of Arab society reclaim its religion, and redirect its path.