POMED Notes: “Islam and the Arab Awakening”
On Tuesday evening, Politics and Prose bookstore hosted a discussion of the newly-released book “Islam and the Arab Awakening” with its author Dr. Tariq Ramadan, Professor of Islamic Studies at Oxford University and President of the European Muslim Network.
For full event notes, continue reading below or click here for the PDF version.
Ramadan provided an overview of the main arguments presented in his book. He first stated that “the awakening of the Arabic mind is irreversible” and referred to the dramatic changes that have happened in the region as an “intellectual revolution,” noting that the dimensions of these transformations are not only political. In this context, he asserted that there will be no genuine democracy in the region without accompanying economic stability.
He then stated that a serious challenge to the development of successful Arab democracies is that political discourse is often oversimplified and reduced to a black-and-white dichotomy of Islamists vs. secularists. According to Ramadan, this oversimplification occurs not only in the West but within the Arab world itself and thus Muslim-majority countries cannot blame this phenomenon on the West. This phenomenon is evidenced by the fact that secularists often justify their political presence by being a necessary opposition or counterweight to Islamists, rather than having strong justifications for their policy positions, and vice versa.
With regards to having Arab countries look towards the West for models of flourishing democracies, Ramadan reminded the audience that there are fundamental challenges to Western democracies today, perhaps most notably the dominance of transnational corporations and banks in national policy formation, both of which are institutions outside the confines of democratic procedures (given that they are not elected bodies, there are not effective mechanisms for holding them accountable to the people). He argued that one way citizens in Western democracies can help support the democratic transitions of the Arab world is by being vocal and informed citizens who are conscious and critical of the flaws in their own democracies.
Ramadan proceeded to outline the five most prominent challenges to transitioning Arab democracies in his opinion: determining the exact nature of the state, presenting economic visions for the future, increasing the quality of education, promoting and protecting arts and culture, and determining ways to combat pervasive corruption.
First, regarding the nature of the state, Ramadan alluded to the Turkish approach of “a civil state with an Islamic reference” and stated that there are several fundamental principles that should be seen as nonnegotiable elements fully incorporated to the state, including respect for the rule of law, equal citizenship, balance of powers, accountability, and the separation of religion and the state. However with regard to the latter, he also noted that separating religion from the state does not necessarily mean the removal of ethics from politics; in fact, Ramadan argued that all faith traditions should lead the movement to bring more ethical values back into politics.
Second, regarding economic visions for the future, he argued that many Islamists currently in power embrace neoliberal economic policies, but that this could breed problems later down the road. For example, Egypt’s President Morsi has recently demonstrated his willingness to accept an IMF loan and this could alleviate short-term economic woes (helping him gain popularity); however, the application of such neo-liberal principles could generate greater inequality and strife over the long-run.
Third, Ramadan asserted that there will be no long-term societal change without serious efforts towards education reform and particularly towards ensuring that women gain greater access to education and jobs, a critical step towards ensuring their true empowerment.
Fourth, Ramadan stated that the value of culture is too often neglected in conversations about transition in the Arab world. This is particularly important given that democracy is not simply about rights but about creating an environment that is conducive to free expression and self-fulfillment, including via pursuit of the arts.
The fifth and final challenge Ramadan presented was finding effective ways to combat with corruption that pervades all levels of many Arab societies. In this context, he stated that Islam could play a positive role by serving as an ethical reference that inspires and motivates this necessary fight against corruption.
During the question and answer session, one participant asked Ramadan why we should have any hope in Arab democracies succeeding when Islam mandates that God (rather than the people) is sovereign and when Muslim-majority countries have a bad record of protecting minority rights. To this Ramadan responded by asking the audience not to have blind hope in Arabs or even necessarily to trust the statements made by Islamists in power, but rather to provide critical support to their democratic transitions on the basis of principle, and most importantly to not project stereotypes or let our own conceptions dictate how we interpret the changes in their complex transitioning societies. To this he added that all genuine political actors (including Islamists now in power) are pragmatists, so it is important to recognize that their decisions are driven by the desire for re-election.
Another participant asked Ramadan what his advice would be to the Obama administration regarding support for the Arab transitions, and he responded that his policy advice to any country is to be consistent with its principles and to support the people of Arab nations more than their armies. Furthermore, Ramadan asked the audience, and all American citizens, to help re-evaluate and deconstruct our approach to understanding Arab democracies, stating that ultimately ordinary citizens can do much more to transform this debate and overturn stereotypes than an intellectual like himself ever could. Finally, Ramadan argued that we are in need of an intellectual jihad that promotes discipline and resists the emotional politics that is exploited both by fear-mongering populist politicians in the West and now by some Salafi political actors in the Arab world.