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The Arab world can break free of Western hegemony and internal ills

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It is not a reform or a renewal of our mind that we need. It is in fact a migration – a hijra – from an old model to a new one

In 1994 Nelson Mandela declared a new era in South Africa. The rainbow nation was born, and South Africa started a momentous process towards reconciliation, stability and democracy. This was a moment of genius in history, not only because hope was triggered in the hearts of men and women of South Africa, but because that hope was maintained and sustained. A historical change took place in a society fragmented by apartheid, by blood and conflict. Regardless of the troubles it has, today’s South Africa moves towards a future of economic prosperity and political stability. Tahrir Square in 2011, was a similar moment when hope was triggered in the hearts and minds of people of this region. All Arabs felt that they had a chance to be liberated from tyranny and dictatorship. The liberation people in Tahrir hoped for was not just from a dark political legacy. They sought liberation from other aspects of their lives, and a way of out the closed worlds of knowledge, culture, tradition, and an end to sectarianism.

Tahrir Square became the arena where Muslims, Christians, secularists, leftists, Islamists and nationalists came together to celebrate values of freedom, democracy and hopes for a better future. This is how the Egyptians (and before that the Tunisians) and all the other nations in the Arab world showed the best in us. It had been there for generations but was not triggered and made public until then. Tahrir Square liberated us from all the bad memories, unbearable legacies and the deep depression that the nations of the Middle East, the Islamic World and the Arab World went through for decades.

Tahrir Square failed to bring the dawn of a new day. The Arab world was reborn in that moment of hope, inspiration, and genius. But it proved to be a still birth and a lot in us has changed. The best in us became the worst. The same nation and people who celebrated values, diversity and tolerance, who came together to imagine the future in a very positive way, have now turned to organise violence and institutionalised division. They choose to concentrate on death rather than on life, simply because hope was not sustained and eventually suffocated.

Geopolitics and history

How did we end up where we are today? Two paths meet at the crossroads: the geopolitical and historical paths. This region has created enormous vacuums in geopolitics. We have never transformed ourselves as other regions did after the end of the Cold War. The European Union, African Union, and other regional organisations across the world were created in order to establish new political and economic systems. However, we in the MENA region continued to be fragmented. The Arab League never succeeded in establishing any regional order, so it fell to nation states to do so. The so-called nation state had nothing to do with the concept of nation, or of the state. In the Arab world states were entities with artificial boundaries imposed on people in this region without legitimacy. As Azzam al-Tamimi says, our political order is more like concept of territorial states, since our states have never been national in essence.

In this part of the world, we have continued to embrace dangerous trends in geopolitics and foreign policy that were Western-centric. The assumption was that we can never be safe unless the Americans or some other world power protected us. Therefore, we continued to feel politically infantilised because we were trying to embed ourselves in their protective embrace. We were scared to break free from the Western world order or from the American hegemony in the region. The reasons for such strong ties were many. One of them was that our governments knew that domestic legitimacy was not enough to sustain sovereign independence. They needed a foreign crutch to support them in government and corrupt rule. They needed the Americans, they needed the Europeans, and they even needed the Russians. The rules of game were written in the 70s and they would still rather abide by them rather than go for the alternative which is real independence. For this of course they would need real legitimacy and that comes at a high cost. The cost of real independence is democratic transparency and sharing power. Rather than pay this price, the leaders chose to stick to the old paradigm of serving as proxies for international powers. This is the sin that our governments commit to this day.

The other factor is history. We cannot go on blaming the West for all the evil committed in our region. It certainly has played a major role in fostering extremism, and it is behind many of the ills that our society and our countries have experienced in the last century. However, I would like to talk about something else. The time has come for all of us, especially the people of Al Sharq, to talk openly and frankly about ourselves. We have to admit that Islamic doctrine has not had a reformation in the Lutheran sense of the word. Islamism has not had a spring board moment which we can call an “Enlightenment” or “Modernity of the Islamic World.”

There are many reasons for the absence of such milestones. I personally believe that the concept of modernity and enlightenment in the form of freedom, personal freedom, rational thinking and evolution of thought existed in Islamic civilisation, a long time before Western civilisation embraced these concepts. These concepts existed as a part of what we call the Ummah. In Islamic doctrine, our philosophers such as Al-Farabi, Ibn Rushd, Ibn Sina, Al-Kindi and many others formulated and disseminated their own form of enlightenment and age of reason with a philosophical doctrine that was open and tolerant to rethinking everything, including the relationship between the God and man. We had Ilm Al-Kalam, a daring scholar. You would be shocked to read the works produced in the 9th or 10th centuries, to see how radical our philisophers were at the time in discussing the relationship between man and God, nature and God. This debate was before its time. Our intellectual history is the proof that we had our own Age of Reason and Enlightenment.

As far as modernity is concerned, the Islamic concept of tajdid – which means renewal not only of the role of religion in the judiciary and fiqh but in epistemology as well – operates as a driver of continuous reform. If you study what Imam al-Ghazali or even before him from Abu Hanifa up to Ibn Rushd, you would find in our intellectual history that there was one obvious track, the track oftajdid, the renewal. In the 16th and 17th European terminology you would call it the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, or the Reformation.

Two invasions: Mongols and Crusaders

Continuous and systemic renewal was interrupted for many reasons, one of which happened in the 4th century of Hijtra. There were in fact two catastrophes in the history of the Islamic world. The first was the Mongol invasion, which in Baghdad resulted in the destruction of the legacy of the Abbasids. The second was the arrival of the Crusaders, who divided the region up among themselves.

All these factors had a major effect on the collective psyche of the ummah. It came under such a heavy foreign threat, which was existential in nature, that it could not deal with in a simple military confrontation. This sense of foreign threat deepened with the arrival of the Crusaders because the Mongols eventually were Islamised, but the crusaders came to the region with a purpose of disseminating their religious doctrine. This generated the urgency with which the ummah felt it needed to protect itself. The concepts of renewal, tajdid and ijtihad, were put on the back burner, because the ummah felt that to conserve and consolidate rather than change and renew.

The ummah showed a renewed sense of aggression to those who challenged the status quo or historical legacy. As a result, we saw the rise of rigid hierarchies in the Islamic world, which did not exist in previous generations of Muslim societies. Sufi movements established their own hierarchy, although they remained decentralised. There was also Al-Azhar and many others who were trying to consolidate and cement the current moment rather than let it be diluted by something we were not sure of.

In the 16th and 17th century, European ideas and concepts reached the Muslim world under rising colonialism. They were never appreciated or loved, regardless of their positive or practical use, because they came with the guns that enslaved and confiscated land to establish European hegemonic dominance in the region. The reaction of the people of the region was to reject outsiders as well as their ideas because they would rather stick to their “old” rather than to embrace the outsider’s “new”. Their “old” was what made them who they were whereas the outsider’s “new” could deprive them of their own identity and make them become better slaves. The result of this colonial interaction was negative, and as Muslims we chose to close up ourselves and once again consolidate our identity under the influence of the “old”.

Egyptians watch a demonstration from the window of a fast-food restaurant in Cairo on 25 April, 2016, against the handing over of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia (AFP)

The authentic and the practical: an unhealthy duality

Thus was created the supreme paradox of the Muslim world: what was practical was never considered authentic and what was authentic was never practical. Western ideas are practical. They are possible to embrace and you can do so by acting upon them in the form of politics, international relations, economics, technology etc. However, they lack the genuine authenticity that you would like them to have to be able to transfer them from mere utility into an authentic philosophical discourse.

Within the progress of Western thought, philosophy responds to and reflects scientific discovery. For instance, when Darwin discovered the theory of evolution, Western thought shifted towards Darwinism in many other aspects. Similarly, when Einstein came up with the theory of relativity, it affected the philosophical doctrine of the Western mind. Newton, Einstein and Freud were all the founders of new ways of doing things, new practicalities, but they also changed the epistemology of the Western mind. In the Muslim world, we got these ideas in variety of forms, such as technology and economics. Even our universities started teaching some of Freud’s and Darwin’s works. We got the same theories and ideas in our libraries, universities, and banks. But we could not link this Western discourse with our own legitimate and traditional concept of belonging and identity. This is the unhealthy duality in which we all live today.

Now let us move on a little bit. I do believe that ISIS and the whole phenomenon of violent extremism and the concept of trying to establish who we are, is the result of many of the contradictions in the Middle East created by geopolitics and the influence of foreign powers. The current crisis however also has within it the dilemma I have described of Islamic thought. This kind of dilemma has created the situation where democracy is considered a western product. If people commit to democracy then they risk being in shirq (blasphemy) by not following what Allah Suphan Teala, the Prophet (peace be upon him) and the Quran told Muslims to do in terms of governance. Therefore, following “in il hukm ella lellah” they think they need to establish their own domain; hence the product is rejected, not only philosophically but also in its practicality.

In this endeavour to form our own home-grown systems based on Islamic authenticity, we face phenomena like the Islamic State. Why? Because it is based on a historical model that can be legitimised. It’s not necessarily practical but who cares when the aim is to establish an “indigenous” authentic replacement to a Western import. Of course, this is combined with justifications about the current imbalance of power, the West’s hypocritical views of the region and the political dilemma it has created in the region for over 100 years. This year we are celebrating, well not actually celebrating, the centenary of the Sykes–Picot Agreement on the 17th or 18th of May. You may think that it was a fantastic move by the Western powers but since then, Sykes–Picot has been embraced and developed and has become a doctrine on its own.

Are we in a situation we cannot get out of? Are we helpless before that black hole which is sucking us all in? (Because within the black holes as you know in science so far most of the rules are not known and the classical physics and even quantum physics is not yet applicable).

This is Mr Obama’s doctrine. I sense the Americans are giving up on this region because it’s really too complicated to understand and to comprehend. Therefore, they think the best thing they can do is to distance themselves from it. Of course personally, I would love the Western powers to distance themselves from the region, anyway, but my point is not on that, my comment is about something else.

Region in transformation

This region is going through transformation, and it is a rational transformation. It is has its own logic. It is a natural process that will yield some kind of result, which we will be able to think about and comprehend and even plan and forecast. It is not a process where mind, logic, and reason yields to chaos and total anarchy, Not at all! I am very optimistic actually, why? Because this is how fundamental change happens. It happened in the West, it happened in Europe, it happened in Latin America, it happened in Asia, it happened in Africa, and it happened everywhere.

When jettisoning an old system that cannot be sustained – be it in the form of politics like authoritarianism, or in the form of a tradition that cannot generate new ideas and practical contemporary solutions – there will be a lot of suspicion about the “new” dawn that you are moving towards. Suspicion is going to dictate your concerns, suspicion of its authenticity, conspiracy theories about who is behind this change, what Syria or indeed the region will look like.

The moment you experience this scepticism is the moment you know you have started to move towards a new horizon. Regardless of what you do, you know that history is moving in that direction. Contradiction and conflict emerge, within us, and around us. Then we kill each other, and we get more nervous and confused. This is why we resort to the most extreme of our actions. All of us: the liberal becomes violently illiberal, and the radical becomes a killing machine. Nevertheless, we will eventually move on. That is in my opinion a natural process of evolution as far as societies and civilisations are concerned. It has happened everywhere. Therefore, I do not give up on the region. In fact, I observe the region with a lot of interest. Of course it is very sad to see what we are witnessing in the region; the blood in Syria, in Yemen, and in Libya; the collapse of hope in democracy in Egypt. All that is complicated and tragic.

However, what should we do? Is mass suicide the only option? Since we cannot change anything, should we try our chances in the hereafter, as it might be the better option? I don’t think so.

The flow is moving in one direction, and in order to ascertain which direction that is, look at those who are trying to maintain the status quo. What kind of future do they promise us? Nothing! What kind of imagination do the counter-revolutionary forces in the Arab world have? What can they promise future generations? What kind of hope? Can anyone tell us?

Old vs new

Let’s try to describe the current situation; for instance, in the counter revolutionary camp in Egypt, the “old” came back to suffocate the new-born. What hope does it give to the future? Okay, not hope, what reality? What status quo? What definition? What practicality even? What service? There’s nothing. They are giving fear, and by fear they are dominating and saying: “Stick with me otherwise you will lose everything.” They dominate through fear. Otherwise, what do they have? What hope can the new generation have when listening to the speeches of those political mummies who dominate the political scene in the countries of the region? I don’t see any hope. Hence the enemy, and I mean the enemy of the “new” is bankrupt. It is bankrupt economically, ideologically, politically, and philosophically. It has nothing to offer.

Now let us look at the new. The new is confused, firstly because it has just arrived and it has already in its short life witnessed much blood. We have lost much, not only in the form of hundreds of thousands of people who have been killed across the region, but also we lost our reserves of moral, ethical, and social stability. Neighbours kill each other because the Alawite and the Sunnis do, or the Shia and the Sunni, or the Kurd and the Arab, the Coptic and Muslims and so on. We are losing, we are bleeding, not only physically, but also morally, ethically, philosophically and in many other aspects.

However, something important is stirring in the camp of the new. People can imagine a new future. This vision has not yet vanished completely. It started in Tunisia, moved on to Egypt, and into Syria, to Yemen, to Libya, to everywhere. This dream is now inhabiting everyone’s mind because anyone with a smartphone can interact daily with new ideas. So it matters not where you live. What matters is whom you are following, what kind of articles you are reading, and what kind of news you are listening to. We started this transformation as idealists, loved each other, reconciled with the past, tried to accommodate our former tyrants into our platonic republics. However, that didn’t work because the deep state revolted against it. Now we have become pragmatists. That is fine! That is a lesson. You abandon all hope? No, you don’t. You move onto another level.

That level is examining where you went wrong, the mistakes you have committed, alliances that you developed, and practicalities you offered. This is a very important training course. It is useful to perceive the current situation as a very tough field training course that we all, the new forces who are trying to achieve freedom and democracy in the Arab world, are going through. Is this thinking going to kill hope in our minds and turn us all into ISIS fighters, or will it generate a new generation, well trained and open minded in order to lead the future? I think the second. Because I think the solution that ISIS offers is impractical, not philosophical, and in fact not capable of producing practicalities, and you know that practicalities are important when you want to produce any model for the future. So I am optimistic, and I think what we need to do is to develop new ideas for the future.

A hijra of the mind

We are all stuck in the past. The past is something you would normally celebrate in poetry, in art, in music, in culture. You talk about it in narratives. You take lessons from it, which we call history. But you don’t live in it. I feel that if the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) lived only in the past, arguing what the Quraish tribe wanted him to argue about, he wouldn’t have achieved much. He was a genius in one important matter: changing the narrative, the debate and the dialogue. We – the new forces – are still debating the old. Is it shura or democracy? Tradition or modernity?

Life has changed. We should shed the manacles of the past. It is not a reform or a renewal of our mind that we need. It is in fact a migration, a hijra from an old model to a new model. Total hijra, the debate, the paradigm, the doctrine that has made us what we are today will not take us where we want to go. Therefore we need to be brave enough to open up ourselves again, rekindle the DNA that we inherited from the 10th century of Islam, resume our renewal, enlightenment and modernity that was part of us, that was authentic and practical at the same time.

With practicality and authenticity we will move forward. Then, we don’t need America, we don’t need the West to guide us and hold our hands. We will do it on our own. Without our own endeavours, we will never have our own mode of knowledge and epistemological framework. If we do not have our own paradigm of thinking, we will be always enslaved by the foreign which is practical, but illegitimate.

– Wadah Khanfar is president of Al-Sharq Forum and a former director general of the Al-Jazeera Network. This essay is based on a talk given at Al Sharq Forum in Istanbul in early April.