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.

When combined with a certain fascination for the West, [the internet] may exert a powerful influence on young people who enjoy little freedom, have no social opportunities, no educational prospects and no jobs.

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 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.

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.

No one can deny that the movements that have swept the Middle East have demonstrated their ability to evolve rapidly in several fields… their positions on democracy, women’s participation in public life, capitalism, or relations with the West have shifted rapidly.

Perspectives and visions have, alas, progressed little; it is difficult to distinguish what identifies the political models of the literalists and the Islamists. Furthermore, the Islamists continue to insist on the concept of sharî’a being enshrined in the constitution, as they did in Egypt after the mass uprising. But it is difficult to imagine how the term would be understood and implemented: as a general orientation–a path toward justice–or as a closed system restricted to the penal code? Above and beyond the question of inclusion in the constitution, the source of so much impassioned debate, the issue of the sharî’a reveals little about the programmatic intentions of the conservative and/or Islamist trends. The political choice can be as broad as the gap that separates the Saudi model, where the sharî’a has constitutive force, and the intentions of the current Turkish government, for which sharî’a is understood, as explained by Recep Tayyip Erdog˘an, as a striving for less corruption, and for greater equality and freedom. Caution is indicated – caution and critical assessment of peoples’ true aspirations. No one can deny that the movements that have swept the Middle East have demonstrated their ability to evolve rapidly in several fields. They may be finding it difficult to escape from the constraining references to the nation-state and their own nationalist commitments (with a concomitant failure to consider wider issues such as South–South cooperation), but their positions on democracy, women’s participation in public life, capitalism, or relations with the West have shifted rapidly. Opinions may differ on whether the changes have been positive or negative, but the fact remains that these political currents are neither static nor one-dimensional… even though they are clearly finding it difficult to provide pragmatic responses to the challenges of the day.

The Arab awakening has not yet penetrated the petro-monarchies, where kings and governments wield a literalist, conservative version of Islam as their reference, Bahrain–where the uprising was crushed in silent complicity as the West looked on–being an excellent example. An even better example is that of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, whose regimes remain hermetically sealed despite a limited political and media opening (Al Jazeera). But at the end of the day, nothing truly innovative can be expected from their interpretations of Islam and its application to the daily lives of their subjects. For all their limitless financial capacities, these regimes share a long list of deficiencies, ranging from curtailed freedoms, limited democratization, extremely slow improvement of the status of women, and perennially backward educational models.

A rapid overview of recent history points to the conclusion that the greatest difficulty encountered by Islamist organizations and parties has not been to remain in opposition (where resistance to the regime added to their credibility), but rather to exercise power (which often led to a loss of much of that credibility).

Much the same can be said of Islamist movements in North Africa, the Middle East and, in fact, all Muslim-majority countries. A rapid overview of recent history points to the conclusion that the greatest difficulty encountered by Islamist organizations and parties has not been to remain in opposition (where resistance to the regime added to their credibility), but rather to exercise power (which often led to a loss of much of that credibility). Whether as the governing party in Iran, Sudan, Somalia, or even Palestine, or when sharing power, as in Algeria or Morocco, Islamist organizations and parties have often given the impression of having compromised themselves or, at minimum, of having been inconsistent with the principles they espoused while opposing the regime. They may have provided a grassroots presence (in the form of social services, medical and educational assistance for the poor) while in opposition, but once elected (whether as a majority or as a minority participant in a governing coalition) matters quickly grew more complicated.

The concrete experiences of the Islamist movements should make it easier to evaluate their real and symbolic strength, which lies far more in their persistence in opposition than in their capacity to develop credible proposals for the future. Their historical resistance to colonialism, their debate with the secularists, their rejection of the West (in a repulsion–attraction relationship), the legitimacy derived from their hostility to Israel, all conferred upon the Islamists the legitimacy of a moral counterweight; but these very accomplishments did not allow them to make a hard-eyed, critical assessment of their own political program. So true did this outcome prove to be that after the fall of the tyrant whose very existence had unified the ranks of the opposition, the Islamists experienced an implosion. In Tunisia, and even more glaringly in Egypt, when confronted with the choice between joining the protest movements and imagining the post-Mubarak era, the Muslim Brotherhood split into five distinct sub-groups. The older generation disagreed over the prerogatives of the organization itself and of the newly founded Freedom and Justice Party. When its leader Abdul Futuh decided to run for president in defiance of the Brotherhood’s leadership, he was forced to quit the organization. Simultaneously, younger members felt free to set up another party or support a non-Brotherhood candidate.

Opposition to the regime, far more than the strength of their vision, was what had united the [Muslim Brotherhood]’s diverse currents.

Opposition to the regime, far more than the strength of their vision, was what had united the organization’s diverse currents. On May 18, 2011, Muhammad Morsy, the president of the Muslim Brotherhood’s newly created party, delivered a lecture at Oxford about the movement’s future prospects. In it he summarized the arguments that the organization has been repeating for fifty years (about the constitution, democratization, the rule of law and relations with members of other faiths). Nothing new, nothing forward-looking said about economic, social, or political issues (poverty, education, employment, women); nothing ventured about the regional outlook (the dominant economic order and dynamism, South–South relations, etc.). It was in the context created by the binary opposition and the implosion of the Muslim Brotherhood that the Egyptian Salafi Front made its appearance on Cairo’s Tahrir Square. While the demonstrators justifiably feared that the uprising might be taken over by former regime figures or by the military, the Salafi Front (or Islamic Front, made up primarily of literalists, and then the party an-Nour) replicated the binary relationship in an attempt to monopolize the Islamic reference and thus the religious legitimacy of the movement. In such circumstances, it is difficult to emerge from the role-playing phase. The same kind of deficiencies can also be observed in Tunisia, Syria, Libya, and Morocco.

The long awaited and vital debate over future prospects, democratization, and international alliances is still far away. Like the secularists, conservatives and Islamists shun the test of self-criticism, preferring to confine themselves to an empty, outdated, and counterproductive paradigm. Even discussion of the Turkish example has become polarized: Can the Turks be described as Islamists, or has the post-Islamist era begun? Posing the question in those terms is as reductive as it is simplistic. Is Turkey an example of democracy or an example of an Islamist project for democracy? Thus phrased, it skirts the main issue. Of course Prime Minister Erdog˘an comes from Turkey’s Islamist movement, but what is most compelling is his government’s commitment to overcoming the futile opposition between secularists and Islamists by putting forward a pragmatic policy of all-around reform.

President (and former Foreign Minister) Abdullah Gül, the energetic and competent Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutog˘lu (architect of the “zero conflict with our neighbors” foreign policy) and the government as a whole are implementing a multidimensional policy that must be analyzed and criticized for what it is.

In an inversion of roles, the European Union may now need Turkey more than Turkey needs it.

The fight against corruption and cronyism at home; reducing the prerogatives of the military; increasingly orienting foreign relations toward the Global South; stepping up trade with China, India, Brazil, and South America (even as the European Union dithers over its possible integration); acting as a mediator in the Middle East (with regard to Iran) and adopting a firm, critical stance toward Israel (thus winning international admiration among Muslim popular opinion): these are the elements that make Turkey a model for Muslim-majority societies in North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Turkey is now the world’s seventeenth-ranked economic power; its growth rate is Europe’s strongest (8.1 percent in 2010, according to the World Bank). In an inversion of roles, the European Union may now need Turkey more than Turkey needs it.

Turkey, it should be remembered, took clear, strong positions on the Arab uprisings, sometimes remaining more cautious, as in the case of Syria, where it held back for seven months before beginning to articulate its position. The Turkish prime minister was among the first to praise the Tunisian people, to call upon the president of Egypt to step down, and to support the Libyan resistance movement. Though he took some time to distance himself from Bashar al-Assad’s repressive regime, his government was quick to welcome Syrian oppositionists and to allow them to organize resistance from Turkish soil. He also saw that training sessions (in politics, management, religious ethics, etc.) were set up for young Arab activists, mainly but not exclusively from Tunisia and Egypt.

The ambitions and wide-ranging activism of the present Turkish government warrant a far more detailed analysis of their objectives and strategies. Does Turkey represent the path that future Arab democracies should follow? Clearly, Turkey has been waging war against corruption and renewing its education policies; but what of the prospects for its capitalist economy? The question must be raised: Is the country’s economic policy bound by its openly productivist objectives, or is the Turkish leadership attempting to stabilize the economy before moving ahead to introduce an ethically sustainable alternative? Has contemporary Turkey been faithful to its history and traditions; is it proving successful in safeguarding its spirit, its specificity, and its cultural creativity? Has it achieved anything more than thoroughly–and apparently successfully–integrating itself into the global economic order, into the dominant global culture, and accepting the prevailing productivist logic? Do its commitment to strong economic growth and a new strategy of international relations represent a step forward, a means to an end–or an end in itself? These are the issues that lie at the heart of any discussion of the Turkish model, whether it is viewed positively or critically. The same issues are of utmost relevance to the future of the Arab awakening, and to the capacity of Arab societies to explore new paths, new ways of posing questions, new ways of charting the development of civil society, to create a new paradigm in international relations. The Turkish model, I am convinced, should be seen as a means rather than an end.

Reprinted from Islam and the Arab Awakening by Tariq Ramadan with permission from Oxford University Press USA. Copyright © 2012 by Tariq Ramadan.

Tariq Ramadan

Tariq Ramadan is Professor of Islamic Studies at Oxford University, and is President of the European Muslim Network in Brussels. His books include What I Believe, Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation, In the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons from the Life of Muhammad, Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, and Islam, the West and the Challenges of Modernity.

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