Full transcript of the interview
How do you see the future of the so-called Arab Spring?
First, let me touch the beginning of these changes in the Arab countries and precisely why the word “spring” has been used. The word “spring” consciously or subconsciously is related to optimism and the outcomes that will follow after the spring. For that reason the term “spring” is more beautiful, but it is a short-lived experience, it does not last too long, that’s why I prefer to use the term “revolution”, not only for metaphoric reason but also as an actual description of what is happening. To my mind what is happening in the Arab countries is definitely a revolution and in particular what happened in Tunisia and Egypt. It is also true that the directions and patterns of the development of this revolution are yet to be determined; the uncertainty – the golden rule in politics – plays a major role, and players try now to maximize the merging of individual and collective interest with a powerful system and that’s why the outcomes are not clear. Anyway what is happening tells us two important things: first, Arab countries are in the midst of many important social changes and second, these changes are the biggest challenge to the existent literature on the democratization in the Middle East, in particular to those essentialist theorists who always play the paradox of incompatibility. For them Islam and democracy are incompatible and Arab tribalism and democracy are incompatible and that’s why we haven’t had any democratic trend for the last few decades in Arab countries. I guess that what is happening is a real trouble for these theorists and the entire existent literature on democratization in the Middle East.
The question of compatibility of Islam and democracy has long been debated. What is your position on division of state and religion?
One thesis of incompatibility exists as Islam has been a heavy handed religion on public life and perceived itself as both state and religion: so it is perceived as a contradiction to say “Islamic secularism” or “secularism within Islam.” I argue for the contrary, because Islam by nature is a secular religion and the shari’a perceived as being a sacred text, a revealed text is obviously a mistaken thesis and it needs to be refuted. The true nature of Islam, by definition, is to have a secular state, where the state is neutral to all of its constituencies and legal settings. Not having a secular state is a danger for the very nature of Islam itself. That’s precisely what I am advocating the idea of the natural secularism within Islam and Islamic traditions.
Some Islamic reformers have similar theses. Why does Islamic reformism not emerge in Muslim countries, but is rather known in the West and to western audiences?
The leading figures of what I call “Islamic enlightened scholars” (the Islamic reformers) happen to mostly live outside their own countries. Historically we had different generations of reformers. If we go back to the late XVIII century, early XIX century and the first third of the XX century this first generations of reformers had been educated in different places but they helped in transforming their societies. Some examples: Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Mohammed Abduh, Rashid Rida; that is the first generation of reformers. There is some truth in the proposition that we do not see the reformers emerging in the Islamic countries and this has to do with the authoritative environment which is a totally disenabling environment for freethinking and a free intellectual enterprise and it has prevented the emerging of any kind principles or patterns of reformist or enlightening thinking. That is probably the reason why we do not see most of them emerging in their own countries. However the impact of their work is widely spread and well received at the level of local elites and regular citizens within the Islamic countries. I would hope these new changes that are taking place within the Middle East will bring more optimism for those reformers to be part of the transformation that is taking place in the Islamic countries.
Can you tell us something about the so-called “Amman message”?
To “overcome the trap of resentment” the power of dialogue has highlighted the recent practical developments that took place in the Arab context. The Amman message is an example of the dialogue within Arab countries. When we think about resentment between the Muslims and the West – and we have to be very careful because Islam is not a well-defined word and it could be very illusive – which Islam are we talking about. There are dialoguing Islams, there is more than one Islam. It is a difficult task to seek dialogue within an Islam that is so pluralistic by nature. A positive development is the Amman message – a Jordanian project – that took place in November 2005, when scholars of Islamic countries gathered together and stated a declaration called Amman message based on a very heated and lively dialogue amongst the eight recognized schools of thoughts in Islam: Sunni Islam, Shia Islam, Ahmadi Islam, and also Tahtawi, Sufism and Salafism, etc. and they all came to an agreement about the most important question facing Muslim thinkers and Muslim societies and these questions are: who is the Muslim? What is Islam? Who is eligible or entitled to issue fatwas, which is legal reasoning and legal ruling about what Muslims, individuals and communities face in modern life?
So the Amman message represents this dialogue between various and wide spectrum of Islam?
Yes, and at the same time it represents continuity and discontinuity in Islamic traditions. By continuity I mean and I refer simultaneously to the euphoric era of lively debate and dialogue between scholars, jurists and theologians of Islamic traditions; reviving the discontinuity when that had stopped for the last 12 thousand years. In that sense this reinitiating of dialogue within Islam and between this spectrum of “Islams” is a very important step forward.
What did you mean by saying “heavy hand” of the Ulemas and Islamic legal scholars?
This question is at the core of my theses. Contrary to the western perception of Islam, religion didn’t play a major role in people’s lives. That is to say that Islam impacts people’s behavior. What happened historically is that Islam itself has been used and politicized. So this pluralization of the religion Islam is the major factor of the perceived impact of Islam on people lives. If you again try to figure out what Islam is and see the differences on the theological level, on jurisprudence, on legal reasoning, on literature, on politics, the most important impact is the one on local cultures and Islamic folk on Islam itself – you will probably arrive to the conclusion that there is the text, the holy Koran that really impacts people lives and minds. Over history the Ulema and Islamic scholars had a very heavy hand in two important aspects: presenting what Islam is all about and dogmatizing their personal understanding of Islam, to the extent they actually start speaking on the name of God. So the Amman message is in a way or another of reconfirmation to this heavy hand of Ulema and if there is a way out of the trap of resentment and a step forward for Islamic reformation, this heavy handed of Ulema should be left out. This heavy hand of Ulema on Islam and interpretation lead to the illusion that what the one or the other Ulema says is the true Islam, while we are going to the opposite and that is what Hamid Abu Zayd called an open democratic hermeneutic approach to understand the text and discourse of Koran and Islam.
What influence did the Arab Spring have on the people in the Arab world? Was it a religiously motivated revolution?
These changes and transformations that are taking place in Arab countries will absolutely change the attitude and the mindset and the perception of Islam and the rest of these issues. It is a matter of fact that it needs to be taken in consideration for those who are experts or observers of what is happening in the Middle East and in Muslim countries is that these street movements were totally non-violent, and that is a lesson to be learned, and it was a hundred per cent a religious-free movement and it tells you that we have just an imagined perception about the role of Islam in the real public and individual lives.
How do you define democracy? And will democracy make its way?
There is not an only one definition of democracy ; we can speak about the functional part of it, or just about the values system of democracy, the mechanism of ruling people, the representation and bringing people’s voices into the play and opening up the public sphere. It can also be related to public reasoning when it’s related to public policies. What we are seeing now in the Arab countries – particularly in Tunisia and Egypt – is the step forward in that direction, and as I said earlier, it is going to be very hard for anyone to grant, to be one hundred per cent sure on what can happen and what is going to be the outcome of these movements and these changes, but obviously the rationale of the regimes that we used to know before 2011 is no longer there.
People won’t tolerate any more regimes like those in power before?
The wall of fear collapsed. People feared and imagined to be in a very strong police state. They were marginalized but they still had hope that these regimes would deliver on developmental issue, on reform issues… When the horizon was closed, and the hopes lifted, this fear collapsed. And once you cross this limit the logic of the police state collapses on its own. What happened is self-evident in Tunisia and Egypt.
Do you think America and Israel would want a new “strong” Egypt?
I need to distinguish between what American would like and what Israeli would like. No country would like to have a strong country around it, especially in the environment of hostility as it is in the Middle East. So Israel is the first looser of what is happening in Arab countries. American still have an opportunity to invest on these changes and turn them in to their own interest and this is not a conspiracy theory but a harmony of interest that will develop in the political science.