Monday 22 December 2008

The Arab world needs a secular not an Islamic renaissance

Adam LeBor catalogues the political, economic and cultural stagnation affecting much of the Arab world:

No fully sovereign Arab state is a democracy with meaningful independent institutions where power passes peacefully by popular vote. Economies are sclerotic, but human-rights abuses are flourishing. The internet and globalisation are not opportunities, but threats.


Intellectual life is atrophying. More books are translated into Spanish in a year than have been translated into Arabic in the past 1,000, states the UN's Arab Human Development Report.


Should we care? Very much so. Already, poor economic opportunities, endemic corruption, education based on rote learning, state-sponsored Jew hatred, soaring youth populations and unemployment are a recipe for social catastrophe. Add the rise of radical Islam and the growth of Al-Qaeda and the mix becomes something explosive.

LeBor contrasts this sorry state of affairs with the intellectual ferment and cosmopolitan tolerance that seem to have been the hallmarks of Arab and Muslim culture, from Baghdad to Cordoba, in the Middle Ages. He believes this history proves that 'there are no contradictions between Islam and intellectual innovation, the motor of any dynamic society', and cites 'a growing number of Islamic thinkers and scholars' who seek to redefine jihad as 'the spiritual and intellectual struggle for knowledge, for self-enlightenment', demanding 'engagement with, not a retreat from the modern world'. Adam is hopeful that recent cultural developments in the Gulf states might 'trigger a new Islamic intellectual renaissance.' 

While I endorse any initiative to liberalise Islam (or any other religion) and undermine fundamentalism and reaction, I can't help thinking that this isn't nearly ambitious enough. Would we prescribe a new Catholic renaissance as the solution to the problems of (say) Latin America, or a reform of Judaism to breathe new life into the political and economic life of Israel? And would we look back a thousand years for models to guide the next stage in the development of Europe, or China?

A culture of low expectations seems to cloud western hopes for the Arab world. Is it really pie-in-the-sky to hope for a secular renaissance and for a decline in the influence of religion in the Middle East? Aren't the populations of those countries entitled to the same kind of flourishing, secular civil society, and the same kind of separation of religion and the state, that most of the rest of the world takes for granted - rather than the continuing dominance of their intellectual and cultural lives by religion, however 'revived' or watered down?

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