East and West, beyond stereotypes
Religion is a source of happiness and comfort, while equal rights in citizenship is essential to a healthy political order, writes Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh*
Shakespeare famously said, "Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Whenever the words of the famous British bard come to mind I think of that connection, which grew so central over time, between East and West.
Neither is the West so bad as some people think, nor the East. In fact, both are much better than many people think. After all, human beings inhabit the earth. They may make frequent mistakes, but they most often try to do good -- and sometimes they even succeed. They strive towards happiness and they try to remain true to their faith. History has moved forward and human thought has progressed in tandem. One of the chief proofs of this is the growing tendency towards dialogue and away from managing disputes through war and destruction.
We need a new way of thinking, one that will enable us to see things as they are or as close to their true nature as we can. There are Islamic scriptures that exhort us to see the humanity in others and to understand that all people have both good and bad sides. The absolutes in Islam are the belief in God, the prophets and the Day of Judgment. Everything else is relative, within our ability to understand, or approachable with our rational minds. Rudyard Kipling, dubbed the poet of the British Empire, wrote, "East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet." Nothing could be further from the truth. He spoke from the colonialist mindset that mankind has long since surpassed, in one way or another.
But people still need to meet and talk, try to understand one another, and learn to cooperate. We do have a common language: the language of humanity. It is the one that is best understood by all. But what exactly is this language? It doesn't have an alphabet or a lexicon. But it is what sets mankind apart from all other living creatures. It is the human spirit, conscience and mind -- the ability to feel sympathy, love and compassion, the drive to create art, music and theatre. Between these components reside interests and advantages, competition and rivalry, and other forces of convergence and divergence. But all fall beneath the general heading, "We are human."
The Arab portion of the East is currently in the midst of its political "spring", as people here and elsewhere have called it. The Arab Spring brought a wave of revolutions against tyranny, dictatorship, injustice, poverty, and oppression. They were the culmination of half a century of falsehoods and illusions that Arab peoples had survived on as they continued to hold out hope for revival after long dark centuries of Ottoman militaristic rule followed by another century of European occupation. European colonisation may have brought some good, but this was outstripped by the bad, the worst and most damaging being the degradation of foreign rule in your own land. However, the end of the colonial era ushered in a host of authoritarian governments, whether ruled by monarchs or military juntas. They promised development, prosperity, cultural revival, and achieved nothing. The world moved forward and we lagged further and further behind in everything. Meanwhile, we heard nothing but a curious silence from the West, which had formerly assumed the responsibility of spreading civilisation -- the "white man's burden" they called it in colonial times.
Revolutions are generally followed by a shaky and worrisome post-revolutionary period in which everything is fluid and uncertain. Egypt is currently experiencing this phase. The army (thankfully) is running the affairs of the country for the present. It is doing the best it can to prepare for the elections that will form a popularly elected parliament that, in turn, will select a national commission to draft a new constitution approved by all. That constitution then will lead us towards presidential elections. This was the essential roadmap that won the approval of the Egyptian people by a 77 per cent majority in the referendum in March. Society seemed on its way, as one, towards the construction of new constitutional institutions and the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government.
Unfortunately, fears and concerns reared their heads --- some prompted by good motives others by questionable ones. From some quarters we heard calls to postpone parliamentary elections and draft a constitution first. But who would draft it? And this was only the beginning of the flood of questions and conjectures the only point of which, it seemed, was to drive people into a wilderness of confusion, anxiety and suspicion. Then it would be easy to set everyone against everyone else. That (imagined) fear of the Islamists is fed to people with their morning coffee and evening tea. They have the loudest voices. They own television stations and newspapers. Naturally, people begin to worry.
It all started with a simple referendum that yielded a democratic consensus on certain steps that would take the country forward. Who wants the wheel of life in Egypt to grind to a halt? Those who entertain imaginary fears? To me it seems that the best way to put those fears to rest is to see the experiment through and see what it produces. Islamists are not a bunch of Mr Hydes. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say that the majority are like Dr Jekyll.
The Islamists will offer clear and realistic electoral platforms. They have benefited from their previous campaign and parliamentary experiences and, over the years, they have grown more and more inclined to participate in public life through national coalitions and reaching consensus. The burdens of the country are too great to be borne by a single political trend or leader. All forces have to work together and there has to be consensus.
For my part, I put myself forward as a candidate for president. I will be running as an independent. Although I greatly respect the major political trends in Egypt, whether Islamist, liberal or left wing, I am strongly convinced -- a conviction based on the experience and insight I have gained in the course of my long political career -- that Egypt needs a conservative trend. Indeed, I believe that its need for such a trend, which essentially embraces the basic ideas and principles of the established trends, is much greater than its need for any single ideological or political trend. This said, there remain a number of points connected to my campaign platform that I would like to underscore:
- The democratic system is one of the fruits of mankind's yearning for freedom and independence. It is founded upon a contractual relationship between the ruling authority and society, and from which the ruling authority derives its legitimacy.
- Full equality in citizenship is fundamental to a correct and healthy political life. There can be no discrimination on the basis of race, religion or gender.
- The freedom of the individual is a key facet of human existence. It is upheld by man's inalienable rights to property, belief and choice in accordance with certain basic regulations agreed upon consensually by society and laid down in the constitution.
- Women, in our culture and traditions, are our mothers, sisters, wives and colleagues at work. They are half of society and bear much of the responsibility of raising the other half. Women have suffered greatly from discrimination in both Western and Eastern cultures. Fortunately, we have made considerable progress in this regard. Women, today, are an important partner in education, development and our sociocultural advancement. To me, the concept of woman as a fellow human being who can move freely, unencumbered and without risk in society is one of the nobler facets of the culture we cherish.
- Minorities have never enjoyed the equality and freedom of opportunity that they have in Arab Islamic societies. Hostility and maltreatment of minorities is sinful in Islamic creed and culture. In the forthcoming phase I intend to become more involved in the promotion of full integration of Muslims and non-Muslims in our society. Egypt is fortunate for its culture of tolerance and peacefulness and aversion to extremism and ostracism.
- The economy is the engine of developing societies, as well as societies that have made great strides towards progress. The realisation of economic growth is a vast and multidimensional process involving education, politics and culture. My own economic culture has been considerably influenced by Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which provided the theoretical and ethical underpinnings to his later works. I was glad to see how much his vision coincided with my religious convictions with regard to the intimate link between the economy and morality and the emphasis on empathy and compassion. But just as the state, in its caretaker capacity, has an important role to play in expanding the scope of social justice and extending its umbrella to all people, the free market is an indispensable fulcrum of the economic process.
Lastly, I believe that religion is crucial to guiding mankind on earth. If the intellect strives for knowledge through the struggle to comprehend and expand awareness, while instinct pursues the satiation of physical needs, the spirit (through religious faith) strikes a balance between the two. In this regard, I admire Roger Bacon, the pioneer of British progress towards modernity who set British philosophical thought on two pillars of equal importance: the enlightenment of the soul, which gives substance and purpose to human existence, and observation and inquiry, which leads to knowledge and understanding.
I believe that humanitarianism should be the shelter that protects all people and that religion should be a source of happiness and comfort.
* The writer is a potential presidential candidate.