Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1122, 15 - 21 November 2012
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1122, 15 - 21 November 2012

Ahram Weekly

Religious reform, not blind attacks

Religious institutions and culture must be made partners in the pursuit of progress, rather than attacked or ignored as if their existence were a nuisance, writes Tarek Heggy

Al-Ahram Weekly

Islam has played an important role in the making of the history and culture of the Arabic-speaking peoples. While the “Muslim mind” has known periods of prosperity (according to the norms of the Middle Ages), until the 12th century AD, it has also known, since that time, a course of decline, stagnation and isolation, of which one cannot hide the features. Since the interaction of the peoples of this region with the West (since the first day of the French Campaign in Egypt in 1798), the problematic has materialised in two trends: the first trend asserts that the backwardness of our societies is due to the fact that we do not hold the right set of religious doctrines concerning the way of life and the work of individuals and societies. The proponents of the second trend believe that it is inevitable that societies follow the model of Western civilisation if progress is to be achieved. It may be said (with some generalisation) that the political, cultural, intellectual and educational atmosphere of the Arabic-speaking societies is witnessing a conflict between these two tendencies: the tendency of returning to Islamic sources and origins, and the tendency to use the mechanisms and values of Western civilisation that have gone beyond the frontiers of the West in the geographic sense, as they have become the mechanisms of several societies outside Europe.
I think that the preachers of the return to the sources and origins have little to offer besides big promises to the masses, while intellectuals know that Islamic history is a purely human history which has known an era of relative prosperity (the reality and extent of which are often exaggerated), and which has then diminished and fallen when it became based in a mentality of copying, as opposed to reason and innovation, and when it set a low ceiling for the work of the human mind. In any case, the period which some call “the golden age” is only a period with features reflecting those of the realities of the Middle Ages, in every sense.
The big dilemma in this debate (which, in my opinion, is futile) is the mistake of looking upon the engines, mechanisms, dynamics and incentives of Western civilisation as being “Western”. I have proven in many of my books that the progress that Europe has witnessed occurred due to human factors and not European or Western factors. The first of these factors is the strict limitation imposed on the authority and power of clergymen, followed by raising the ceiling of the freedom of thought, and encouragement of the critical mind. These are the two factors that have helped the evolution of the values of progress, which are all “purely human”, not Western, Christian or European.
One of the most obvious proofs that the values and characteristics of human progress are human and universal is what has taken place on a large scale in the Asian continent, when non-European societies employed the mechanisms and values of progress to accomplish development, and were able to achieve the required progress. This is what the world has witnessed in Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan, and then in other societies, such as Malaysian society, which one may consider as the clearest proof that the values and mechanisms of progress are universal and human.
Coming back to Arabic speaking societies, analysing their present political, economic, social, cultural, educational and media phenomena shows that their environments are totally devoid of the values of progress, which are — as previously said — clearly human and universal.
The biggest challenge that this approach will have to face will always come from religious institutions, not for a purely religious motive (or even any religious motive as such), but to defend the unlimited authority and power to rule and direct life in their societies.
It can equally be asserted that the sacred area, which must be considered the cornerstone of the project of development, is the institution of education, including (or even headed by) religious education. Any work outside this will only have marginal effect and yield, as yield depends on what will happen in the educational institutions (and, I repeat, starting with the institutions of religious teaching).
The reform of general education and, with equal importance, of religious education is the cornerstone of the project of progress and development, which no one in our Arabic-speaking societies can achieve before educational reform, and particularly the reform of religious education, inculcates in minds and consciences the values of progress as values that are first and foremost human and universal.

THE VALUES OF PROGRESS: An overview of the advanced societies, with a parallel knowledge of their history and their march, tells that the progress of the societies that have advanced in their course towards development and progress is the result of a set of values that have been made fundamental to the society by making them fundamental to the religious question; it is on the basis of these values that our Arabic-speaking societies need to rebuild their educational institutions, among which the institutions of religious teaching.
The first value of progress is reason, criticism and a wide space for the “critical mind”. This first value of progress will always be the most attacked by theocracy and the theocrats that know the implications of making this value fundamental to the educational institutions of any society.
The second value is the one of “plurality” as being one of the most important characteristics of life in general, and of knowledge, science and culture in particular.
The third value is “otherness”, the essence of which is accepting the other, regardless of the aspect or the race of that other. Otherness is a natural consequence of the implantation of plurality.
The fourth of these values is the “universality of science and knowledge”. This value has a strong dialectical link with the three values previously mentioned.
The fifth value is the value of religious and cultural “tolerance”, as the natural consequence of belief in the diversity of the different aspects of life.
The sixth value concerns “women and their place in the society”, starting with the idea that women are totally equal to men, have equal rights and duties, and have an equal human value. The link between progress and the status of women is a double dialectical link: on one hand, women represent half of society in number (immobilising half of society can only have negative effects). On the other hand, women raise the other half of society; if they are not free people, they will bring up the other half with a mixture of the defects and disadvantages resulting from being brought up in the hands of an inferior person.
The seventh value is the one of “human rights” according to the concept that was developed during the past two centuries.
The eighth value is that of “citizenship”, as being the basis of the relationship between citizens and their relationship with the state.
The ninth value is the modern concept of the state and “the rule of law”, which differs from the concept of the tribe, the village and the family.
The 10th value is that of “democracy”, the noblest human invention of the last two centuries.
The 11th value is the value of “work”, including the modern notions surrounding work, such as teamwork, competence, the techniques of modern management and the culture of enterprise as opposed to the culture of individuals.
The 12th value is “interest in the future” more than excessive interest in the past, which is a characteristic of Arab culture.
The 13th value is the value of “objectivity” which, even if it is relative, differs from the subjectivity that reigns in certain ancient cultures, Arab culture being one of the most important. The sociology of the tribe, which has widely governed Arab culture, favours subjectivity and is far from the notion of objectivity.
The 14th value is the “relativity of science, knowledge and human governance”. The course of the human mind during these last three centuries has led it far from the culture of absolute government and driven it closer to the culture of relative governance.
The 15th value is that of “participation” and not following. Participation is a value that strongly opposes the importance of following and the scantiness of participating that Arab cultures have secreted.

WHAT IS TO BE DONE? During the last two centuries, the partisans of science, reason and modernity slightly advanced in our societies. Then they fell back to second place, far behind the school of returning to roots and origins. In my opinion, there are several reasons for this; the major one being that the debate remains at a global (macro) level, without focussing on any radical change of mentality through learning.
Dialogue on a global level is generally based on slogans that are attractive to the public. The majority of the supporters of the return to origins position boast slogans that attract the masses, even if they are half-educated or half-cultured (which is the case of most of them). Even when the opportunity presented itself in the form of leadership that was capable of undertaking the crossing from the darkness of decline to the light of progress (like in Turkey from 1923 to 1938, and in Tunisia from 1956 to 1987), work on the educational institutions remained incomplete, and the size of religious teaching (totally divorced from the mentality of progress and modernity) reached, in chief countries like Turkey and Egypt, between 15 per cent and 20 per cent of the number of children of the society enrolled in education.
I think that despite the rise of the return to origins and roots argument, the world situation and the flow of history favour political authorities, authorities of civil society, a selection of intellectuals and authorities of education and media who believe in progress; these will be able, in the shadow of general conditions, to sow the seed of reform in the land of education in general, and religious teaching in particular.

REFORMING RELIGIOUS INSTITUTIONS, NOT IGNORING THEM: Having observed the cultural conditions of Arabic-speaking societies for almost 40 years, I am almost certain that ignoring religion — let alone wounding it with pens and tongues of people motivated by anger rather than knowledge — will yield no positive fruit. Religion is an essential element of the air that the peoples of our Arabic-speaking region breathe. It is better to work on the reformation of religious institutions, religious culture, religious education and education in general, than to wage a Don Quixote-style duel, which will only result in losing the people and distancing them.
Here lies the danger of some groups of Arab intellectuals who have set as their primary mission an insolent attack on religion, instead of working on the way people understand religion.

The writer is a political analyst.

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