Freedom of religion might revive Arab Spring

Freedom of religion might revive Arab Spring
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Freedom of religion might revive Arab Spring

By Ghassan Michel Rubeiz

Ghassan Michel Rubeiz

The pendulum of world reaction to the Arab awakening has swung too far: from admiration to worry and despair.

The first wave of the Arab Spring showed that oppressed people are able to depose their rulers but the second lesson revealed that the military and the religious institutions are not ready for change. The Muslim Brothers Party and the military have suppressed civil uprising in Egypt, the center of the Arab Spring.  To revive the Arab Spring, where should the reformers aim at first, the military or the religious establishment?

Two realities point to starting with freeing the mindset of people. The first fact is that the freedom to believe or not to believe in deity (liberty of conscience) is a foundation for other types of human rights. Second, curbing  the powers of Mideast armed forces is unrealistic given their investment in lucrative business and the strong support they receive from the outside powers, particularly the US, Iran and Russia.

It is not so easy, however, to reform well entrenched religious institutions. Cultural norms prescribe submission to men of the cloth.  It is hard to interpret the religious text.  Religious law narrows decisions in choice of the marriage partner, in other family life decisions and in relations with people of other convictions. Intelligent questions are discouraged. Religious leaders expect their people to ignore injustice pertaining to gender equality, protection of minorities and other social values.

As state power weakens religion’s influence on politics intensifies.   And when the state fails to protect its people “God- sponsored” militias seem to fill out the political vacuum.  Militias easily degenerate to criminal political formations. Sheltered by angry local communities for which they provide services and short term security, motivated by sectarian sentiments, rewarded by money, drugs, ransom fees and captured national resources, criminal groups would fight with any opposition, even with their own religious community. In the later phase of Lebanese civil war Christian militias fought other Christian militias, Shiites fought other Shiites and Sunnites fought Sunnites.

ISIL’s recent emergence is a dramatic manifestation of how the breakdown of the state (in Iraq and Syria) has led to the development of adventurous, chaotic political structures. Thousands of maladjusted citizens living in foreign countries have partnered with local, humiliated Sunni communities, in Iraq and Syria, to build a terror system ornamented by religious symbols.

The Arab Daily News

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ISIL has created a disturbing social climate in Syria and Iraq where Sunnites fight Shiites and confront other Sunnites in the surrounding countries. Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf are now mobilized to degrade ISIL, ironically after the oil- rich states had been funding groups like ISIL.

Spreading ISIL-fear has created new political dynamics: shifts in alliances and some soul searching. Last week Iran started to negotiate with Saudi Arabia on how they could strangle ISIL. If Saudi Arabia and Iran collaborate to defeat ISIL three immense, side benefits might emerge. Involving Iran as an international partner in the US-led coalition against ISIL may facilitate the ongoing nuclear negotiations between Tehran and major world powers. Tehran and Riyadh might reconcile to reduce regional sectarian tension. Lastly, Syria badly needs Iran’s best diplomacy to save it from further deterioration.

However, defeating ISIL will not recover the original goal of the Arab Spring: the renaissance of society. Reform requires addressing intolerance at the roots; curbing the power of patriarchal orders of religious institutions is a tall order. It will take a while to create culturally suitable Islamic “liberation theology”.

Arab liberation theology is not absent in the region but this literature is written by Christians and focused on the liberation of Palestine.

Latin America, Africa and East Asia ended much of their tyranny only after human rights movements won the hearts and minds of their people. Societal change preceded political liberation in places like Brazil, South Africa and India; think of the impact of the (Brazilian) liberation theology pedagogue Paulo Freire, the ecumenical civil right leader Nelson Mandela and the renowned reconciliation figure Mahatma Gandhi.

There are some new signs of attitude change. Muslim leaders now voice strong opinions against terror and abuse of religion.  They rightly remind their people that in Islam it is forbidden to teach the faith coercively: Arabic: la ikraha fi din. Opinion makers point fingers at the quality of religious education and rising clerical power.

The next phase of the Arab Spring may not take place in the public square; it may ferment in the poet’s den, the artist’s exhibit, the humorist theater, the cartoonist’s message, the activist’s seminar and the literature of liberation theologians. The Arab Spring must address institutional fanaticism with honesty and courage.

The original message of the Arab Spring needs to be recovered.

The Arab Daily News

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Ghassan Rubeiz


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The Arab Daily News

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