I. Overview:Islam has played an important role in the making of 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 twelfth century A.D., 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 materialized in two trends: the first trend asserts that the backwardness of our societies is due to the fact that we do not hold the set of religious doctrines as the way of life and work of individuals and societies. The holders of the second trend believe that it is inevitable to follow the mechanisms of the Western civilization in order to accomplish progress in their societies. It may be said (with some generalization) 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 the Western civilization which 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 the 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 issued a mentality of copying, opposed to reason and innovation, and when it set a low ceiling to 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 of the word.
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 the Western civilization as being “Western”. I have proven in many of my books that the progress which Europe has witnessed has 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 the encouragement of the critical mind. These are the two factors which 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 big 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 the Malaysian society which one may consider as the biggest proof that the values and mechanisms of progress are universal and human.
Coming back to Arabic speaking societies, analyzing 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 holy 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 course 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 the educational reform, and particularly the reform of religious education, inculcates in the minds and consciences the values of progress as values that are first and foremost human and universal.
II. The Values of Progress:
An overview (or helicopter view) of the advanced societies, with a parallel (profound) knowledge of their history and their march tells that the progress of the societies which have advanced in their course towards development and progress is the result of a set of values which 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 who know the implications of making this value fundamental to the educational institution 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 the 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 the society in number; immobilizing half of the society can only have negative effects…. On the other hand, women raise the other half of the 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 at the hands of an inferior person.
The seventh value is the one of “human rights” according to the concept which 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 tenth value is that of “democracy”, the noblest human invention of the last two centuries.
The eleventh value is the value of “work”, including the modern notions surrounding work, such as team work, competence, the techniques of modern management, and the culture of enterprise as opposed to the culture of individuals.
The twelfth value is the “interest in the future” more than the excessive interest in the past, which is a characteristic of the Arab culture.
The thirteenth value is the value of “objectivity” which, even if it is relative, differs from the subjectivity that reigns in certain ancient cultures, the Arab culture being one of the most important. The sociology of the tribe which has widely governed the Arab culture favors subjectivity, and is far from the notion of objectivity.
The fourteenth 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 governance, and driven it closer to the culture of relative governance.
The fifteenth value is that of “participation” and not following. Participation is a value which strongly opposes the importance of following and the scantiness of participating which the Arab cultures have secreted.
III. 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 the 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 focusing on the radical change of the mentality through learning. Dialogue on a global level is generally based on slogans which are more attractive to the public. The majority of the supporters of the return to origins hold slogans that attract 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 which was capable of undertaking the crossing from the darkness of reality to the light of progress (like in Turkey from 1923 to 1938, and in Tunisia from 1956 to 1987), the 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% and 20% of the number of children of the society enrolled in the educational operation.
I think that despite the rise of the wave of the return to origins and roots, the world situation and the flow of history favor political authorities, authorities of the civil society, a selection of intellectuals, and authorities of education and media who believe in progress; these will be able, in the shadow of the general conditions, to sow the seed of reform in the land of education in general, and religious teaching in particular.
IV Reforming religious institutions, not ignoring them:
Having observed the cultural conditions of Arabic speaking societies for almost forty years, I am almost certain that ignoring religion (let alone wound it with pens and tongues of people motivated by anger rather than knowledge) is a fact which will yield no positive fruit. Religion is an essential element of the air which 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 of the peoples and distancing them. Here lies the danger of some groups of Arab intellectuals who have set as their primary mission the insolent attack on religion, instead of working on the way people understand religion.