The Problem With Liberalising Arabia

Sami Hamdi Middle East/North Africa

One of the main drivers behind support for Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman’s vision for Saudi Arabia has been his perceived willingness to liberalise Saudi society. Reforms including allowing women to drive have been welcomed, while the opening of cinemas and the hosting of the WWE Royal Rumble have been seen as signs of real intent that Saudi Arabian society is finally on its way towards liberalisation.

Saudi Arabia is not the only country in the region in which many would like to see liberalisation take place. Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Tunisia, and perhaps all of the Arab countries have, at some point, pitched the idea of liberalism and engaged in a societal battle against deeply engrained religious influences.

The religious influence cannot be overstated. On twitter, Sheikh Muhammad Al-Areefe has 21.7 million followers. Sheikh A’idh al-Qarni has 19.2 million followers. Sheikh Salman al-‘Ouda has 14.5 million followers. Sheikh Saleh al-Mughamsy has 7.05 million followers. Even if we assume that half of these followers are bots, these are still significant numbers. The Turkish drama Resurrection: Ertugrul on Netflix has taken the Muslim world by storm, not because it has any particularly exceptional Hollywood-style scenes, but because it depicts a hero who insists his success lies with his God and his religion.

Moreover, the Arab Spring which brought about the first free and fair elections in Tunisia and Egypt saw outright dominance of Islamist parties with liberal parties lagging far behind, suggesting that the religious institutions continue to exert significant influence over society, hindering the ‘progression’ of liberal values.

However, the real problem with liberalisation lies not in these deeply rooted religious institutions. Nor does it lie in the lack of desire of authoritarian leaders to implement the necessary reforms for fear of losing power.

The real problem lies in the very concept of liberalisation being preached, and the failure to appreciate the unique circumstances in which European and American liberalisation emerged from. Liberalisation is mainly preached by European/US-based activists who abhor the many human rights abuses that plague the region, the perceived subjugation of women, and the sovereignty of centuries-old customary practices that still dominate Arab society today.

The model for liberalisation in the eyes of these activists is to create an exact replica of Europe, from the clothes worn and the societal norms, to the ousting of religion from the social sphere and its restriction to the personal/private sphere.

The problem with this uniquely European version of liberalisation is that its implementation is doomed to fail from the outset. First of all, it is drenched in euro-centrism that renders its application more an exercise in ‘copying and pasting’ than creating any serious movement capable of seizing the imagination of the Arab world. European liberalisation emerged from a bitter war with the almighty, powerful Church. The aftermath of the war saw the Church relegated to the realms of the private and personal life, banned from state affairs, never to interfere or exercise power again. The trauma of this conflict defines liberalisation even today, a sort of ‘never again will we allow the clerics to rule us again after their tyranny and the bloodshed that they caused in the region’.

The Arab world, or perhaps the Islamic world, does not have a similar or equivalent experience. On the contrary, religion in the state is associated with prosperity, scientific innovation, power, glory, justice, and everything else associated with a golden age. This has been cemented even in the absence of an Islamic empire through Islamic education in mosques around the world which teach the story of the rightly-guided caliphs that include Umar ibn al-Khattab, the victory of the pious Saladin over the Crusaders, the pious Fatih Sultan Mehmet who conquered Constantinople, the pious Abu Hamad al Ghazali who inspired St Thomas Aquinas who influenced Adam Smith, the pious Al-Khawarizmi who advanced mathematics, and the pious Ibn Sina, the father of medicine. The list goes on. In this narrative, it is not Islam that led to the downfall or degradation of the people as Christianity supposedly did in Europe, but the rabid foreign colonisers who defeated the Muslims who had fallen into decline as a result of the deviation away from Islam that had spread in the ‘empire’.

In other words, liberalism is a by-product of defeat, not the product of an enlightenment or an awakening as it is in Europe. It is perceived as the victor asserting their dominance over the defeated, not as a passionate rebellion against oppression.

It is the prevalence of this narrative in the Arab socio-historical memory that has resulted in a general apathy/dislike towards liberal rhetoric in Arab countries. Arab liberals have adopted the euro-centric, anti-religion, concept of liberalism and have advocated for its implementation using the very same European rhetoric. In other words, Arab liberals have sought to place the blame for the ‘backwardness’ of the Arabs on Islam, just as Europe once blamed the Church. This bewilders Arabs and alienates far more than it convinces.

Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman and other leaders may pander to the calls for liberalism. However, they are well aware of the socio-historical narrative that prevails in their countries and the dangers of treading on the perceived sacred history. This awareness is all the more acute as a result of Turkey’s President Erdogan’s persistent and unapologetic Islamist rhetoric that has won him plaudits and apologists across the Muslim world. Erdogan’s defiance of Washington, public rebuke of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s use of the term ‘Islamist’ terrorism, his Qur’an recitations before a speech, and his rejection of the debate on the need for ‘moderate’ Islam (preferring instead to declare extremism as outside the fold of Islam entirely), are all in stark contrast to Bin Salman’s schmoozing of Washington to become King, and the UAE’s justifying of Trump’s travel ban.

This has not been lost on the Muslim population, many of whom have come to refer to Erdogan as the unofficial Sultan, particularly as the Dirilis Ertugrul series gathers momentum. The perception is so strong that for many, Western denouncing of Erdogan is seen as rooted in a deep fear of a resurgence of Islam as power, while the Arab leaders continue to be seen as retainers of Washington. The former could be no more evident than in the reaction to the recent matter of the falling lira. The rhetoric has been one of Western revolt against Erdogan who “threatened the international monetary system” by suggesting a war on the concept of interest rates.

If liberals are serious about progressive values, there must be a greater appreciation of what Islam means and represents for the Arab world, and an appreciation that the world’s collective experience is not restricted to Europe and the US. Without such an understanding, calls for liberalisation will always be perceived, at best, as arrogant, demeaning, and plain disrespectful.

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Sami Hamdi is the Editor-in-Chief of the International Interest. An experienced geopolitical risk consultant, Sami assists blue-chip clients around the world in monitoring and advising on highly volatile business environments.

Sami has extensive experience in the MENA region having been a television reporter and talk-show host for over 10 years. He has reported on key events in the region including the Arab Spring, the fall of Morsi in Egypt, the Houthi crisis in Yemen, as well as the battle of influences between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In his freetime, Sami is a passionate and stubborn Arsenal fan, and loves travelling. Perhaps a bit too much…