Mr Chairman, Prof Abdullah Ahsan, Deputy Dean of ISTAC, honorable guest Prof James Piscatori, our co-organizer Prof Khoo Gaik Cheng of Nottingham University, professors, academicians, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:
Let me start by quoting a line from the song Sout al-Hurriyah – Song of Freedom, a song from a video produced at the same time of the Arab Uprising in Tahrir Square, Cairo. In the video, the lines of the song are simultaneously sung by a multitude of singers – a cross section of Egyptian people – and displayed on the signs they carry.
We raised our heads into the sky. And hunger no longer mattered to us. Most important are our rights, And that with our blood we write our history.
Sout al Hurriyya - Song of Freedom
It is worth recapitulating that the revolution that has swept the Arab states was sparked spontaneously in Tunisian the spring of 2011 following the self-immolation of a poor and down-trodden Mohamed Bouazizi, which then spread like wildfire to other neighboring countries including Egypt.
Though this revolution might be seen by many as Islamism reinventing itself, it was in actual fact, a popular revolt, by the people, with a surge of resistant force emanating from an existential condition rather than one or more ideological or a preconceived strategic ends.
The “project” initially represents an endeavor to fuse religiosity and rights, faith and freedom, Islam and liberty. Hence these innovative discourses demanded the true meaning of democracy, individual rights, tolerance, and gender equality as well as separation of religion from the state.
However, unfortunately, two years after what was known as the Arab Spring, we now are witnessing the fading of the bloom from the roses. The supposedly democratic new governments were seen not to adhere to the principles of true democracy. As soon as democratic progress stalls, a conservative reaction sets in and a wishful thinking of coming-back of the authoritarian predecessor that has guaranteed stability and security.
The recent political fiasco that has swept Egypt where President Morsi granted himself a sweeping temporary powers that protects presidential decrees from judicial review was deemed as undemocratic and could lead to another dictatorship.
While no one knows what the future holds for Egypt, the move by the President only gave credence to the same old question: “Could Muslims actually embrace democratic ideals?”
Meanwhile, the Salafi and Wahhabi groups with their literalist interpretations of Islam have become more visible and politicized over the last few years. While they have refused political participation since their inception by equating democracy with kufr or rejection of Islam, somehow now they are slowly engaging in politics.
Hence we are now witnessing their assertion of an un-democratic, Islamic state governed by the strict version of Shariah law that hinders the progress towards real democracy.
Some of these groups also known as the Salafi jihadists have turned to violent radicalism. Others, financed by Islamic institutions in Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf oil monarchies like Qatar and Bahrain — the supposed allies of the United States — have entered mainstream politics, where they promote a religious, anti-democratic populism that plays on emotions, demonizes the West – the United States especially - and actively undermines the struggle for democratic reform.
Consequently, we now witness for ourselves that the compatibility or incompatibility of Islam with democracy is not merely a matter of philosophical speculations, but of a political struggle. It is not as much the question of texts as the balance of power between those who want a democratic religion and those who pursue an authoritarian version. It is more of a story of two competing social forces in the Muslim world.
Of course after all, there can be no true democracy in the Muslim countries, and the Arab world especially; without a profound restructuring of economic priorities, which in turn can come about only by combating corruption, limiting the prerogatives of the military, and, above all, reconsidering economic relations with other countries and the gross inequalities of wealth and income within the country.
Unfortunately, the new economic order, especially the one proposed by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt for example, does not challenge the arguments and assumptions of the former socio-economic structure, in terms of the free market, trade, and giving priority to the private sector and foreign investment. It is based on empowering that structure to work for a new business elite, simply without the “corrupt practices.”
It is important to note that taking steps towards economic reform and the improvement of living conditions must be directly linked to the redistribution of income and wealth, and resetting the economy on a different compass: towards the majority of the population - the ninety-nine percent – to use the phrase of the Occupy Movement.
This is essentially a political battle that requires a different coalition based on interests that contradict those pursued by the Islamists who hold the political and economic power. They are basically a small ultra-wealthy clique that benefits from the economic order – the one-percent - as opposed to the ninety-nine percent who are outside the political and economic policy decision-making circles. This is the only way forward in order for a true democracy to flourish and towards achieving social justice. The Arab world must confront its historical demons and heal its failings and infirmities. Only then, the true Arab Spring that aspires justice and equality and embraces democracy and liberty will bloom.
Speech during the event “Legacy of the Arab Spring: The Question of Liberty and Democracy” on Sunday, 2nd May 2013 at the main auditorium, International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization, (ISTAC), Jalan Duta, Kuala Lumpur. The event was jointly organized by the Islamic Renaissance Front, Nottingham University and ISTAC.