Renew religious discourse in the Arab world

Friday 05/06/2015
A needed change of direction

Traditional religious institutions have for decades insisted that anyone who proposes a renewal of religious discourse aims, in fact, to insult the essence of religious creed and weaken the basis of religion itself. These allegations, as is the case with all inherited discourse, limited thought regarding the realities of our age. Thought about changes in human relations and beneficial exchange, especially economic and cultural exchange, has been stifled.
These restrictions have pre­vented Islamic and Arab countries, without exception, from joining the progressive spirit of the age in terms of thought and politics. In addition, these restrictions have prevented implementation of technological and indus­trial advancements on the developmental level. Not only that, but they have led to the marginalisation of the Muslim individual and the stripping of his na­tional and patriotic aims to the advantage of religious groups who compete over the Muslim individual’s marginalised existence.
Ruling regimes have played a role in this as well. In more than one Arab country, they turned a blind eye to the oppression of modernis­ers. The writer Farag Foda is the most prominent example of those who have fallen victim to this kind of oppression. Al-Azhar organised a front that launched ferocious at­tacks against Foda at the beginning of the 1990s. These attacks ended with the issuing of a statement in the al-Nour newspaper declaring Foda an infidel and calling for his death.
Foda’s only crime was his de­fence of an enlightenment project based on four principles: criticism of contemporary political Islam, criticism of historical political Is­lam, the inevitability of independ­ent thought and defence of the modern, civil state. In other words, Farag Foda wanted a renewal of religious discourse, a discourse that has been in a quagmire for centuries in positions that bear no relation to our age and its demands.
Behind Foda stands a long line of Muslim and Islamic modernisers whose ideas were killed off in the cradle or hidden behind the covers of books barely distributed. The distribution of modernist books paled in comparison to those of the traditionalists who blocked renewal with verbal and physical violence. In this the traditionalists were sup­ported by governments, institu­tions and populist groups cut off from reality.
The alienation of the Arab peo­ples from reality is the sharpest weapon in the arsenal of tradition­alists. The Arab peoples, on the receiving end of a single, permit­ted religious discourse, have been forcefully and violently placed in a preconceived mould. This mould has been with time transformed into a mental prison.
The advocates of war against renewal never imagined they could win their war or that the support of the Arab people could lead to religion itself being hijacked by extremist groups.
Those who declared others infidels were themselves declared infidels. The situation came to transgress the realm of credulity. To the world, Islam became associ­ated with mass murder.
Islam, which came into the world as a gift of mercy, has become a by­word for backwardness, violence, barbarity and abominations.
The responsibility for the depths to which the image of Islam and Muslims has plunged falls first and foremost with the religious institutions that fought against re­newal. These institutions expelled modernising thinkers and dug their graves. Now, it is incumbent upon these institutions to repent and bear the standard of a renewed re­ligious discourse based on freedom of opinion.
In order for these institutions to rise to their responsibility, they must rid themselves of their fear of losing their followers and the spoils that come with that.
If our religious institutions truly deliver by participating in mod­ernising our religious discourse then other progressive currents will be required to aid them in this pressing matter. If, however, these institutions continue to stick to their old and stagnant positions, then nothing will change. Not only will nothing change but the situ­ation will worsen, becoming yet more violent and backward.
There is some cause for op­timism. We are now seeing an admission that our religious insti­tutions have made mistakes in the past in addition to a genuine desire for the renewal of our religious discourse. Egypt has taken the initiative in this matter, politi­cally, socially and intellectually. If Egypt succeeds in modernising its religious discourse then renewal could succeed in other Arab loca­tions, owing to Egypt’s exceptional weight and influence in Arab socie­ties.