What does it take for enlightenment to take off in the Arab world?
CAIRO - Many Arab thinkers find it intriguing that enlightened and rationalistic thought struggles to gain traction in the region. Egyptian researcher Ahmed Saad Zayed is among them. He is also among those who attempt to offer answers.
In a telephone interview with The Arab Weekly from Vienna, Austria, Zayed suggested that the powers in the Arab world bear a huge responsibility in promoting ideas of enlightenment and that Arabs and Muslims should heed Europe’s experience during the Renaissance.
Zayed has been attacked by Islamist groups that tried to prevent him from promoting his ideas. Last November, Muslim Brotherhood members in the Kuwaiti parliament refused to allow Zayed to deliver a lecture because he is advocating atheism.
Zayed, however, says the salvation of the Arab world is contingent on the adoption of reason as the measure for all things. He said the emergence of extremist organisations, such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, and their abhorrent practices, ironically, have contributed to the awakening of the Arab world.
Islamic radicalism has provoked debate about whether the development of extremism is inextricably tied to history and culture or whether it represents a natural evolution of society.
Invoking the European experience as a model for a modern state, Zayed said: “Eighteenth-century philosophers and thinkers laid the foundations for a rational trend which modern societies are based on.”
Zayed said the influence of European enlightenment in the Arab world was apparent with the emergence of the question of religious reform, starting with the efforts of Egyptian scholars Muhammad Abdo and Rasheed Reza and including the contemporary efforts of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd and Youssef Seddik in Tunisia.
Zayed said there is a huge civilisational gap separating the Arab world from the renaissance in both East and West. The Arab world is behind the rest of the world culturally and intellectually.
Zayed stressed that “the ideas of enlightenment and modernity need to be protected by a political, social, organisational and cultural umbrella capable of influencing the masses.” He said major transformations in human history needed this kind of authority when dialogue is not possible.
Calls for emulating Western enlightenment have been met with alarmist concerns that Arab societies could lose their heritage. Enlightenment advocates, however, dismiss those fears.
Zayed said Arab citizens reflect diversity and coexistence despite religious differences in their midst. He said he hoped that diversity would culminate in a civilisational momentum in which “Arabs, Amazighs, Kurds, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, West and East could become one entity in the context of a common human project. This is what ancient, medieval and modern philosophers have dreamt of: for us to become worthy of living as part of humanity.”
Zayed predicted that the future belongs to a humanistic identity. “The idea of local and religious identities has long passed and a humanistic identity is better suited to contain other identities, so that the world becomes a mix of diversity and differences,” he said.
He said creating a global “melting pot” does not mean burying one’s religious heritage but opens it to the possibility of reform and renewal, making religious ideas more in tune with the times.
Such solutions are proposed by conciliatory liberalism as a middle ground between the fundamentalist right and those who advocate for a complete break with tradition. This thought attempts to reconcile Islamic tradition and modernity as well as science and religion and is an extension of efforts by thinkers of the Arab Renaissance, including Rifa’a Rafi al-Tahtawi, Ahmed Lutfi al-Sayyid, Zaki Najib Mahmoud and Mohammed Abed Al-Jabri.
Zayed said there are philosophical tasks that are the foundations of the Arab modernity project. These tasks fall on the collective shoulders of intellectuals and culture officials who need to create the required momentum and social interaction. “The Age of Enlightenment was not just an article by Voltaire or a study by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It was an interactive cultural movement that later evolved into a political and social achievement,” Zayed said.
Zayed pointed out that “the lack of a political power that protects and espouses enlightenment is the reason behind the lynching of some of the figures of enlightenment.”
He said the approach of his dogmatic nemeses was anti-democratic. “There are people who are incapable of engaging in an intellectual debate, so they resort to defamation and accusations of apostasy,” Zayed said.
Zayed said there is a stake for all in the promotion of rationality and reform because “an enlightenment project is not just the responsibility of the media but a whole social and popular movement.”