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Liberal Ideas in Arab History of Thought

By Ronald Meinardus *

One of the privileges of working in the international program of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty are the many opportunities to meet liberal organizations from all parts of the world and liberal individuals of different national, cultural and religious backgrounds. The most lasting assurance I have taken from these many encounters has been that liberal ideas and the conviction that personal freedom is better than a lack of it are not confined to one part of the world or one culture. On the contrary, the desire for personal freedom is universal.

Size and impact of the liberal movement vary from one place to another depending on various factors. In an international context, the liberal forces in the Arab world may be termed weak and with their back to the wall. Liberals here are confronted with myriad challenges. Frequently these are related to false accusations and allegations: An often-heard stereotype suggests liberal ideas are not compatible with Arab culture or Islam. Ironically, the assumption of the non-compatibility of liberal (=Western) and Islamic (=Arab) values is also propagated by influential Western thinkers who argue that a "Clash of civilizations" is unavoidable.

Most Arabs today have at best a limited exposure to liberal conditions as they grow up and live in a very different environment. In most parts of the Middle East, the only "tangible" experience with liberalism is "economic liberalization". In many cases, however, the declared market reforms have failed to improve the living conditions and remained far below the expectations of the masses. Today, many Egyptians blame "market reforms" for the perceived wide-spread corruption and nepotism. They are not able - or not willing – to appreciate that it is not the market system that has failed but that the main reason for the absent "trickle-down" of wealth is the lack of the rule of law and accountability. These are essential preconditions for the markets to set free their beneficial power.

To say that liberalism has an image problem in the Arab world is no understatement. This, to a considerable degree, has to do also with international politics: On more than one occasion the conduct of outside powers has damaged the concepts of democracy and liberalism (or liberal democracy); Western powers have intervened in the region advocating hallowed liberal and democratic principles and have then behaved in a manner not compatible with those very principles. The invasion of Iraq comes to mind or the Palestinian question. In political debates throughout the Arab world these cases are mentioned as examples of Western double standards. This is not new: Historically, Western colonialism in the region has tainted not only the image of the colonizers but also the ideas they espoused. While they claimed to promote democracy and human rights (albeit gradually), on the ground, they ruled in a profoundly illiberal manner.

Today, liberal values and principles are under attack from various sides in the Arab world. It is, therefore, useful to recall the intellectual roots these ideas have in the region. That these were much in fashion among Arab political thinkers in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, became apparent to me as I reviewed the book "Liberalism in the Arab History of Thought" which we are preparing for publication in Cairo. "Far from being only a contemporary political project, the idea of Arab liberalism has deep roots in the region’s history of thought and was once prevalent in the public discourse", writes Clemens Recker, a German Arabist who has dedicated his academic life to the study of Arab political philosophy. Recker documents excerpts of writings of mainly Egyptian political thinkers that convey strong liberal messages. "Man preserves his freedom of thought and feelings and his natural liberty, even in the depth of a prison…He was created free, free in his will, free in his choices", is one of my favourite quotes from Ahmad Lutfi Al-Sayyid, the famous Egyptian intellectual who died in 1963 and has been described as an architect of Egyptian secularism and liberalism. On the big issue of women’s rights, Recker cites Muhammad Abduh, also an Egyptian and one of the most prominent Muslim reformers before he died 1905: "Well then, if they fear temptation from unveiled women, why aren’t men ordered to cover their faces?"

The Arab Nahda, which these writings are part of, embarked on a reformist path that carried many liberal ideas. The thinkers, some of whom did not shy away from entering active politics, aimed at liberating their societies from foreign and also home grown despotism. They advocated the supremacy of freedom as both an end in itself and, importantly, also a way to modernize their countries.

In the recent book "Liberal Thought in the Eastern Mediterranean. Late 19th century until the 1960s" Christoph Schumann supports this position and writes: "There can be no doubt that liberal ideas were influential, if not hegemonic (in the Arab world) … and that this influence evaporated at some point in the middle of the twentieth century". Rising Arab nationalism and the Re-Islamization of society are often mentioned as the main reasons for the liberal decline.

Liberal thinking and aspirations have always been a reaction to illiberal conditions. This has been the case in the past and may also be observed today: Considering the illiberal state of affairs prevailing in large parts of the Arab world it is no surprise that, once more, liberal thinking and writing are on the rise.

In this context the indigenous liberal writings of former times are important. Their mere existence refutes the claim that liberal thinking is foreign-inspired and un-Islamic. I am convinced that liberal ideas (and politics) cannot be imposed from outside. For liberalism to flourish in the Arab world, liberally minded men and women must join hands and develop their own – Arab – paradigms, concepts and programs. They may look to their own past to find intellectual stimulation and guidance.

* Dr. Ronald Meinardus is the Regional Director of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty in Cairo. You may reach the writer at

(Published in The Daily News Egypt, Cairo, September 2, 2010)

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