Whither the Arab Spring?

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abdoufilali.jpgI’m back from England, and for purposes of this blog, our Oxford workshop‘s most interesting participant was Abdou Filali-Ansary, who offered a portrait of the Arab Spring filled with light and shadow. A Moroccan philosopher who successively directed the King Abdul-Aziz Foundation for Islamic Studies and Human Sciences in Casablanca and the Aga Khan University Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations in London, Filali-Ansary has thought and written as profoundly as anyone about Muslims in the contemporary world.

In his view, what the international news media have missed in covering the Arab revolutions of the past year has been the importance of a language of “ultimate values shared universally” regarding governance, civil society, and accountability. In standing for democracy and human rights, this amounts to “the de facto religion of humanity.” On the rise in the Arab world over the past two decades and evident above all in the written press, it can be summed up in the Arabic phrase “dawlat al-haqq wa’l-qanun”–the rule of law or, more precisely, the state bound by law that respects rights. This secular principle could be found everywhere in Arab discourse, and was “more effective than the slogans of the Islamists,” he said. It motivated the protests in the streets.

That was Filali-Ansary’s good news. His bad news concerned the Islamization of higher education. At the University of Morocco, where he once taught, the Department of Philosophy has been replaced by a Department of Islamic Studies–where Islam is taught in a doctrinaire, ahistorical way as the answer to all problems. Nor is Morocco alone. Across the region, Islamists have corrupted the university when it comes to things Islamic, substituting religious preaching for an historically grounded understanding of Islam and society. The Islamic character of the state has come to be taken for granted, with Islamic law–Sharia–at the center.

The conflict between Qanun and Sharia represents, according to Filali-Ansary, a profound clash of worldviews that cannot be solved by a middle path combining elements of both. “It will be a long and painful struggle,” he said, “more painful than we think.” Last Friday’s demonstration in Tahrir Square on behalf of a Sharia-based state testifies to the strength of the Islamist forces on the ground in Egypt.

The ability of Americans to think clearly about these issues is not helped by the Sharia Angst that has has been whipped up by a handful of ideological and religious zealots and embraced by some politicians in much the same manner as anti-Catholicism was whipped up and embraced in the 19th century. Indeed, contemporary Know-Nothingism, which would limit the practice of Islam via anti-Sharia laws, only serves to undermine the principle of universal respect for rights that we should be exemplifying to the Arab world. The Filali-Ansarys of the world deserve better from us.