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Secularism, national identity and the role of the intellectual, part II

Dialogue no. 10, December 2007, between Shlomo Avineri and Ramin Jahanbegloo

part I was published in May 2005 and is available here

Jahanbegloo: If we take the case of Islamic countries in the Middle East, we can see clearly that the religious and political spheres have nearly always been linked together. Consequently, until a few decades ago most of the Arab countries had no experience of civil society. Put differently, civil society is a new issue in this area of the world, mainly because in Islamic societies the political and the religious have always been one and the same. The political was never really secularized in the Muslim mind; that is why inventing democracy in the Muslim world is such a big challenge.

Let us take, for example, the favorable opinion on much of the Arab street regarding the rise of phenomena such as Hamas in Palestine, al-Qaeda or even the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Many in the Muslim world consider these as the last refuges of Islamic traditionalism. In fact, as recent events show us, the last refuge is not only al-Qaeda or Hamas, but primarily Wahabism in Arabia.

Nobody pays enough attention to the danger of Wahabism in the Middle East. In this regard, Saudi Arabia provides a striking contrast with living Islam in many Arab countries. I think Saudi Islam is much more rigid and uncompromising than Iranian or Turkish Islam. It is not only xenophobic but also seriously retrograde and backward. Rules such as forbidding women to drive or to have an important political and social role are not practiced even under an Islamic regime like Iran. The norms of Saudi Arabia's Islamic culture have survived despite the rapid pace of modernization over the last 50 years. Moreover, Saudis--who did not undergo the western tutelage experienced by other Arabs--see themselves not merely as equals of the West, but in fact believe their Islamic cultural values to be vastly superior to western ones.

Saudi society also has a tribal nature that dominates its social, political and economic dimensions. The family system is probably the most stabilizing force in the country, but it also prevents Saudi Islam from opening up to modern liberal values. This said, strangely enough the internal threat to the Saudi regime comes from the religious right. Because of the social dislocations of rapid modernization and runaway population growth, Islamist militants are already blaming the regime for introducing "secularism", especially through the presence of western troops, into the kingdom.

The long-term demographic problem and the rise of popularity of the puritanical ulema constitute serious challenges to the Saud family's rule. In the event the Saud were to be replaced, the likely successor regime would be one based on militant Islam dominated by the army.

To summarize this introduction, contrary to what people think, Iran is not the last bastion of Islamic fundamentalism. There are some Islamic currents in the Middle East that are much more fundamentalist than Iranian Islam.

Avineri: We should perhaps add another element here and that is the distinction between Sunni Islam and Shi'ite Islam. Sunni Islam being basically Arab, it identifies with Arabism. Shi'ite Islam is a minority phenomenon and was born historically among non- Arab elements in the Middle East (mainly in Iran), hence it is not identified with Arab nationalism. Perhaps that is the reason why we see today an automatic identity between Arab rule and Sunni Islam in the Middle East.

Take for example Iraq. We can say that the end of Saddam's regime was not only the end of the Baath dictatorship but was also the end of Sunni political power. This is one of the reasons why many Arab intellectuals had great difficulty in accepting the American war against Saddam: one of the consequences was the loss of power by the Sunnis in Iraq. The fact that in the Iraqi constitution Iraq is not identified as an Arab country but is instead described as an Arab and Kurdish country is very revolutionary and shocking to many Arab intellectuals.

Jahanbegloo: When we talk about the Middle East in the twentieth century, we see that there has always been a problem of legitimization of power in this area of the world. In what ways have Middle East dictatorships been legitimized by the popular mind?

The process of legitimization has always taken place through either religion or the state. Middle Eastern governments legitimized themselves as shadows of God (like the ex-Shah of Iran did) or as representatives of different religions.

But we also have a second form of legitimization that is very important and that is the secular form. We find it essentially in the formation of the Baath party, in Kemalist ideology in Turkey, but also in a populist regime like that of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. So actually we encounter two different modes of legitimization in the Middle East, neither of which was ever able to endure politically or establish a permanent presence.

Let us take the case of Israel. Israel presents itself as a secular state but at the same time it is a religious state, because it is considered as a state created by and for the Jews. So there is a religious legitimization of the state of Israel but at the same time it is constitutionally invented as a secular state, taking its political legitimacy from its republican status and not from the Bible.

Avineri: I think you bring out some of the internal tensions of the Israeli normative order. In the self-understanding of most Israelis religion plays an important role, but is not the constitutive ingredient of Israel's identity. Zionism is basically an attempt (as was Arab nationalism) to adopt nineteenth century European models. In this view, the Jews are a people and as a people they have a right to self-determination like any other people. What holds Jews together in Israel is not a religious element as such but a link to this tradition. Nobody in Israel among the Jewish population would ever suggest that the day of rest should not be Saturday. Most Israelis do not work on Saturday, yet do not observe Saturday as a religious day. You have here a combination of both elements of legitimacy.

This is a matter of symbolic identity that is deeply ingrained in grassroots practices. You can see it on a symbolic level when you look at a very powerful symbol in Israel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem. This is the buttress wall of the platform upon which the Jewish temple was built--the one destroyed by the Romans in 71AD. For religious Jews it is a holy place where the temple was and will one day be rebuilt by divine intercession. For secular Jews it is a symbol of Jewish historical sovereignty and of statehood that was demolished by the Romans when Jews were forced into exile and lost their statehood. So you have the same object of veneration being interpreted in very different ways.

We saw this tension just recently during the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, where religious Jews considered it a sin against God to give up a part of the land God promised to them. But with a few exceptions most of them with a heavy heart accepted at the end the decision of the democratic political system to leave the area. You may not like the outcome and you may passively resist through civil disobedience, but you accept at the end of the day the defining and determining moment of political decision-making. I think the ability of religious people to accept the normative democratic order is a way of overcoming the issues of modernity and tradition.

Jahanbegloo: This is a very rare phenomenon in the Middle East. But are you trying to say that in Israel the political social contract is not based on the religious tradition and is in fact in rupture with that tradition? In that case why is it so important to the Israeli state to present itself as "a state of the Jewish people throughout the world" and not a state for all its citizens? Don't you see a contradiction between Israel being at the same time a democratic state and an exclusively Jewish state?

Avineri: It is in rupture but in a Burkean way. It is in rupture but it relates to it. I mean one of the reasons (and I'm glad you mentioned the social contract) that Israel does not have a constitution is because if you have a constitution, meaning a foundational document, you have to spell out the foundational norms and on the foundational norms there will be no agreement between secular and religious Israelis. The majority of Israeli Jews are basically secular, yet there will be no agreement because you do not know where to place the roots of this social contract. Therefore, you need to accept democratic norms. For secular Israelis, the ultimate norms are the norms of self-determination. As for the religious Jews, these norms are purely instrumental because the ultimate norms are religious. But you can still create a social contract because a social contract is about the behavior of citizens. A constitution is not about behavior; it is not only about foundation. Therefore, you have to live with this gap. But in times of crisis like the disengagement in Gaza you have a clash between these two elements.

Jahanbegloo: This debate exists not only in Israel but also in Islamic countries. There has always been a gap between the orthodox population and the secular population in the Islamic countries simply because each believes in its own interpretation of sovereignty. You have here two forms of sovereignty that become antagonistic. On the one hand, there is sovereignty of God; on the other, there is sovereignty of citizens.

Avineri: But in the Jewish tradition there is an ability to make a distinction between the ultimate divine sovereignty and the instrumental sovereignty of the political. You can say that there are two kinds of sovereignty, but one is subservient to the other. The important factor in sovereignty is the democratic factor: the consent of the people is important even if religious Jews believe that one day the Messiah will come and the will of God will be fulfilled. The world is imperfect and in this imperfect world there are methods for private religious practice, but we need a social contract that constructs the public sphere. The public sphere is on the instrumental level ordered by the social contract of majoritarian rule. I need to add here that the social contract in Israel today is an implicit social contract, because once you want to write it out you'll write out not a social contract but a constitution and then you have clashes.

People may behave according to a social contract for different reasons. Some do because they believe this is a basic norm; others may say basic norms are very different but for some psychological reasons we obey. So the test is related to political behavior. This is also the way the Catholic church was able to survive in Europe. After all, in the nineteenth century Catholicism and democracy were totally antagonistic. The Church believed that democracy was from the devil and democrats believed that the Church was antidemocratic. What Catholicism has developed into in Europe is something similar to what I am describing in Israel on a different normative level. There is a belief in an ultimate divine sovereignty, but in the meantime you live within the democratic structures because the alternative may be worse. This is why Christian democratic parties are today one of the pillars of European democracy.

Jahanbegloo: That's true. One of the contradictions that has survived in the Middle East is precisely what you talk about at the level of sovereignty. In other words, you have a continuity of autocratic regimes in the Middle East--autocratic regimes that declare themselves as popular or populist regimes that derive their sovereignty from the people, like the Baathist regimes and like the Islamic Republic of Iran. We even have regimes that declare themselves republics and pretend that the force of their constitutions comes from the people.

Yet they bring into question this popular sovereignty by an autocratic sovereignty. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and the UAE have been congenitally inhospitable to democracy and they always justify this by making the assumption that if free elections were held today, Islamist parties would win, either because many Arab voters support them or because opponents would be inadequately mobilized to defeat them. Yet some like Syria present themselves as an "Arab republic". If we take a look at the preamble of the Syrian constitution, it says very clearly: "Freedom is a sacred right and popular democracy is the ideal formulation that ensures for the citizen the exercise of his freedom which makes him a dignified human being capable of giving and building, defending the homeland in which he lives, and making sacrifices for the sake of the nation to which he belongs. The homeland's freedom can only be preserved by its free citizens." However, as we can see in reality, Syrian autocracy and democratic republicanism do not go together.

Avineri: This is not an accident. It has to do with the way in which languages try not to be concise. You mentioned the word "republic". The Arabic and Iranian word for "republic" is jumhuria. But jumhuria does not exactly mean republic because res publica stands against res privata. Republic is a public sphere, but jumhuria is much more than a public sphere. Etymologically it means the people, not the public. So there is a populist element in it rather than a democratic element. When you hear res publica you immediately think about laws and their limits. So the republican view has liberal elements in it that jumhuria does not have. Therefore, the modern distinction between the private and the public is nonexistent in the word jumhuria. There are private beliefs that one hopes are going to be acknowledged as public norms, but in the meantime they sound like private beliefs.

Jahanbegloo: But there cannot be a private realm when there is no privacy and there are no private rights. One of the problems in most of the countries of the Middle East is that there is no respect for individual rights; this is because the crucial distinction between the private and the public does not exist. In these countries the private is somehow the continuity of the public. In other words, the autocratic system that tries to dominate the public continues its reign inside the private.

Avineri: Precisely. You need this distinction; otherwise you cannot have a modern republican system. This is the only way to ensure respect for individual rights and liberal institutions. It is the only way that enables you to make decisions under conditions of disagreement. But democracy is not just about decisions. It is about legitimizing decisions in situations of disagreement. When you accept the principle of disagreement, then you have a mechanism of making decisions and carrying out a majoritarian decision but preserving the rights of the minority. For this you have to have the distinction between the public and the private. You also need the ability of individuals to express themselves in contradistinction to what is public.

Jahanbegloo: I agree with you, but once again I have doubts about the application of this distinction in the Middle East. Countries where religion has always had a very dominant role and been a determinant public force have no way of getting to the distinction between the private and the public except through secularism. By secularism, I understand not an exit from religion, but where there is an attempt to establish the autonomy of the political and an equidistant reverence for all religions as in the Indian case.

Avineri: I agree with you that it is very difficult, but then again Turkey is an example. The Ottoman state was an empire and not just a simple caliphate. It extended its secular power over vast regions that held a multiplicity of ethnic and religious groups. Modern Turkey is an attempt to fashion a nation-state out of the remnant of that empire. On the other hand, the political institutions of Israel are modeled on the Eastern European Jewish community, which was a de facto instrumental arrangement for living under conditions of exile. In the Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe all male members participated in decisions about both regulations and electing the community chairman. The idea of having a president of the community is not something that emerged from simple normative elements. Rather, it grew out of the necessity of a minority community.

The Jewish community created its political institutions for pragmatic reasons, in the same way that the British parliament was created pragmatically. It didn't start with a human rights declaration or a declaration of civil rights as in France. It was related to Jewish traditions; the great thing about it was that it grew out of conditions of exile and in a democratic way. When you want to create a polity and there is no legislative assembly, you go and create your own institutions and you create it not out of an abstract norm but out of your daily practices. If you take even the very extreme case of the kibbutzim, which are communistic and secular institutions, the people who founded the first kibbutz thought of it as a membership assembly and voted to decide who would be the secretary and who the treasurer. You have here a political behavior pattern.

Jahanbegloo: Yes, but what you are referring to is a European tradition that was brought to the Middle East by the Jews or was the result of multiple encounters with the modern world. It was not initially a Middle Eastern tradition.

Avineri: It was not Middle Eastern, but it was not a European tradition either. Many people believe that the ideas of privacy and modernity came to Israel from Europe and that both were European traditions. Yet most of the original immigrants to Israel came from Czarist or Communist Russia and Nazi Germany and both of these countries were anti-democratic. Most of the immigrants did not come from democratic countries precisely because in democratic countries Jews felt comfortable. Jews who came to Palestine from non-democratic countries brought with them a political tradition that is not a normative Jewish tradition as written in the Bible. The Jewish community in Eastern Europe always had its own traditions and its own autonomy. It elected or selected its leadership, which emerged out of the elite of society without any state structure. So this is not just a European tradition, but a Jewish tradition of non-coercive power. It's the tradition of a minority that survived in Eastern Europe, but also later in the Middle East.

Jahanbegloo: But the whole difference is that there is a persistent autocratic tradition in most Arab and Islamic countries in the Middle East. The autocratic tradition in a country like Iran came from old dynasties and kingdoms. In Arab countries, the autocratic tradition descends from a tribalist background. There had never been a direct encounter with modernity and with political ideas of modernity in the Arabian Peninsula. The most important political outcome of modernity for western countries is the idea of separation of powers. They have different sorts of separation: between the church and the state, the private and the public, and the legislative, the judicial and the executive. The idea of institutional limitations of power has always been non-existent in the Middle East. I think this has to do with the political culture of the region.

It also has to do with the fact that the Middle East has had trouble getting along with modernity. Its encounters with modernity have been wounded encounters. These wounds appear today as complexes and as violent reactions such as terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism. Terrorism represents a failure to create a consensus of structure not just because there are some bad people in Islamic countries. I totally reject the essentialist view of Islam. No, that is not the question. The question is the failure to create a public space where people have freedom and decency. In many Arab countries we do not have this lawful and legitimate public space and its absence translates into violence and terrorism.

The failure of public dialogue and democratic argumentation has always been replaced by what I would call "the personalization of politics" in the Middle East. Generally speaking, for the Middle Eastern mentality (with some exceptions) politics is not impersonal. This is due mainly to the fact that we are at a pre-modern state of politics in the Muslim Middle East. As you know, in pre-modern societies families, clans and tribal associations are more crucial than civil society. In most Islamic countries the idea of sovereignty coming from God has been completed by the idea of a temporal sovereignty coming from a king (as in Saudi Arabia), a military (as used to be in Zia ul-Haq's Pakistan) or the leader of a party (as was the case in Saddam's Iraq).

There is no way to create this public space where you can have a debate about public problems and have institutions that transcend traditional modes of discourse. We need to think how the Middle East can become more democratic. There have been multiple efforts to democratize the Middle East--military, political and intellectual--but they have all failed. Maybe the only two societies where you have this democratic effort are Iran and Turkey. I think the case of Israel is more complex because of the Palestinian problem. Israel still has the option to institute democracy for all, and if genuinely undertaken, this may well be the solution worth working toward for both the Jews and the Palestinians.

Avineri: The Israeli state has resolved many of its problems, but it is far from being a perfect democracy. It is a state with a majority of Jews but almost 20 percent of the population are Israeli Arabs. They are Arabs but they are also Israeli citizens who vote and participate in the political process. So even if Israel is by fact a Jewish state, it is nevertheless a state that recognizes minority rights. Arabic is the second official language of Israel. I'm not trying to idealize the situation of Arabs in Israel. A lot of things are wrong, but there is pluralism in Israel that we have nowhere else in the Middle East.

Nobody has a proven formula on the question of democratization in the Middle East. The whole point is to be able to create a vibrant civil society and not just to forge a constitution. Civil society has to come from within society. Some societies are more open to it, others less open. In a situation like the Middle East, ethnic and religious divergences and differences are not necessarily counterproductive. You can create a civil society, as was the case in Europe, by legitimizing various religious associations where people work together in a wider context. So the argument that in Iraq ethnicity is counterproductive to democracy is wrong. Ethnicity certainly creates problems; it can create a civil war. But we must not forget that in many cases in the Middle East elements of civil society are religious elements. It depends on the type of society we are talking about.

For example, the case of Lebanon is very different from the case of Syria. They are different countries with different traditions and with stronger and weaker elements of civil society in each of them. It really depends on those. I prefer not to have outsiders force their views on societies in the Middle East, but to emphasize elements of civil society in societies in the Middle East that are the cornerstones of democratization. We cannot have democracy without civil society in the Middle East. This is why among the post-communist countries, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic have been the most successful: all have had a tradition of civil society, whereas in Russia, things have been less successful because there is no strong tradition of civil society.

Jahanbegloo: I think Iran is today an important country for the future of democracy in the Middle East. Iran is taking its first steps in creating a significant public sphere and experiencing a public culture. The sociological actors of this publicizing process are the young Iranian population. The Iranian revolution played an important role in giving young Iranians a consciousness about the essence of the public sphere and the world affairs. Iran is certainly one of the rare countries in the Middle East where you have this experience of public sphere creation among the young population.

Turkey is another example, but with some differences. Turkey's road to democracy has not been easy, but I believe Turkey is becoming the first Muslim democracy in the Middle East. We have seen in Turkey a transition period from a one-party system to a multi-party system. It is not easy to create and maintain free institutions in a region of age-old authoritarian traditions, in a political culture where religion has been more concerned with obedience to legitimate authority than to the idea of citizenship. But despite the religious traditions and the autocratic past, the success of Turkish democracy, as compared with other countries of comparable background, traditions, and experience, has been remarkable. Turkey is a very important country for the European Union, but also for Iran, Syria and Iraq, because it is a bridge between the Middle East and Europe. If Turkey succeeds in its democratization process, it will be a model for many other countries in the Middle East.

If we put the Arabs, the Jews, the Iranians and the Turks next to each other, it would be difficult to say that the Middle East is a monolithic entity. The Middle East is a culturally uneven area but it is also very uneven in its varied processes of state formation. We have had in the past in the Middle East a wide range of cases of state-building such as progress toward liberal democracy and secularism in a country like Turkey, an Islamic revolution in Iran or the Baath Party in Iraq.

Several elements need to be pointed out here when we talk about the variety of political cultures in the Middle East. Here there are several approaches to state-building. We have political elements such as Islamism, pan-Arabism and secularism. Take the example of pan-Arabism. As you know, the main sponsors of pan-Arabism in the past 50 years in the Middle East have been state elites, not the Arab population; this is very important. Alternatively, Palestinian nationalism is the direct product of a "political conquest". As to the unity of the Arab world, we can say that since 1967 we have witnessed a further discrediting of pan-Arabism. As Egyptian power declined, Wahabi power rose in the Arab world.

Avineri: Let me go through the topics you discussed one by one. One of the elements that distinguish countries in the Middle East is continuity and discontinuity in history. Arab countries have all experienced a discontinuity in their political structures. Even in the case of a country like Turkey that tries to modernize and accept European values and institutions, you could see that there are clear links to the Ottoman tradition. I mean, you cannot understand the present Turkish state with all its elements without the Ottoman tradition of state-building. My guess is that this is also the case in Iran, that despite differences between the reign of the Pahlavi dynasty and the Iranian revolution, there is in both cases a lot of continuity with Iranian political culture, and there is a part of this culture that transcends whatever is being done at the moment in the name of political democratization.

Similarly it can be said about Israel to a very large degree that the political structure is not just an outcome of the political philosophy, ideology or utopia of Zionism, but also a reflection of the experience of Jewish communities in Europe and elsewhere. The Jewish community has always had self-governing autonomous structures. Rabbis were the teachers, not the leaders of the Jewish community. They were elected by the community; they could be and in many cases were fired by the community. So you have this sort of tradition that is an element of continuity.

Now, on the issue of pan-Arabism and Palestinian nationalism, I think first of all Arab nationalism is a political ideology. It is a nineteenth century phenomenon. Obviously, pan-Arabism is a sense of belonging to a community that speaks Arabic. Arab nationalism is a state-forming philosophy mainly influenced by the West. This is one of the reasons why the first people who thought of the idea of Arab nationalism were mainly Christian Arabs, not Muslim Arabs. For Christian Arabs, Arab nationalism was a way out of isolation and marginalization as Christians in a Muslim society. This was also the case with the Baath party of Michel Aflaq. The Baath ideology was very much influenced not only by European ideas in general but by specific European ideas such as fascism.

On the issue of the political role of pan-Arabism, being an Israeli and not an Arab, I would say very carefully that on the one hand Arab nationalism looks to European models, the unification of Germany and of Italy. This appears very clearly in the ideological writings of some of its founders. There have been attempts to create an Arab Middle East, something like a unified political structure, but there was no Arab Bismarck who could make it really work politically. Therefore you have the Arab League clearly expressing the gap between the ideology of Arabism and the reality of the separate Arab states.

Gamal Abdel Nasser's union of Egypt and Syria did not really work very well because of distinct local elements that remain strong. I do not see a situation in which a unified Arab state is going to emerge in the Middle East because basically this situation is very different from the various German states or Italian states in the nineteenth century. There is an inner tension in Arab nationalism between the idea of unity and the reality of variety in the Arab world, and I have a lot of sympathy for this variety.

One of the shifts after Nasser's death was from pan-Arabism to Egypt-ness, emphasized by Anwar Sadat and Husni Mubarak. Egypt is among the Arab countries with the longest tradition. Egypt is not exactly a modern nation-state but it is a coherent political entity, something that cannot be said about countries like Syria and Iraq that were created basically by French and British imperialism for reasons of oil export and delineating political borders. Egypt has a distinct history and therefore in the case of Egypt you can see a distinction between Arab qawmiya and Egyptian watania, between pan-Arab nationalism and specific Egyptian nationalism. I think Egyptian culture is very conscious of the fact that Egypt is an important part of the Arab world and certainly the strongest Arab country in cultural and political terms. But Egyptians are also very alert to the fact that they are distinct from other Arab countries.

Jahanbegloo: As you correctly noted, when we talk about Arab nationalism we have to distinguish between what I would call a "culture-centered identity" and a "political-centered identity". On the one hand, you have intellectuals who talk about Arab identity only in cultural terms, but do not look at it as an ideology and do not try to find ideological solutions for it as Nasser did. On the other hand, you have an ideological search for unity and some kind of a political-centered Arab identity that from my point of view has been a total failure in the Middle East. Saddam Hussein and Gamal Abdel Nasser were both looking for this political and ideological solution, but they both failed. Perhaps one of the reasons for this failure was that Arab nationalism has always been negatively defined. In other words, Arab nationalism has always been defined against a colonial force and a colonial conquest. Based on a post-colonial psychology, it has tried to present itself as anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist, anti-British, anti-French, etc. It has tried to formulate an entity for itself in a negative way by rejecting the "other" and not by trying to have a national enterprise on its own. Therefore, each time that we see a revival of Arab identity and Arab nationalism it is accompanied by a lot of doubts. The first question that comes to mind is: "How on earth can all these different Arab populations in the Middle East get together?"

Avineri: I think you are right, but again there is an interesting comparison with European history. The move from cultural nationalism to political nationalism has also characterized European nationalism. Nineteenth century European nationalism started with cultural nationalism. As you know, Herder, who was so crucial, never spoke about a German or a Polish or a Slavic state, but about the specific value of different cultures that are related to language, history and, up to a certain point, religion. But in the cases of Germany and Italy, which were mentioned earlier, there was a successful switch from the cultural to the political.

In the Arab case this switch from cultural to political failed. There is obviously an Arab unifying culture, but some of the gaps are still big. You can say that a country like Saudi Arabia is only partially part of the Arab culture because of the Wahabi tradition. So even on the cultural level this unity is much more notional or virtual than real. I'm not trying at all to minimize it or to say it doesn't exist, but even the cultural success of Arab unity until now has been relatively limited and has not been a total success. It has been successful in what one could call the secular Arab regimes.

Jahanbegloo: This is exactly what I wanted to say. I also agree that Wahabism is the complete opposite of the pan-Arab nationalist ideology and I agree with Fouad Ajami when he talks about "broken Arab predicaments" and says that the Arab world is "a defeated civilization". The Arab world is defeated mainly because you have elements like Wahabism that have created al-Qaeda and because the Islamic fundamentalist element in Arab civilization is stubbornly containing all democratic experiences in Arab countries.

Avineri: There may be another element. Perhaps one of the predicaments of Arab political culture and Arab state-building is the historical memory of a glorious past. Arabs look back to an idealistic past and they idealize it without asking what went wrong. As you said, there is a negative logic that looks for the "other" as being responsible. If something went wrong, it is because of the imperialist forces, Zionism, etc. It is a way of avoiding the sort of introspection one needs to have. Instead of that there is a return to a Golden Age of Islam.

Jahanbegloo: As you said, most of the Arab intellectuals, when they create their utopia, are looking for a golden age: the glorious time of Islam, of the Abassids, of Baghdad. For some, Arab unity is a way of recreating the Golden Age of Islamic civilization in modern times. But this brings us to a new problem: modernization in the Middle East. In the Middle East in general and in Muslim societies in particular, modernization has not always necessarily involved Islam. We can talk about "modernization against Islam" as in the case of Kemalism in Turkey. In other words, there can be two ways of modernization and state-building in the Middle East: one with Islam and one based on secular nationalism. Of course, given these distinctions I think we can say that the impact of modernization in the Middle East has been very uneven.

Avineri: There is another aspect to this problem. Islam has not gone historically through reformation and modernization in the past and the paradox is that it is going through it now in two very different ways. One is in Turkey, with the impact of secular modernizing state-building. In order to survive, Islam in Turkey had to change; when you look at the Islamic party, the AK party in Turkey, you see that it is trying to create a middle way between traditional Islam and modern life within a society that is constitutionally and ideologically secular. This is something other Muslim societies have not faced.

Probably something similar is happening in Iran in a different way. You have in Iran the first modern Islamic state. In Iran you have mediation between modernity and Islam. You are maybe institutionalizing traditional Islam but you are doing so within modern structures like parliament and elections. These are not traditional Islamic institutions but they are being adapted to Islam and Islam is integrated into them. This is very different from traditional Islam. It is also very different from a secular democracy. I think this experience is unique in Iran; one should look at it as a way to overcome the gap between religious tradition and modernity. Christianity was able to survive in the West because it went through this sort of modernization.

Jahanbegloo: The comparison between Iran and Turkey is very interesting, but I think there is a difference between the two. I'm sure you're familiar with it. In the case of Iran, you have secularization of the public space from the bottom up. This is not secularization by the state, it's done by the Iranian public sphere. In the case of Turkey, you have secularism of the public space from the top down. There is no intervention from the Turkish public sphere. Mustafa Kemal and the Young Turks are the central actors of modernization in Turkey. Because Kemalism represents an autocratic secularization from the top down, in some respects the Turkish experience may not be a true model for the rest of the Middle East, especially because since the rise to power of the AK party they have had to follow this line of secularization in the public space. Of course, Erdogan and Gul are trying to stay faithful both to their Islamic roots and modern political patterns in Turkey.

Avineri: Here we may disagree. I think there are limits to the Turkish experience and the limits are a part of an historical complex. It is possible to create a sort of modernized Islam in Turkey precisely because it is distinct from the state tradition. The state tradition is on the one hand Ottoman and on the other Kemalist. It is much more difficult to do this in Arab societies where the political tradition is deeply imbued with religion and nationalism. I'm not talking about the formal religion of state, but rather about historical traditions. In Turkey you have two traditions and therefore they can co-exist. In the Arab world there is basically one tradition, the tradition of Arabism, with which the tradition of Islam overlaps considerably.

Perhaps Egypt is a different case because it has a pharaonic tradition. It is no accident that Mubarak is called pharaoh. As you know there is a tradition of state-building in Egypt that precedes and has survived Islam and has its own institutional and normative criteria. Kemalism also came at the end of almost a century of Ottoman attempts of modernization. It came from within, not from the outside. The Tanzimat, the attempt to create a civil code different from the Sharia, was done by very autocratic Ottoman sultans. So when the Turks say today that they are trying to enter the European Union, I see this as a culmination of 150 years of Turkish history and as an attempt to modernize Turkey that didn't start with Kemalism. The Tanzimat was able to generate internal reform within the structures of the Ottoman empire. The Ottomans did not save the empire because they created a lot of conflict between Muslim and non-Muslim populations and between the Turks and the Arabs, especially after the Young Turk revolution. But this attempt at modernization came from within and was not imposed from the outside.

Jahanbegloo: This is very true. But when we take the case of the Arab countries we see that in contemporary Arab societies Islam has been simply undervalued. Perhaps one should recall that the relaxing of Islam in Middle Eastern societies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did not result in the gradual replacement of religious morality by a social morality and by the collapse of the religious code in political life. The experience of secularization of the public space in countries like Iran and Turkey has not been repeated in Arab countries.

The Turkish state followed a different path from the Islamic state in Iran. It aggressively moved in the opposite direction--westernization of society and its culture. The media, businesses, and the state worked together to secularize traditional society. Helped by a powerful military and guided by the desire to join the European Union, Turkey made all necessary changes and transformed the appearance of Turkish society.

But despite the difference between the two states, both Turkish and Iranian societies are trying to build a western utopia in non-western societies. Practically three decades after its creation, the effort to build an anti-western society in Iran is energizing a creative movement for its antithesis: a society based on a huge curiosity for the outside world. The young people of Iran are embracing global values for their forbidden fruit. But they are also asking new questions about the traditions in the Middle East. As in the case of the Turks, Iranians are also the crusaders of change in the Middle East.

Ramin Jahanbegloo holds a Rajni Kothari Chair in Democracy at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi, India. His books include The Clash of Intolerances, Conversations with Isaiah Berlin, Gandhi: aux Sources de la Nonviolence, and Iran: Between Tradition and Modernity. This dialogue took place in 2005. Subsequently, Jahanbegloo was held in solitary confinement for 125 days in Evin prison, Tehran.

Shlomo Avineri is professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His books include The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx, Hegel's Theory of the Modern State, and The Making of Modern Zionism. Jahanbegloo and Avineri are collaborating on a book of reflections on the Middle East.


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