“Renaissance of the Dark Ages”: Does Islam need Enlightenment?

Sadiq al-Azm when receiving the Goethe Medal in Weimar (Foto: © Maik Schuck)

unique met with renowned Syrian philosopher Sadiq al-Azm and talked with him about individual strife for freedom, the demise of the political left and perspectives of political reform in the Middle East.

by gouze

Scholar and philosopher Sadiq al-Azm is considered one of the most important Arabic intellectuals of our time. He was awarded the Goethe Medal by the Goethe-Institut in 2015 to honour his enduring commitment for secularisation and democratisation in Arab societies. Al-Azm and his wife fled from Syria in 2012 and have been granted asylum in Germany since.
He assesses that the current instability in the Middle East is not just the short-term consequence of authoritarian rule and foreign military interventions in the second half of the 20th century, but an identity crisis. The Arab countries have suffered two severe defeats by Israel. The first when the Jewish state was founded and the second when Israel emerged victorious from the Six-Day War.

unique: How did defeats and failings in foreign policies drive the society toward fundamentalist Islam?
al-Azm: Starting in the 1950s, the Arab countries started social and political reforms, but without changing their approach to religious fundamental beliefs. After the defeat in the Six-Day War, however, all these programs, ideas, ideals and policies that were formulated before collapsed. And in this vacuum of societal options a fundamental approach of Islam arose. In a moment like that, in our society, people turn to God. And this is also partly why in the Arab Spring, when the difficult repressions started in Syria, people turned to God. The turn to God is not a personal one, it is communal, it is collective: It’s not that you feel that God is calling you in – you go and you make connections with him. But this becomes a collective commitment. These two actions and movements in society were formed solely on religious grounds.

During the last quarter of the 20th century the political landscape in the Arab World looked absolutely dismal. Resurgent political fundamentalist Islam turned, in desperation, viciously violent against its own states, societies and economies, declaring them “apostate” and waged jihad in order to re-Islamize these “fallen” states and societies.

Despite four Israelian-Palestinian wars: could Israel be a poster boy for democracy and enlightenment traditions in the Middle East?
Very often, this is a love-hate-relationship, but it‘s more dialectical. Of course, I know Palestinians very well, I worked with them, with PLO for many years and so on. Deep down there is also an admiration, for the way the Israelis manage their society… I know this from personal experiences, from writings, from literature. Deep down the Palestinians wish that someday, they can manage a life and a society without corruption. Currently this is impossible in an Arab country. On the surface there is animosity and antagonism and so on. But then again the people want to be free. And because the Israelis regard themselves as free, it doesn’t mean that you say: ‘Okay, down with freedom’. You say: ‘I also want the same for myself’.

After the Arab nations were defeated in the Six-Day War, al-Azm published Self-Criticism After the Defeat in 1968 and one year later The Critique of Religious Thought criticising the role of religious dogma in society and politics. He was subsequently imprisoned by the Lebanese government for the crime of “inciting sectarianism.”

You think all people, despite their cultural backgrounds, strive towards individual freedom?
When people speak about equality and speak about integrity and all the Enlightenment values, this was already hidden in their guts. And at first it was covered – the Arab Spring removed the lid and it came out. These are things which interact over a period of time. Until a moment comes when they erupt.

A coverage in Le Monde diplomatique stated that a good proportion of Islamic States’ fighters are disillusioned former protesters from the Arabic Spring.
It‘s not quite accurate. What actually happened after the end of the Cold War and the end of the Soviet Union is the break-up of the Arab left into three parties: The main bulk of them pursued values of a civil society, where they were also committed to establish socialist values – this failed. The next values in the line of defence are the bourgeois values of the French Revolution, the Enlightenment and so on. So they defend those now.
A small fraction of the left preferred to continue the fights from the Cold War against imperialism and the West in general. And because back then those who were against the West were the islamists, this fraction said ‘We join the Islamists. Al-Qaeda is fighting America – so we join Al-Qaeda’. These people are not so much interested in fighting for democracy or something like that, rather then continuing the old fight with new allies.

Al-Azm promotes the modernisation of Islam under the guidance of Enlightenment traditions. Yet he has come to the sobering assessment that the Arab countries are degrading into medieval societies. He has subsequently dubbed this process “the Renaissance of the Dark Ages”.
Al-Azm generally refuses the notion of ideological colonialism when he argues that the Charter of Human Rights is a universal historical paradigm comprising and affirming such allied values, ideals and practices as human and civil rights, separation of state and religion, independent judiciary, equality before the law etc. To him the Enlightenment has become a common human good and the most important resource for liberation and emancipation initiatives everywhere and anytime.

You have proposed that Enlightenment is not a kind of Western cultural property, but a unique global good. A pool of intellectual and civil traditions, from which people can take ideas and bring them to their own country. Some European left-wingers might actually accuse you of being a proponent of ideological neocolonialism.
Well, my answer for the people who say that is: ‘Come live under Saddam Hussein. Come and live under Assad for a while.’ And then let‘s see what they’d say and how they‘d react. There is something in this argument, something very condescending: ‘We enjoy these things, but these things are not for the others,’ and the pretext of that is that everyone has their own values, everyone has their own culture and that let them stay where they are. The people from the left who make these accusations, – given the military dictatorship and given the tyranny of Sharia law – I would like to ask them: ‘What should we demand? What should we ask for? Is there anything – except the values that came out of the Enlightenment or the Charter of Human Rights – that has become very important for the civil society movements?’ What we live under, they, the left-wingers, would not accept for themselves.

You reject the notion that there has to be a distinct Islamic Enlightenment for Islam to be reformed?
Isn‘t it possible to learn from earlier experiences, to benefit from what other cultures have achieved? Why can‘t I, in Syria, benefit from ideas and concepts that originated in Europe? When the Arab Spring started, all these people on the Tahir square in Cairo were speaking about equality, about integrity, dignity, democracy, fair elections, government accountability and so on. They were doing this because they were caught between a military dictatorship, oppression and an Islamist opposition that is going to apply Sharia law – we’ve been shown by ISIS what Sharia law looks like. So, this road of Enlightenment seems to be the only way out of the impasse or the deadlock between military dictatorship and the dictatorship of theocracy.

Al-Azm has continuously spoken up and published works defending intellectual freedom, two of them were The Notion of Prohibition: Salman Rushdie and the Reality of Literature and A Post-Prohibition Doctrine after the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. His books are banned widely throughout the Middle East. His unwavering protest landed him on a blacklist of the Jordanian monarchy, and led to his exclusions from several universities and journals.

Have you given up hope to return to Syria?
Well, I am not very hopeful that I will be able to return to Syria. If the military dictatorship continues, of course, I am condemned… And if the Islamists come, I am also damned. So, unless a tolerant, different kind of Syria emerges – personally, I’m out.

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