Here is an English version of my latest Arabic article published in Al-Hurra
( Tunisian women- via Al-Hurra)
Although attempts to liberalise Islamic discourse have been ongoing for centuries, they have failed to find sustainable general acceptance in Muslim societies. Liberal Islam is a non-literal interpretation of Islamic texts that maintains the spirit and goal of the texts but rejects dogma and regression. The latest call by Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi for full gender equality is one of the latest examples of efforts to liberalise Islamic discourse. However, the widespread outrage with which President Essebsi’s proposal was met sums up the extent of the opposition to liberalisation and the challenges liberal Muslims face. Ironically, however, it is not only the stubborn rejection of liberalism by mainstream Muslims that serves as an obstacle to liberal thought, but also the way in which liberals are handling such rejection – and how they are clinging to traditional dogma.
Liberals are facing rejection on a number of fronts – from radical preachers such as Turkey-based Egyptian preacher Wagdy Ghoneim, who insulted Essebsi, and labelled him as an infidel, to mainstream Islamic Institutions such as Egypt’s Al-Azhar, who formally rejected Essebsi’s proposal.
Among the tsunami of comments on social media that formed the verbal backlash to Essebsi’s initiative, I was particularly struck by those reportedly made live in Qatar by the radical leader of Egypt’s Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, Assem Abdel-Maged. On his Facebook page, Abdel Maged unsurprisingly attacked Essebsi, saying he deserves all that Wagdy Ghoneim said about him. The rest of the post, together with a series of other posts, however, is more interesting. Abdel Maged admitted that labelling Essebsi and others as “infidels” could provoke negative responses. He also confessed that the call for the implementation of Sharia is not as popular as it was in the 70s and 80s, and added that Islamists risk another defeat if they repeat past policies.
More interestingly, Abdel Maged proposed that Islamists should focus on winning and changing the Muslim public, instead of directly attacking what he described as “enemies of the Ummah.” Abdel Maged’s posts reflect a deeper sense of defeat among the Islamist camp, especially after their failure to remain in power after the Arab uprisings. Precisely why he suggested a tactical shift in Islamist discourse is to win back ordinary Muslims.
But while Islamists like Abdel Maged are reflecting on their own tactics, liberals, on the other hand, have failed to do likewise. Liberal intellectuals need to tackle uncomfortable questions such as: Why is the weary public that rejects radical Islamism is so reluctant to swing towards liberal Islamic thoughts and is still clinging to Al-Azhar’s traditional dogma?
The answer is threefold: first, Liberal Muslims fail to appreciate the depth of fear among the public of losing their identity. Second, liberals are using the wrong tactics in their battle against dogma. Third, despite the noticeable dip in the popularity of the Islamist camp, liberals do not genuinely believe in their own ability to win.
The vocal rejection of calls for gender equality does not necessarily reflect a dominance of orthodox interpretations of Islamic texts; it indicates, instead, a growing sense of insecurity and fear among the wider pious Muslim population of losing their own identity in the face of what they perceive as a global cultural invasion. “What’s next after gender equality?” Gay marriage? Banning the Hijab? Amidst that religious anxiety, a literal interpretation of sacred texts becomes comfort food for thoughts that help Muslims to settle their fear.
Within such a climate, liberal Muslims’ attempts to counter literalism with literalism is frankly futile. It is pointless to address a weary public by reciting verses of the Quran or confronting Al-Azhar scholars. Such tactics are doomed to failure and will only trigger reflexive responses in defence of Al-Azhar. It will also create more confusion among many Muslims, forcing them into a bunker mentality that would ultimately lead to more dogma and rigidity.
Instead, liberals should focus on allaying the public fear of liberalism. They have to reassure ordinary Muslims that liberalism seeks neither to dominate Islam, nor spread decadence. The core message of liberals should be the creation of a more tolerant society, in which all shades of Muslims exist under a wide, tolerant umbrella. Such a diverse society has a better chance of maintaining its identity and resist cultural invasion. When pious Muslims start to see liberalism as a non-threatening concept, they will embrace it, or at least stop rejecting those who embrace it.
More importantly, liberal Muslims lack a belief in their own ability to win the battle of ideas. Since the brutal murder of Egyptian liberal thinker Farag Fouda, liberals have sunk into a defeatist mood. Unlike Fouda, few Muslim liberals genuinely believe that liberalism will prevail in the Muslim world; some of them even behave as if liberalism is a sin they have to apologise for. It is no surprise that many ordinary Muslims refuse to embrace lacklustre liberals and would rather fall for the overly confident dogmatic preachers.
It may be hard to agree with Assem Abdel Maged, but he is right in pointing out that the real battle is not between literal versus liberal interpretations of Islam. The real battle is to win the hearts and minds of the wider Muslim public. For liberals to win such a battle they have to change their tactics, and clarify their message; but first, they have to believe in their own victory, because no one will believe them otherwise.