Asharq Al-awsat English Middle-east and International News and Opinion from Asharq Al-awsat Newspaper

The ‘Arab Liberal’ as an Almost Impossible Thing

The ‘Arab Liberal’ as an Almost Impossible Thing

Monday, 13 June, 2022 - 17:00

The talk about “Arab Liberalism” and “Arab Liberals” continues to pose far more questions than provide answers.

Since John Locke in the seventeenth century, Liberal consciousness has been tied to the presence and role of the individual. The primary tenet of any definition of Liberalism was the expansion of individual freedoms at the expense of the state and its powers. We say nothing new when we say that the individual, in the Arab world, is a project with a long way to go whose hindrances continue to increase in line with the expansion of the space occupied by identities.

Still, it seems that the matter is more complicated.

Indeed, we have seen the emergence of Liberal thinkers who accept the idea of replacing the individual with the “community” where individualism is weak, as is the case in our part of the world. Expanding the scope of freedoms granted to communities, sectarian, ethnic or otherwise, at the expense of the state, thereby becomes the demand.

Nevertheless, this replacement is not a simple one. That is because communities, whose raison d’etre is inherited and irrational, are not only different from individuals but they are different from even political and ideological communities, which come together primarily around shared interests and ideas.

In other words, those indigenous groups cannot be properly understood in isolation of their deep-rooted propensity for self-affirmation, by definition vis-à-vis the state and groups that are both similar to them and in competition with them. This state of affairs leaves political and social ties constantly on the cusp of breaking down into civil strife.

On the other hand, however, if those communities’ tendency to infringe on the individual is greater and they pose a graver threat than the state, whereby the state should not be undermined in their favor, demanding that these communities dissolve themselves - that is, to be something different to what they have chosen - would not be a Liberal position in any sense of the word. Such a course of action, no matter how hard its proponents try to present themselves as modern or progressive, would be purely tyrannical.

Seeking the example of the religious wars in Europe, which didn’t prevent the eventual emergence of Liberalism, won’t help make the situation any less untenable. The fact is that what made these wars, at least in John Locke’s experience with England’s religious war, an immediate cause of the emergence of Liberalism, is precisely the fact that they were wars of competing ideas and interests, even if they took the guise of religious (Catholic and Protestant) conflicts. This renders them qualitatively different from communal wars, in which ideas and interests take the back seat while the ties of kinship, close and extended, are more prominent.

That is why we see that countries with a pattern somewhere in between, i.e., countries whose stage of development lies somewhere between the West and the Third World, often tarry on their path to overcoming their civil conflicts, while the success of their settlements remains far from assured. This is true, for example, of the Dayton Agreement that ended the conflict in Bosnia in 1995 and the Good Friday Agreement that ended the conflict in Northern Ireland in 1998.

In our case, establishing long-term stability, the basic prerequisite for the emergence of any liberal consciousness, remains very far-fetched. Indeed, our countries offer examples to this point that it would be laughable, or more likely lamentable, to ignore.

The internal fragility that this entails is complemented and in solidarity with two factors, neither of which can be of benefit to Liberalism and its flourishing:

First, we have the foreign actors, with their ideas and maybe their policies, and sometimes through direct interventions, taking on the task of filling the void left by that internal hollowness. That would turn Liberals into a marginal, outsider force or an accessory to NGOs and their oversimplified agendas.

Second, there is the role of wars and of causes tied to destinies, which can always kidnap questions of freedom and dissipate them - keeping in mind that the expansion of the scope of this factor is usually a result of camouflaging our internal fragility and the failures that ensue from it.

In other words, it becomes impossible for the Liberal to exist politically as a liberal: he must either tie himself to the authorities in the face of a group or community that frightens and persecutes him, or censors him in a manner he deems more severe than that of the authoritarians in power - at which point he would betray his Liberalism by blending it with a conservative position - or he must tie himself to a group or community against the political power, thereby betraying his Liberalism by blending it with populism. In terms of his theoretical references, at best, he would identify far more with Raymond Aron’s "Cold War Liberalism" than he would with Hannah Arendt’s radical Liberalism of "councils."

Matters become worse once we add what we all know about the weakness of the social group that carries the banner of Liberalism, that is, the bourgeoisie, whose members are either officially "appointed" by the political authorities or "shuttle traders," neither of whom can be envisioned playing a role in making history.

Another aggravating factor is the absence of a national consensus, even a bare minimum consensus, whether it is over how to define the "nation," the "enemy," or "change."

This general state of affairs leaves us grounded in pre-ideological time, which cannot be addressed by any ideology, be it Liberalism or any other. Here, we find the source of this historical pessimism and the feeling that a dead-end awaits us at the end of the tunnel, or perhaps at its beginning.

As for the argument governed by a simplistic universalist tendency which holds that what works there (in Europe) works here (in the Middle East), it does not rebuke the cynical view that what works there does not work here: in the former, the specter of the neo-conservatives and their experience in Iraq looms, while the latter brings Saddam Hussein to mind.

In all likelihood, the missing element that could pave the way for what holds “there” being applicable “here” is a push within our societies toward an ideological (“European”) stage, that is, laying the foundations for a transition to democracy and Liberalism through a long struggle against sectarian and kinship based solidarities, tyranny, and fateful causes of all sorts.

Other opinion articles

Editor Picks