Last week; I visited Casablanca to attend the second symposium of the Arab-American Dialogue. I was in the company of many dear friends who are amongst the brightest of Arab intellectuals, and a distinguished group of American politicians and intellectuals who belong to the Conservatives (however, probably not the neo-conservatives).
I took part in the first symposium that was held in May of last year in Malta. Back then, the dialogue was general and lacked intricacy. In addition, there were many obstacles in the way of understanding. Thus, the conclusion of that meeting was limited. The second symposium however, took place under different conditions. Almost the same participants were there with the exception of some Syrian figures, and distinguished participants from Morocco and Saudi Arabia who had not attended in Malta, participated in the conference of Casablanca.
The American-based Values Institute, which organized the symposium in cooperation with King Abdel Aziz Institute for Studies in Casablanca, picked an important and pertinent topic for the symposium that was problems of religion and politics in the American and the Arab contexts. My goal here will not be to present a review of the symposium but rather to highlight some of the main issues that captured the interest of the participants. Three main issues were particularly important, each of which I will refer to briefly.
The first issue was concerned with the nature and source of the political legitimacy in both the American and the Arab contexts, which is directly related to the issue of democracy in terms of concepts and practices. The major twofold-question that was posed to us by the American participants was: has the Arab political thought that is based on Islamic religious thinking been able to absorb modern liberal values, and whether this thought has disposed of the dangers of bigotry and despotism associated with the medieval totalitarianism and theocracy?
The dialogue centered on the two versions of Islamic political thought: the classical, (the rules of Caliphate in medieval Islamic literature) and modern political Islam, which is based on the notion of "Divine Authority" or Hakimmiyya. The impacts of those two versions on the principles of "The Nation”s Sovereignty," individual liberty, and the social contract was discussed.
It was clear that the American party could not envisage the concept of political legitimacy outside the Western Christian post-medieval experiences. The Arab participants exerted much effort to clarify that both versions of Islamic political thought (the classical and modern) were not necessarily binding and should be largely seen as historical. They emphasized that the question of governance and authority in Islam are mostly issues that belong to the non-dogmatic field of Jurisprudence. This meant that they are subject to Ijtihad and re-consideration.
The second issue was reverse. The Arab participants questioned the religious tendencies of the American society despite that officially it is declared a secular state. They focused on the strength of religious symbolism in that society, as well as the power of the religious institutions. The French 18th century intellectual, Alexis De Toqueville, had noted this paradox in his book, "The American Democracy." He explained the link between American religious tendency and the pattern of liberalism sustained in a society that had been founded on religious diversity right from the start.
What was interesting was that many of the American participants of the symposium, including prominent professors of law and political science, strongly defended the pattern of "Religious Democracy" that is applicable in the United States. They favorably compared it to the European democratic tradition (especially of France).
Meanwhile, some Arabs defended the idea of "Islamic Laicism" which they considered as the most appropriate notion to Islam”s position on politics as an issue that preserves the nation”s interests and rights. However, it seems that our American colleagues (some of whom play an influential role in the American decision making process) failed to respond objectively and precisely to the fears of their Arab partners concerning the role of Christian Fundamentalism in American political decision-making. This fear has been particularly strong during the Presidency of G.W. Bush who does not conceal his religious belonging, or its impact on his political stands.
The third question was related to what the Americans desire to be a political laboratory for the whole region in terms of political reform that is the model of Iraq. The Arab participants openly and strongly criticized the mistakes of the occupation forces and administration in Iraq. With the exception of some die-hard neo-conservatives, nobody would dare suggest Iraq as a model for the region, as what it exemplifies is the swinging between autocratic despotism, ethno-religious strife, and territorial division.
Some participants attempted to argue that the United States perhaps evaluates its actions in Iraq positively, despite the losses it has incurred, because it has so far succeeded to increase tensions between the Shia on one hand and Sunni fundamentalists on the other. It thus created a factional reality that is burning so much so that it has even prevented Iran from integrating and cooperating with the Sunni regions.
The conclusion is that even though the open and serious symposium was useful with respect to bringing the quintessential concerns to the fore (concerns that equally preoccupy the American and the Arab intelligentsia), the United States has actually become an active player from within the Arab system itself due to its involvement in Iraq.