I had previously written about the ordeal of Saudi liberals in comparison to their counterparts in the Arab Gulf region and pointed out their preoccupation with issues such as literary modernity, trends of criticism and new linguistics research instead of engaging in dilemmas of intellectual and communal modernization, which are the real stakes of the current era.
What emerged from this topic was the fatwa [religious ruling] issued by Sheikh Saleh al-Fawzan in which he denounced liberalism and described all adherents of liberalism as disbelievers. Such a fact added yet another ordeal to this group of people, despite the fact that none of the advocates of Saudi liberal thought have adopted secularism or challenged the legitimacy of the Islamic state. Thus the inevitable question in this regard is what is the source of this strange edict?
The same thing had happened in Kuwait in the midst of a severe conflict between Salafist and liberal trends on positions of influence, opinion and decision making. Thus, denouncing others as infidels [takfir] had become one of the tools of political and ideological conflict. Indeed, until recently, liberalism did not provoke rejection or disapprobation however it gradually shifted into secularism among some segments of Islamists, especially in Gulf areas.
It is somewhat paradoxical that the dramatic wave of hostility against liberalism was shaped in the 1960s and 1970s in the writings of Arab leftists including Marxists and socialist nationalists. Currently, the party entitled with antagonizing liberalism, as quite clear in their discourse, is “Salafist Islamists”. Undoubtedly, the background of hostility against liberals in those two cases is different. Arab leftists regarded liberalism in the light of the capitalist economic pattern and in terms of standards of the ongoing socialist conflict between the two camps in the east and west. As for the Islamic “Salafist” view, liberalism was regarded from a perspective of religious intellectualism, i.e. being the communal system that embodies values of modernity in its theoretical and behavioural aspects. Leftists were not in conflict with this intellectual infrastructure, its deep theoretical base in which they also believe; in fact the leftist trend rejected some of the wordings and historic embodiments of liberalism that it considered circumstantial and prone to renunciation.
In his first books that were introduced in the late 1960s, prominent Moroccan thinker Abdullah al Erwi argued that Arab society is in need of developing liberal values and assimilating them so as to be qualified to enter the phase of socialism that cannot be imported mechanically.
Some of the writings of Arab Marxists were influenced by the Marxist Italian school of thought and suggested the need to provide a liberal review of Marxism in view of the philosophy of the Communist charter as an extension of European enlightenment and the modernization current in contrast to all the oligarchic authoritarian experiences that raised the slogan of “dictatorship of the proletariat ” and the one-party system.
When the Marxist ideology collapsed, Arab leftists had adopted the same discourse as Marxist formations in Europe which in turn shifted into patterns of democratic Socialist organizations that clung to liberal concepts and values.
As for fundamentalist Salafist trends, liberalism was understood from two perspectives and this was evident through the fatwa of Sheikh Fawzan. The first of these two perspectives is advocating freedom without control which results in the demolition of religion and the westernization of society. The other perspective is that liberalism was regarded as though it aims to eliminate the Islamic reference in public affairs and impose secularism that contradicts the comprehensiveness of Islam.
If it is true that freedom is the central concept of the intellectual system and liberal values and that the separation between religious and political institutions is part of its requirements, it would be wrong to confine liberalism to secularization and the degeneration of religious and ethical controls.
The notion of freedom means, in fact, the liberation of consciousness and will which are both represented in an inherent Islamic principle that was clear in the Quranic verse that reads, “There is no compulsion in religion” [2:256]. As for personal and collective freedoms, such issue is governed by the communal patterns that adapt such concepts according to different cultural and civilization characteristics. The issue here is not about the relationship between Islam and liberalism but rather about controlling the backgrounds of conflict between liberals and fanatic Islamists; in some countries such clash had extended to courts and had become the core of a war of denouncing others as disbelievers, which is extremely dangerous for religious and social fabric.
What seems to be a religious clash is in fact a manifestation of a perplexed political conflict. This is because advocates of liberalism in the Arab world “with the exception of isolated extremist groups,” do not call for the abolition of centralism of religion in public life and do not adopt westernized secular theses. Analysis and meditation suggest that the current clash revolves around three main stakes which are:
1- The heritage front and their interpretations: there is no doubt that this front is the severest of all stakes as it relates to the religious and cultural capital that is usually monopolized by “fanatic” Salafists, and which they deny others from reaching. Thus it is only natural that they regard the liberal modernizing trend of heritage from a conciliatory inclusive approach with distrust and resentment as opposed to strategies of estrangement and separation, which were adopted by the liberal secular tradition at the beginning and middle of the last century.
2- The communal traditions front: This is where the chauvinistic trend stands in opposition of all social modernization efforts and regards them as mere imitation of the West and cultural invasion that is dangerous to the “purity” of society and its “identity”.
It is clear that this trend suffers nowadays from an acute isolation crisis towards requirements of adaptation with objective determinants of the second wave of modernism. We see this trend swinging between enthusiasm for modern consumption of modern communication techniques on one hand and a sense of fear for the “originality” of society and its insusceptibility to risks of openness that is not liable to restriction or containment.
What they have missed is that social dynamism produces its own mechanisms and tools of adjustment, and forces the authority of interpretation to cope with these determinants. In other words, the context in its own entails an interpretative energy that imposes itself on the interpreter no matter how far he seeks to achieve commonality with the text and sticking to what he considers its original connotation.
3- The political front: this is where traditional fanatic currents clash with two opponents, firstly emerging economic and social forces that were produced by decades of institutional and social modernization, and secondly political forces that call for opening up the political arena and adopting a pluralistic democratic pattern. While often succeeding in attaining popular representation as in experiences of democratic openness, they end up in a state of isolation and failure owing to their inability to deal with the determinants of a diverse political field. Thus the denouncing of others as non-believers becomes a tool for political conflicts yet camouflages itself with a fake religious front.