The Arab world is a house with no roof

Hisham Melhem
Hisham Melhem

Hisham Melhem

By : Hisham Melhem

Generations after political emancipation from direct colonial rule and overt western influence, the quest for genuine political independence, democratization and cultural authenticity in many majority Arab states is still unfulfilled. The abject failures of decades of experimentation with controlled liberalization, Arab and local nationalisms, and Arab socialism in the 1950’s and 60’s and with Political Islam in its various forms since the 1967 defeat in the war with Israel, were shockingly confirmed by the Arab uprisings of recent years.

The end of colonial rule was the beginning of the era of strong men, usually lower ranking military officers (Nasser in Egypt, Qaddafi in Libya), and the rise of repressive, chauvinistic nationalisms (especially the Baath in Syria and Iraq). The Islamist movements, beginning with the oldest one, the Muslim Brotherhood (established in Egypt in 1928) and the movements it spawned in subsequent decades shared the same illiberal characteristics of the Arab Nationalists and Socialists. In fact illiberal governance is the thread that connects that amorphous universe we call the Arab world.


The Arab world is a house of many mansions. But it is very difficult for most of its inhabitants to admit that they live in a house with no roof. The uprisings have shown that the walls of all the mansions have deep cracks. It took generations to bring the Arabs to this nadir, and it will take decades to fix the walls and build a new roof, assuming that the house can be saved from total collapse. In this house of many mansions, the mostly Sunni Islamists are, and will likely to remain in the foreseeable future the dominant political force.

The Arab world is a house of many mansions. But it is very difficult for most of its inhabitants to admit that they live in a house with no roof

Hisham Melhem

The Islamists, who claim that they are the only authentic political force in the Arab world, are of different stripes, but these differences are not profound. They have shaped the course of all the Arab uprisings; they showed most maturity through Ennahda Party in Tunisia, less so with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, (whose misrule did not warrant the bloody crackdown that befell them). The Islamists fielded the militias that violently toppled Qaddafi in Libya, and they constitute a huge spectrum of dizzying militant groups trying to overthrow the Assad regime in Syria, when they are not fighting among themselves. The Islamists are active above ground and underground throughout the Arab world. The dominant Islamists in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen are Shiites or off-shoot of Shiism, sponsored by Iran. The combatants in these majority Arab states are Islamists of all stripes. The illiberalism all of these Islamists share may not be identical, but most don’t tolerate liberal education, gender equality, full equal rights to minorities, and they usually reduce democracy to majoritarian rule.

Elusive reform

Judging by the constellation of Islamist movements and groups in the Middle East, and given that they find themselves engaged in life and death struggles, and the absence of institutional structures that allows scholars the freedom to debate Islamic themes and reforms, it is difficult to see any time soon, the emergence of a moderate political Islam reconciled with the imperatives of modernity and liberalism that we associate with modern civil states. But this should not be seen as a call to surrender. In the last few decades many Arab scholars and Muslim reformers challenged the dogmas of both the political and religious authorities pushing for reform and a different Muslim hermeneutics and some of them paid the ultimate price, or ended up in exile or in prison.

Some had hoped that Muslim communities in Europe and North America would provide the intellectual vigor needed to spark serious critical self-examination in Muslim societies or Muslim communities in the west; but the terror acts committed in recent months and years by European born Muslims and the resulting backlash doomed such hopes. Such attacks revealed that European Muslims still have a long way to go to be fully integrated in European societies, assuming that they want such integration. European states such as France and Belgium are not helping their Muslim citizens feel fully at home when they enact illiberal laws against public displays of religiosity such as banning the hijab in public schools or try to appoint Imams at certain Mosques. On the other hand, even in the most multicultural societies in Europe such as Britain and Denmark integrating Muslim immigrants has become very problematic, with some Muslim youths resorting to terrorism. More than a 100 Danish jihadists may have joined ISIS in Syria, one of the highest rates per capita in Europe.

Eventually, European Muslims would be compelled to develop a European Islam that tries to respect the ethos of the countries the Muslim immigrants are adopting, and the very core values of Islam. The diversity of Islam in history can be explained by its phenomenal ability to adjust to the different cultural milieus it found itself confronting. The way Islam developed in the Levant, Egypt and North Africa, is different than the way it developed in Al-Andalus (Spain), or the Balkans, or South Asia and China. Puritan Islamists refuse to acknowledge this diversity and insist against history and facts that there is one uniform Islam. Islamic civilization prospered and evolved not when it was onto its own, but when it collaborated and learned and competed peacefully with other cultures and religions.

Yes to life

The Umayyad Dynasty in Damascus benefited tremendously from the Christian Arabs who were steeped in Byzantine culture and learned a lot from the more advanced Byzantine and Persian civilizations. In the eighth century, The Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid and his successor son al-Ma’mun established Baghdad’s reputation as the capital of learning and scientific endeavor in the world. The sprawling city, the largest outside China, was open and welcoming to diversity. Caliph al-Rashid established his famed House of Wisdom – a medieval version of a modern think tank- to translate the great works of Greek Philosophy and to have Muslim scholars comment and build on it. In those golden days, classic Arab poetry, including that unique Arab literary genre known as Khamriyat, (the glorification of wine making and wine drinking, with bold references to the realms of religion politics, and ethics) reached its zenith.

Other great Muslim cities, from Cordoba to Istanbul achieved greatness only because of their ‘liberal’ environment and because they embraced intellectual diversity and enjoyed and reveled in the material world. In all of these cities, the Political realm and not the religious was the dominant one. The German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who had strong negative views of Judaism and Christianity and contradictory views of Islam, nonetheless made a striking comment about the ‘wonderful world of the Moorish culture of Spain’, and he found it admirable that Islam ‘said Yes to life even with the rare and refined luxuries of Moorish life.’ From this perspective, there is no greatness is asceticism, or in fake religious puritanism or in fear of the material world. Yes to life.

Hard truths

After each terrorism act in Europe last year, people asked where are the moderate Muslims, or where the outrage in the Muslim world is, or why it is that many Arabs don’t admit that ISIS has deep roots in Arab-Muslim traditions? Arabs and Muslims, who live in denial, usually give the standard answers which dredge up western colonialism and discrimination, or support for Israel and Arab despotism, by way of putting things in ‘context.’

Historic Western sins notwithstanding, Muslims should face some hard truths about most of their polities and societies. According to the State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2013, of the ten countries with the most terrorist attacks, seven were Muslim, and of the top ten groups that perpetrated terrorist attacks, seven were Muslim. According to a study by the Pew Research Center (2014), of the 24 most restrictive countries on the free exercise of religion 19 are Muslim-majority. Some of the bloodiest terrorist groups in the world wrap themselves with an Islamic garb, such as ISIS and Boko Haram. An arc of upheavals and violence in majority Muslim states stretching from North Africa, through Syria and Iraq, and all the way to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Beyond the violence, the status of women, children and minorities is very troubling. One cannot wish away these hard truths.

It is true that there are no autonomous institutions in the Arab world where Muslim reformers can develop and defend their views, but the fact remains that there are Arab reformers in the Arab world and in the west. This is a battle the West cannot and should not fight for Arabs and Muslims. The fight against ISIS and other forms of religious repression and extremism requires sharp swords as well as sharp and honest words. The challenge of the reformers is enormous and dangerous. But first they have to say YES TO LIFE.

Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted “Across the Ocean,” a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in the Column section are their own and do not reflect RiyadhVision’s point-of-view.


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