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Middle East and Africa

At the Beginning of a New Unpredictable Arab Age

An interview with Farouk Mardam Bey, edited by Chiara Pellegrino

The rebellions have reached Syria as well. The government has resigned and the President has promised reforms. Is that enough?


The problem is that in Syria the situation is at a standstill. The regime fears that a small gap will cause a flood. Economic reform has been rumoured for quite a while but never finalized: after ten years the people are still waiting. The government fears that even a small concession (more freedom to the press, for instance) would attract more, and more radical, criticism than generally expected – as in 2000, during the so-called Damascus Spring, with the arrival of Bashar al-Asad. The day he was sworn into office, the President made some promises and allowed the formation of “discussion clubs”. He was expecting four or five of them; then, suddenly, two hundred sprang up everywhere throughout the Country. Their participants criticized the regime, causing fears and prompting the government to close the clubs and arrest their leaders. From that time on, all protests have been systematically repressed.



As to the Arab world on the whole, do you see more reasons for concern or for hope in revolutionary movements?


Surely more reasons for hope. But democracy is a difficult thing, and even in democratic countries it must be reaffirmed on a daily basis. I always refer to the history of the great revolutions. Let’s take the French Revolution: after 1789 there was the Terror, then Thermidor, then Bonaparte, the Empire and, finally, the Restoration. The 1789 ideas, nevertheless, brought a breath of fresh air, marking a new era in French and European history, and the same thing is taking place now: we’ve come into a new era in the history of the Arab world. We have no idea about the evolution of the situation in Libya or in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria – or even Egypt or Tunisia. We don’t know about elections results. But the mere fact of initiating a process is already thrilling.



In Syria interreligious relationships, and Islamic-Christian relations in particular, have traditionally been good. Do you believe that this could be affected by changes in the Country’s political and institutional structure?


During events in Egypt and Tunisia there have been no interreligious conflicts; on the contrary, in Cairo Copts and Muslims have fraternized. In Tunisia this is no issue, as there are no substantial Christian communities and the Country is more homogenous. But in Syria we have to be very careful. In any case, no one wants any religious conflicts. Unfortunately it is very easy to slide towards communitarianism: launching slogans or causing violence is enough for turning politics into confessionalism. As far as Egypt is concerned, no doubt there is actual discrimination against the Copts in that Country. In Syria, instead, if Christians are being discriminated against, the discrimination is positive, and this is owing to the local tradition rather than the regime. From as early as the beginning of Syria’s independence Christians and Muslims have been in neighbourly terms. Christians have long been carrying out important administrative and military functions, both privately and in public life, as, for instance, in the cultural life of the Country. In Egypt, after the 1919 revolution, there has been a rapprochement between Muslims and Christians, as well as a secular Constitution establishing freedom of conscience and religious freedom for all citizens. The present Constitution, however, has modified article 2, which now affirms Islam as State religion and the shari’ah, or Islamic law, as the main source of legislation. This obviously annoys the Copts.



However, I don’t believe that in Syria there will be problems for the Christian community. The government protects it, even though, I think, this attitude could be dangerous in the light of what has happened in Iraq. There, Christians enjoyed the protection of Saddam Hussein – but what did this protection consist in? The Iraqi Christian community, one of the most ancient in the world, was eventually wiped out. The danger is, rather, the conflict between Sunnites and Alawites. I hope both groups will be wise enough to place the issue on a political level rather than slide towards a confessional level, for this would be terrible for the Country’s future. This is what happened at the beginning of the 1980’s, and the result was dreadful for both parties: on one side, terrorist Islamic groups assassinated Alawite officers and political and cultural personalities; on the other, the repression operated by parallel services led to the destruction of Hama and the prison of Palmira, causing profound traumas in the whole population.



To move from politics to culture, what consequences could the current events have on a new Arab-Islamic thought?


For many years there has been a lot of thinking especially within Islam. The evolution of Jihadism has caused many Muslim thinkers who did not share its principles to come forward, unlike in the previous generations. The Arab world has remained more or less locked inside the formulation of the great nineteenth-century reformers. In the past few decades, however, there has been a movement beyond this position, to reconsider Islam’s whole history. These thinkers have tried to establish that from the very beginning there has been a distinction between sacred and secular, and that the statute of Mohammed, who was simultaneously a prophet and a religious leader, should be considered absolutely unique and non-reproducible.



The shari’ah is the work of man, of human beings who read the Koran and the hadith, the Prophet’s word, and interpreted them in a certain way. Today we are able to provide a different interpretation, according to historical and geographical situations that naturally have changed from those in primitive Islam. In the works of Abd al-Majid al-Sharfi in Tunisia, Nasr Abu Zayd in Egypt or Mohammad Shahrur in Syria there are some interesting aspects marking the progress made by reformist thinking. Now it is a question of taking this thinking to the political level, given that we are coming out of the alternative imposed on the Arabs a long time ago: namely, the choice between the Iranian political system and dictatorship.



There is a third way. Secularization is absolutely necessary to the Arab world but we must understand which direction to take. In fact, there isn’t just one version of it: there’s the French formula, the Italian formula, the American formula… Surely in the Arab world it would be impossible to adopt the radical French formula. In other European Countries, however, there are forms of separation between Church and State, which can be a source of inspiration. Religion cannot be totally relegated to the private sphere, nor can it be permitted to dominate the public sphere. At the same time, though, is it possible that in a Country such as Egypt Islam should be totally absent from the public sphere? Is Catholicism totally absent from the Italian public sphere? No! We must be very careful when implementing a reform that may reach its desired target in an intelligent and lasting way, without coming to conflict.



I am sure that in Egypt, after the elections, this problem will re-emerge. There have already been petitions from some intellectuals demanding the abolition of article 2 of the Constitution; others, such as the sheikh of al-Azhar, but also the Muslim Brothers, maintain that this out of the question; still others say that it is necessary to wait a little longer, as to pose this issue now would cause division among the various components of the society. We count on the people’s intelligence and maturity. There’s all to gain in this process, nothing would be lost.