Revisiting the Study of Arab Countries

1280px-A_Last_day_of_Hajj_-_all_pilgrims_leaving_Mina,_many_already_in_Mecca_for_farewell_circumambulation_of_Kaaba_-_Flickr_-_Al_Jazeera_EnglishIn Europe in general and in France in particular, most of the analysis on Arab countries focuses on the alleged need of a separation between religious and civic spheres. Today in the Middle-East it seems that the terms “laïcité” and “secularism” sound like dirty words, like concepts born in a specific context and history that Western countries try to export to the Middle-East to help their own political interests.

In Lebanon or Jordan, it is striking to see how those notions are today rejected by some academics for their content or for their ideological charges. I had the opportunity to attend a conference in Amman dedicated to Citizenship after the Arab revolts, during which I listened to speeches from politicians, religious leaders and professors from different countries in the region on the necessity to find a way to build a civil state that respects justice and freedom. The speakers either rejected the idea of a separation between religion and state or simply did not mention it. The speech of Sayyed Hani Fahs, member of the Supreme Shiite Council in Lebanon and of the Islamic-Christian dialogue Committee, would have surprised European or French people used to the image of a rigid and closed Islam. During his intervention, Sayyed Hani Fahs depicted a religion open to change and modernity, whose principles of respect and tolerance can only be implemented in a democratic system. On the issue of the relationship between religion and state, he asserted : “I am for religion and State, I cannot accept one or the other. But if they produce each other, they become corrupted. They have to auto-produce themselves first of all”.

Eventually the speakers, sharing the same concern for moderation and respect of human rights in Arab countries, had little concern about the separation of religious and civic spheres. The most important point for the region today is to find the practical means to reach a civil state in which religious and cultural pluralism, freedom and justice are respected.

We have to revisit our traditional concepts for the study of Arab countries by following the work of researchers, politicians, and religious leaders concerned with bringing justice and freedom. Dr. Amer Sabaileh, professor at the University of Jordan, outlined the central issue for the region: “Why is the human value lost in the Middle-East? Where is the individuality in Arab countries?” There is an urgent need to work to build autonomous and empowered individuals, to achieve an effective individuality that could allow a  defense of others regardless of  religious, cultural or ethnic affiliations.

The necessity to uphold the dignity of the person and to guarantee justice and freedom is a universal issue. But it is crucial to understand that the methods of implementation of rights and freedoms rely on context, culture and history of each country.

Lisa Grall is a WYA certified member from Lebanon.