September 3, 2013 Special Dispatch No. 5433

Arab Intellectual Calls For Theological-Cognitive Revolution To Extricate Arab World From Backwardness, Crises, And Internecine Warfare

September 3, 2013
Special Dispatch No. 5433

Hashem Saleh, an Arab intellectual of Syrian origin who currently resides in Morocco, wrote in his August 10, 2013 column in the London-based daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that in order to extricate itself from crises, backwardness and internecine warfare, the Arab and Muslim world must undergo a theological-cognitive revolution. He explained that it must discard the approach of rejecting the other and embrace a more tolerant and enlightened approach – like the revolution experienced by Europe three centuries ago. Saleh adds that since we are in the era of an information revolution and globalization, this process can take place more quickly than it did in Europe, and could take as little as three decades.

The following are excerpts from his column:[1]

Hashem Saleh (image: Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, London, August 30, 2013)

"In Europe, Three Ideological Revolutions Of Liberation Occurred Before Christianity Made Its Peace With Modernity – Whereas In The Entire Arab Or Muslim World No Such Revolution Has Ever Occurred"

"Can we skip the historical stages [that Europe went through]? If only that were possible! Unfortunately, this is impossible. I really wish I could shut my eyes and reopen them to see Syria transformed into a tranquil and prosperous country like Holland, or Egypt resembling France, or Tunisia as verdant as Switzerland, etc. [I wish] I could skip over 300 years of political tyranny, civil wars, sectarian massacres and boorish fundamentalism…

"In Europe, three ideological revolutions of liberation occurred before Christianity made its peace with modernity, whereas in the entire Arab or Muslim world no such revolution has ever occurred. That is why there are currently terrifying clashes [between the people and the regime] in Egypt and in additional [Arab] countries – because the MB is holding back national progress towards modernity, tolerance and liberty.

"How then can we make peace with ourselves? How can we solve the problem of religious and sectarian struggles while we are still stuck in the theological stage of takfir [accusing the other Muslims of apostasy] – a stage Europe went through at least 150 years ago?

"When two Germans meet in China or Japan or at the ends of the earth, do you think that the first question that pops into their minds is the other's religion – whether he is a Protestant or [perhaps] a stubborn Catholic? Absolutely not! This does not enter their minds at all, while this would be the first question to pop into the mind of a Syrian or Lebanese, or any Arab, upon encountering a [fellow Arab] in Paris… The reason for this is that Germany solved the problem of sectarianism – first of all from a theoretical standpoint, thanks to the [philosophers Immanuel] Kant, [George Wilhelm Friedrich] Hegel and [Johann Gottlieb] Fichte and other enlightened people, and subsequently from a political standpoint, [thanks to] Bismarck[2] and his successors.

"Therefore, this issue is currently settled [in Germany] and totally ingrained [in the minds] of the German people and in their school curricula, and poses no impediment in Germany, [for] it is already behind them. All are citizens with equal rights and obligations, all are Germans of the same rank: there is no first-class German and another who is second or third class… Therefore, German national unity is as solid as a mountain. The same applies to French national unity, etc.

"[However], we need only return to the 17th century in order to find a mire of destructive religious wars, when a Protestant could not countenance a Catholic, and vise versa. They fought and slaughtered each other over [the issue of] identity, as we are currently doing. This [intolerance] continued to plague them for the entire duration of the 18th century. Otherwise, the need for the Enlightenment would not have arisen."

"Must We Wait 200 Years In Order To Solve The Problem Of Sectarianism? The Answer Is No..."

"Someone should ask: Must we wait 200 years in order to solve the problem of sectarianism? The answer is no, [and this] for two reasons. First, because we are living in the era of the information revolution, which abbreviates times and distances. Therefore, something that once took 200 [years] to digest can [now] be digested in half a century. Second, because we are [currently] immersed in global modernity, and development is therefore accelerated. The Western and Eastern superpowers keep an eye on us and we can do or say nothing [without their knowledge]. Until recently, in particular before September 11, [2001], the sheikhs in the mosques could malign other faiths [and say] whatever they fancied, without criticism. But now there are international conferences for interfaith dialogue, for rapprochement between the various Islamic schools of thought, etc.

"There is a third reason as well – namely that the achievements of the advanced countries are available to us, thus sparing us the necessity to invent or reinvent anything. [These achievements] are ours [to benefit from, no less than] the rest of mankind. The philosophies of Kant or Hegel or [Jürgen] Habermas are not the property of the Germans alone, [just as] the philosophy of Ibn Rushd,[3] in its time, was the property of all Europeans.

"Nevertheless, this does not mean that the sectarian problem, which causes us to lose sleep and tears apart our national unity, will be solved within two or three years. This is a huge and critical historical problem that will not be easily solved, [certainly] not in the space of one or two generations. I wish I were wrong, but what increases my pessimism is that, hitherto, it has been taboo in the Muslim world to apply the method of critical historical [analysis and use it to challenge] our entrenchment in tradition. Only the Pakistani Fadl Al-Rahman[4] and the Algerian Muhammad Arkoun[5] did this, but [they worked] outside the Muslim world: the first at the University of Chicago and the second at the Sorbonne. Had the two remained in their countries, they would have been unable to freely conduct research in [this] most sensitive field, and they could not have bestowed upon us all their innovative and prominent works. One should add to this duo the author Abdelwahab Meddeb,[6] with his splendid liberal works."

"Without Applying The Deconstructionist Method To Tradition, We Will Not Be Able To Rid Ourselves Of The Alienating Takfiri Approach To Religion"

"Without applying the deconstructionist method[7] to tradition, we will not be able to rid ourselves of the alienating takfiri approach to religion that excludes the other [and was created] in medieval times. Once we rid ourselves of this perspective, we can recognize the fact that a number of paths to Allah exist, rather than a single path as the extremists argue. Most surprisingly, the Koran [itself] recognizes the legitimacy of religious pluralism, [as it states:] 'If Allah willed it, He could have made them of one religion' [Qur'an 42:8]. But the clerics on the satellite channels don't [recognize this]. Are the words of mortals more elevated than the words of the Koran?

"This decisive cognitive leap in the Christian West took over 300 years, until [the Church] dared to implement it in the Second Vatican [Ecumenical] Council[8] in 1962-1965, where the Vatican for the first time abandoned the theology that accused the other of heresy and adopted in its stead the theology of liberation and enlightened faith, a faith of massive expanse which contains room for all Allah's decent creations, whatever their faith or belief may be."

"We Can Make This Leap Within The Next 30 Years, And Don't Require 300 Years [For This Purpose] – [Though] It Means Skipping Over Or Shortening [Historical] Stages"

"We can make this leap within the next 30 years, and don't require 300 years [for this purpose] – [though] it means skipping over or shortening [historical] stages. However, the digestion of such a huge religious revolution by the popular masses will take much longer. Furthermore, not only the [simple] masses require emancipation, but also many intellectuals or pseudo-intellectuals and opportunist political activists. Some are much more dangerous [than the masses], because they profess modernity and democracy, but then, at the first opportunity, they submit themselves to the Sheikhs of takfir and darkness

"The timeframes that I have presented regarding the outlook for Arab development are [purely] estimates. In some cases I said 30 years, in others 50 or even 70 years. [But what I] mean to say is that something will undoubtedly occur in the Islamic world in the course of the upcoming years – something that the world is breathlessly anticipating."


[1] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 10, 2013.

[2] Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898), chancellor of the Prussian Empire and then of Imperial Germany. He was one of Germany's most prominent statesmen and the architect of the German Unification.

[3] Abu Al-Walid Ibn Rushd (1126–1198), also known as Averroes, a Cordova-born Muslim physician and philosopher who greatly influenced medieval European philosophy. He wrote on many subjects, but is famous primarily for his commentaries on and critique of Aristotelian theory.

[4] Fadl Al-Rahman (1919-1988), a prominent Pakistani intellectual whose studies on Islam are widely circulated in Western universities and cultural circles.

[5] Muhammad Arkoun (1928-2010), a prominent Algerian researcher of Islamic history and philosophy, who studied and later taught at the Sorbonne in Paris and subsequently in Berlin and London. His research is characterized by a critique of Islamic principles, and he advocated secularism, humanism a modern approach to Islam.

[6] Abdelwahab Meddeb (born 1946), a Tunisian intellectual and author living in France who teaches comparative literature at the University of Paris. He opposes Islamic fundamentalism and calls upon educated Arabs to adopt progressive values of independent thinking instead of a reliance on religion and tradition.

[7] Deconstruction: a philosophical movement and theory of literary criticism that questions traditional assumptions about certainty, identity, and truth.

[8] The Second Vatican Council was an Ecumenical Council of the Roman Catholic Church (comprising Bishops from the entire Christian world) that was formed at the directive of Pope John XXIII in 1962. It discussed the modernization of the Church: its changing role in the modern world, a modern approach to the scriptures, greater openness to other streams in Christianity and the relationship with members of other faiths.

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