September 12, 2005 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 240

Libyan Intellectual Dr. Muhammad Al-Houni: The Arabs Must Choose Between Western Civilization and the Legacy of the Middle Ages

September 12, 2005 | By Aluma Dankowitz*
Libya | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 240

The attacks of September 11, 2001 have focused world attention on the Muslim world, and have aroused keen debates in Arab intellectual circles about the religious, social, economic, political, and cultural circumstances that have given rise to the phenomenon of suicide attacks in the name of Islam. Muslim shapers of public opinion have argued that Islamist terrorism will force the Muslim countries to undergo a basic change and will oblige the Arab regimes to deal with issues that were previously swept aside, such as extremist religious education, democracy, and human rights. In addition, many Arab shapers of public opinion have concluded that the Muslim world has reached a turning point in its relations with the West, and that Western policy towards it will necessarily change in light of the threat of terrorism.

One Arab intellectual who has dealt extensively with the implications of the 9/11 attacks is Dr. Muhammad Abd Al-Muttalib Al-Houni, a Libyan reformist living in Italy. In a book published in 2004, titled The Arab Dilemma in the Face of the New American Strategy (with a preface by Tunisian intellectual Lafif Lakhdar), Dr. Al-Houni explains the basic change in American strategy since 9/11. He writes that unlike in the Cold War era, the U.S. will no longer support tyrannical Arab regimes that serve its interests. Instead, it considers the democratization of the Arab world to be in the American national interest, directly linked to the war on terror and to U.S. security. That is also why this new strategy will include efforts to promote civil society in Arab countries.

Al-Houni expresses the hope that the Arabs will cease to believe that life will go on as usual, and will recognize the change in U.S. strategy. Thus, they will make informed, correct decisions and will not be led astray by outmoded perceptions.

Al-Houni sets out in detail the factors generating Arab and Islamic terrorism, describes America's new enemies, and proposes ways to combat terrorism. He focuses on democracy in the Arab world, describing the intellectuals who oppose democracy and the factors obstructing its implementation. At the end of his study, he concludes that Arab societies are facing a dilemma: they must either sever their ties with their medieval legacy and adopt a philosophy of life and freedom rather than one of death and hatred, or else must sever their ties with Western civilization and reject democracy and modernity.

The following is a summary and translation of central excerpts from Al-Houni's treatise: [1]

The Arabs Don't Understand that the World Has Changed

Al-Houni begins his treatise by explaining that he intends to present a different viewpoint from the nationalist, conspiracy-based viewpoint currently prevalent in the Arab world, which maintains that nothing has changed in the world since the end of the Cold War or since 9/11. Al-Houni, who believes that American strategy has changed completely, seeks to present this change to the Arab world, which, he claims, suffers from a number of fundamental flaws, to which he points in his introduction.

Al-Houni asserts that there are various responses to the issues that concern the Arab and Muslim world, and that Arabs should not accuse those amongst them whose opinion is different of apostasy and treason. He writes: "The popular Arab political discourse today has only two ideological [extremes]... Today we [are forced to choose] between Allah and the devil, between nationalism and treason, between truth and falsehood, between corruption and virtue, between good and evil. In other words, we are completely blind to the fact that the spectrum of ideas is diverse. This logic can only lead to decline... The Arab political discourse is today a belligerent, ideological discourse based on self-aggrandizement, and attributing any profanity to others..."

Al-Houni harshly criticizes the Arab regimes, which he describes as "arbitrary, oppressive, and fanatic." The same depictions, however, could be applied, in his view, to some of the educated Arab elites: "In many cases, the intellectual elites have sought the help of the regimes' to oppress the [intellectual] who holds different views. The authorities have often acted violently towards the other in order to appease a certain group, and the only one to gain in such cases was the oppressive regime, whose lifespan was prolonged. Just as we demand that the authorities put an end to the acts of oppression and grant more liberties, we must reconcile with one another as intellectuals, and refrain from using the same means used by the regime – coercion and discrimination..."

The Basis of Past U.S. Policy: Alliance with Tyrannical Regimes to Defeat Communism

In the first part of his treatise, Al-Houni describes the American strategy during the Cold War as one guided by the Machiavellian principle of "the end justifies the means." In an effort to defeat Communism, the U.S. entered the war in Vietnam and Korea, promoted tyrannical and corrupt regimes with which it was allied, provided aid to the Muslim fundamentalists fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, and was helped by bands of criminals, including the Mafia: "The U.S. has used all possible means, legitimate and illegitimate, moral and immoral... to reach this end... This American behavior, which has gone on for a long time, has caused all the peoples who hoped to be free [of their tyrannical rulers] to view the U.S. as their No. 1 enemy. For many, the term 'U.S.' assumed the meaning of an empire of evil, which must be harmed..."

"The Cold War was a difficult war, and the sides that participated in it did not settle for less than the total destruction of the other side. To this end, each side used the weapons it had… and the most important weapon was the Third World countries, which for 50 years had been the hostage of one or the other of the camps… The regimes were the hostages of the great masters of one of the [world] blocs, and the peoples were the hostages of those same hostages who managed to strengthen their rule by means of oppression, starvation, and deprivation...

"Most of the Arab countries that leaned towards the U.S. were at that time hostile to pan-Arab plans, and the American secret services allocated funds to these countries' apparatuses of oppression for the purpose of the war against Communism. The presidents of these countries made mistakes, which reached the level of treason… For example, they spied for Israel at the secret Arab summits and in wartime … They introduced into the school and university curricula the worst of the dark reactionary ideas in the Islamic heritage – ideas such as al-walaa wa-al-baraa] 'loyalty and disavowal'] [2], and the idea of Jihad in the sense of killing non-Muslims and of harming and humiliating the other... And thus, millions of people were educated during the Cold War… on these illogical outmoded ideas.

"This education was a brilliant success… When the U.S. called on the Muslims to fight in Afghanistan, it found armies ready for battle among the members of these generations… Many of these young people thought this was an opportunity to implement the ideas they had learned…

"The U.S., which had declared [its commitment to] human rights over 200 years ago, did not rebuke the [Arab] rulers, or stop the acts of repression and the crimes they openly committed against their people, because in the eyes of the U.S. nothing surpassed the importance of its war on the Communist enemy… The Arab peoples were considered a contemptible agent... whose enslavement did not detract from the freedom [of the U.S.] and whose backwardness did not hinder the civilization [of the U.S.]. This was the image of the Cold War in the Middle East – exploited countries and impoverished peoples who had lost hope in all ideologies, and who had nothing left to comfort themselves with but Paradise after death.

"After the Cold War ended, the West, headed by the U.S., continued, as was its wont, to disregard the fate of these peoples and their struggles as long as its own interests were not harmed, and as long as the Arab oil flowed unobstructed…"

The Reasons for the Tragedy of 9/11

Al-Houni considers 9/11 to be the end of a historic era, because the U.S. was attacked on its home ground for the first time. The enemy is a new kind of enemy, with no particular location – it is everywhere, including in the U.S. itself, and it takes advantage of the information and technology revolution for funding, arming and for choosing its targets. Terrorism today is more dangerous than in the past because the terrorists can obtain weapons of mass destruction.

In light of this new situation, says Al-Houni, a new American strategy is beginning to emerge: "The U.S. sees the new terrorism as a real enemy threatening its very existence, not merely its interests. It understands that the capabilities [of this new terrorism] are very great; its organizations have branches everywhere, and its targets cannot be predicted. All this requires [that the U.S.] change its political and military strategy in a manner appropriate to counter the new danger…"

Al-Houni classifies the roots of Arab and Islamic terrorism by the main motivations behind them:

· The lack of even a minimum of human rights in tyrannical states.

· The friendly relations between the U.S. and various Arab countries.

· The regional conflicts, and– from the Arab and Muslim standpoint – particularly the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Arabs believed that after the end of the Cold War and the removal of the Soviet threat, the Americans would impose a just, or semi-just, solution on the parties to the conflict. This did not happen; on the contrary, every day the Arabs watch TV footage from Palestinian lands – showing scenes of killing, destruction, land expropriation, demolition of homes, and establishment of settlements, and no one comes to the aid of the weak.

· The Arab regimes that plundered and squandered the wealth of their countries. This had negative repercussions for a society whose middle classes were disintegrating and whose poor classes were broadening. There can be no progress or moderation in the political discourse of a people that does not have a broad middle class. Therefore, the discourse of terrorism and its nihilistic philosophy generally find an ear among the armies of the poor.

· Arab education which provoked the students' hostility towards the external world and instilled in them ideas that reeked of hostility and hatred for anybody different. By means of these benighted, dark curricula, the young people have developed into men of the absolute truth, who believe that all the "infidel" peoples must be massacred.

Al-Houni concludes, "The Arab weapon used by the U.S. in the Cold War was costly. When the Americans used the Arabs and Muslims in a war that did not concern them, they were not interested in examining the curricula adopted by their allies, or in the Arab Koran-study schools of which Pakistan is full and which created the Taliban, the culture of Jihad against the infidels, and martyrdom for the sake of Allah…"

Al-Houni emphasizes that the terrorists are not acting in a vacuum, but enjoy the help of countries that assist them directly, turn a blind eye to their activities, or do not have complete control over all their territory.

The Democratization of the Arab World Has Become an American National Interest

After discussing past American strategy, how terrorism brought about a change in this strategy, and who the new enemies of the U.S. are, Al-Houni analyzes the new American strategy, in which the democratization of the Arab world is a central goal.

In support of the idea of democratization of the Arab world, and in light of the Arab world's central place in the new American strategy, Al-Houni calls upon the Arab world to endorse democracy. He classifies the Arab intellectuals opposed to democracy into three groups. He enumerates the obstacles to implementing democracy in the Arab world, suggests to the U.S. how to strengthen democracy in those countries, and suggests to the Arabs how to free themselves of outmoded concepts.

According to Al-Houni, "The U.S. will not be able to dry up the wellsprings of terrorism without establishing societies with a minimum of democracy and human rights, and with modern education that does not oppose the [modern] era and its values… The U.S. aspires, of course, to protect its interests in [Muslim] countries, but these interests are no longer compatible with maintaining strong relations with cruel [totalitarian] countries. Therefore, for the first time ever, the U.S. finds itself obliged to intervene in what it considered, until not too long ago, the domestic policy of these countries. Since 9/11, the democratization of the world – particularly the Arab world – has become an American national interest."

In Al-Houni's assessment, the U.S. has decided to put an end to dictatorial governments, by using one of the following means:

a) Toppling the regime by force, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, or creating political problems and stirring up the minorities to eliminate these regimes;

b) Changing the regimes by non-violent means, by getting the regimes under threat to agree to internal changes, such as accepting the opposition, establishing non-government parties and organizations, and replacing the rulers peacefully.

The implementation of this recipe in any totalitarian country, according to Al-Houni, will mean an end to the old ruling class and the rise of new leaders.

"Flexing Military Muscle" Is Not Enough to Implement the New U.S. Policy

Al-Houni warns that it is not sufficient for the new U.S. strategy to flex "military muscle," but that it needs to implement a new policy in a number of areas:

1. The U.S. must put an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, so that there will be two democratic countries – Arab and Hebrew [Israeli].

2. The U.S. must help the peoples of the region to establish economic organizations that will lead to their development. This step would complement the Middle East peace process because "a political peace without a social peace supported by a sound economy would be no more than an intermission between two wars."

3. The U.S. must act towards ensuring a minimum of democracy for the peoples of the region. This democracy would be the result both of internal demands and external support, and is "the key to many of today's complex problems..."

4. The U.S. must pressure the governments to change their school curricula, for it has become apparent that most of the perpetrators of the attacks [in the U.S.] and their leaders belong to those countries that have had extremist religious education for a long time, although politically they have leaned towards the U.S. The latter has realized that it is not enough for these countries to proclaim their support of the West and their friendship with the U.S., but that they must institute an educational system which will lead to tolerance and openness to Western culture, which will cease to see Western culture as opposed to Islam and to Arab traditions, and which will stop dividing the world into the "abode of Islam," and the "abode of war."

Criticism of Arab Intellectuals who Oppose Democracy

The new American strategy has encountered staunch opposition from various elements in the Arab world. Al-Houni focuses on the intellectual Arab elites, explaining that some of these intellectuals claim that the West does not have true democracy, since it acts democratically only within its own borders, but operates oppressively, arbitrarily and tyrannically outside them. Thus, says Al-Houni, the Arab elites are trying to get the Arab public to conclude that all regimes are alike and that there is no true democracy to which the Arab citizen can aspire in order to improve his life. They want the Arabs to believe that they must reject the West and its values, because they are a scam intended to bring about Western hegemony.

Al-Houni classifies today's Arab intellectuals who are opposed to democracy into three categories, and deals with their arguments:

· Islamists who do not recognize that humanistic ideas can serve as a basis for society. In their view, everything has existed in the past, and is present in the holy text [the Koran]. The present and future are not in our hands, but in the hands of a force that propels us like puppets. According to these Islamists, the proper way to live is to return to the times of our forefathers, in the seventh century, and to adopt the principle of the Shura [the consultative council] of early Islam.

When it is argued that the Shura never convened in the early Islamic era, that its representatives were appointed and not elected, that the idea of a society like that of the forefathers is imaginary with no basis in historical fact... they have no answer except to curse those raising these questions and to accuse them of heresy.

Al-Houni concludes that there is no point in arguing with Islamists so long as the starting points are different. The Islamists consider the past to be the pinnacle of humanity, whereas Al-Houni's starting point is human experience and history as an unending process.

· "Regime intellectuals" who view democracy as a bitter enemy of the Arab rulers. This group tries to persuade the public that democracy is suitable for the West but not for them, and at times it attributes to the "imperialist, conspiratorial West" the responsibility for Arab backwardness and the Arabs' inability to introduce democracy.

Al-Houni rejects these arguments, saying that the claim that the West is responsible for Arab backwardness might have had merit in imperialist times, but not after the imperialists left. Then, the Arabs were ruled by their own people, and it was they who squandered their countries' wealth in order to remain in power, at the expense of their peoples. "For a long time, we attributed all our ills and failures to imperialism. Today, this shirking of responsibility is no [longer] possible or acceptable."

As for the claim that it will only be possible to institute a democracy when the Israeli occupation ends, Al-Houni considers it disgraceful: "Arab societies cannot extricate themselves from their situation as long as they bow beneath the weight of their [tyrannical] regimes, which consider their own people to be a greater danger than the Israeli danger… The Arab armies will be led to a lost battle every time... In addition, the Arab armies are no longer armies that battle an enemy beyond its borders, but have become a police force threatening the defeated peoples..." [3]

· Ideologues whose only model response is that of a counter-message. These ideologues tend to simplify complex problems, and compete with one another in reviling the enemy. Their argument is always that "as long as the West is known for its democracy, we have to counter it, since what comes from the enemy must be disastrous for us." Along these lines, one may accept Western technological progress, but anything related to ideas and culture is taboo, and from this one must distance oneself.

Any Society Can Implement Democracy According to Its Circumstances

Against this backdrop, Al-Houni expresses his support of democracy as "the most sublime and efficient [form of rule] that man has attained… Democracy as a value of civilization does not belong only to the West. It is the result of human invention, to which the Arabs and Muslims contributed, directly and indirectly, when they had a civilization..." Al-Houni further explains that democracy is not "a ready-made recipe that can be bought and transferred, but is for the most part a station reached after a journey of struggles and sacrifice, of economic development, and of political maturity. Similarly, democracy is not a closed theory; every society can implement it, and improve its performance, guided by its own circumstances and its historical experience."

The Obstacles to Democracy in the Arab World

Al-Houni points out various obstacles to implementing democracy in the Arab world:

A. Bedouin values: A central obstacle is the harsh natural environment that led to the development of Bedouin values, ideas, and ways of behavior. Some 90% of the area of the Arab countries is desert – a fact that led to the formation of Bedouin tribes and patriarchal clans that could defend themselves. Since water and food sources were limited, tribes fought one another for control of them; this explains the warlike nature of desert society.

Nature guided the Bedouin to develop values and ways of behavior such as: repression of the other (since in Bedouin life, a person either controls or is controlled); constant preparation for war in order to achieve hegemony; living in a patriarchal system; contempt for others and for culture; and an amazing ability to shift loyalties.

Although most Bedouin have settled in cities, they remain in their tribal organizations: "The city did not change their Bedouin values as much as they [i.e. the Bedouin] changed the image of the cities, which became Bedouin cities." This, says Al-Houni, is an obstacle to democracy, because "democracy can develop only in a civil society, in which the rational ties among people are stronger than blood ties. A patriarchal society ruled arbitrarily by the tribal sheikh can in no way accept the idea of a political party. If the idea is imposed on it, it will result in every tribe or ethnic group having a party… When these tribe-parties rise to power, they will… put together a government with their allies [only] – and, ultimately, they will distribute the assets of the homeland amongst themselves [alone]. Slowly and gradually, they will take the place of the state…"

B. Oil: Al-Houni notes that oil has usually been discovered in the most socially backward Arab countries, in which most of the residents were Bedouin. "It is customary to say that the oil states are ready for democracy, because their annual per capita income ranges from $6,000-$10,000. Those who hold this view, however, forget that because of the oil income, the rulers of these countries have managed to strike a bargain with their citizens: The rulers do not demand that their citizens pay taxes, and the citizens do not demand from them democracy – which requires supervision over what is done with the tax monies."

Al-Houni explains that in order for the Bedouin influence on the Arab regimes and on the Arab political thought to cease, law-abiding states must arise in the Arab world, with institutions in which the law replaces the tribe and the tribe is not able to defend its members who violate the law. Societies must develop, he says, because entering the industrial age weakens tribal fanaticism. People will join unions that defend their professional interests and parties whose platforms suit their aspirations, and will relinquish the tribal framework. There is a need for media and educational training of the generations to come, in order to expose the Bedouin values that are still highly regarded today.

C. A misinterpretation of Islam: "In and of itself, religion is not an obstacle to culture or civilization," says Al-Houni, "but it becomes an obstacle when it is put to an ideological political use…" In recent decades there have been people in the Arab world who have monopolized the religion and the interpretation of religious scriptures. These people believe that they possess the absolute truth; they treat every argument with them as an argument with God, and they dismiss anyone who is not one of them.

The Koran Is Not Above History

Al-Houni counters a few central flaws in Islamist thinking. He notes that a distinction must be drawn between Islam as a religion and the interpretations, conclusions, and fatwas issued by religious scholars on the basis of Islam's holy scriptures. This stands in contrast to the Islamist approach, which considers the religious scholars' instructions to be sacred, and believes that modern issues should be dealt with in accordance with what the ancient books of religion say.

"The Koran itself is not above history," states Al-Houni, explaining that some of its verses deal with practical problems from the times of the Prophet, while others deal with matters of faith and ritual – with both unable to provide answers to modern times problems.

Islam Lacks Human Rights in the Modern Sense

Towards the end of his treatise, Al-Houni deals with the discrepancy between the human rights set out by Islam and the human rights set out in international conventions.

Democracy, he says, is based on equality, civil rights, and human rights, and it is futile to try to find human rights in their modern form, in bygone Islamic civilization or in any other bygone civilization: "Islamic law was not familiar with equality or civil rights, because it was a product of its times... Any person who was not male, free, or Muslim had lesser rights. In Islamic countries, a non-Muslim did not have the same rights as a Muslim and had to pay the jizya poll tax. A woman could not be accepted to a position of legal or governing authority, and was closer to being a commodity than a person, because she was used for the satisfaction of the free male. She received only half of the man's portion in inheritance, and the chauvinistic law of guardianship applied to her...

"The slave too was not a 'citizen' in an Islamic country, since he was a traded commodity… There is no doubt that Islam treated the weak elements of society with a certain degree of justice. [Prior to Islam,] women did not inherit [at all], and Islam provided the woman with inheritance [rights]. It instructed [Muslims] to treat slaves charitably, and encouraged [Muslims] to set them free, and gave non-Muslims from among the 'People of the Book' [Jews and Christians] security in return for the payment of the jizya... But these benefits... did not provide full equality. The difference between the universal declaration of human rights and what went on in the seventh century remains enormous...

"In addition, modern democracy's philosophy of reward is concerned with the rehabilitation of the criminal, and imposes punishments that do not harm his human dignity. Its aim is to bring about a mending of his ways. Islam, in contrast, imposes corporal punishment, ranging from beating and amputation of hands and feet to beheadings. In those times, such punishments were not condemned, and were the product of a period in which vengeance was taken on the criminal. Today it is unreasonable to amputate a thief's hand, or to humiliate a person by public flogging. In our times, man has moved from a logic of revenge and harming the aggressor to an effort to mend his ways, because he may be a criminal and a victim himself at the same time."

Al-Houni anticipates that Islamic legislation will become man-made modern legislation. He cites a number of examples to show that this process is already taking place, and that legislation contradictory to shari'a laws is accepted in Arab countries. Thus, for example, as a consequence of international agreements, Muslim countries have prohibited slavery, despite the fact that it is permitted from the religious point of view. Today, in Arab societies with religious minorities, Christians are integrated in the justice system, the military and the government, despite the fact that Islam prohibits the Jewish and Christian dhimmi from holding public office, on the grounds that they cannot be in a position of authority over a Muslim.

The Old Concept of Jihad Is No Longer Justifiable

Al-Houni states that Jihad has become no more than a pretext to attack others and to take control of them. The viewpoint of the religious scholar in the Middle Ages regarding Jihad for the sake of Allah and regarding the war upon the infidels is no longer justifiable in the present reality. Today, a Muslim can be a Muslim, yet believe in peaceful co-existence with other people without feeling that he has abandoned one of the precepts of Islam [i.e., Jihad]. The attempt today to implement the religious law of the Middle Ages is bound to fail, but it will postpone the realization of democracy in Arab society.

The Arab Dilemma: Western Civilization or the Heritage of the Middle Ages

Al-Houni sums up his analysis with the following conclusion: "Arab societies have only one of two options: either to sever their ties with Western civilization and its cultural institutions and to continue to themselves harm... or to irrevocably sever their ties with the religious legacy of the Middle Ages, in order for their philosophy to be a philosophy of life and freedom, and not one of death and hatred..."

* A. Dankowitz is Director of MEMRI's Reform Project.


[1] More extensive excerpts were posted in English on the reformist website

[2] The concept of "loyalty and disavowal" in Islam means giving total loyalty to Allah, the Prophet, and the believers, while seeing those are hostile to Allah and Islam as enemies and rejecting giving them any support or help.

[3] Elsewhere in his treatise, Al-Houni refers again to the Arab-Israeli conflict, saying that the Middle Eastern regimes have used it as a pretext to impose emergency laws and emergency courts upon their peoples, and to restrict their freedom. According to him, they have used the dangers of the Zionist occupation and the Zionist enemy as a pretext to avoid all demands for political reform. The Arab states have monopolized the Palestinian cause, and have used it to strike against their opponents and to silence these advocators of freedom and democracy, with the claim that they are helping the enemy to destroy the Arab nation. Oppositionists have invariably been accused of treason and of linking their demands with the goals of the enemy.

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