Why Reform is an Urgent call to Secular Arabs:

(posted by Alex) 

By Hind Aboud Kabawat

Senior Researcher in Public Diplomacy/ the Center of Religion and DiplomacyGeorge Mason University.
April 2008

When I was a child growing up in Syria, it was considered bad manners to ask friends and neighbours about their religion. Or, at least, that was the code of conduct encouraged by my mother and father and, indeed, it was my parents' belief that we were first and foremost members of the human community, then heirs to the traditions of a thousand-year-old Arab-speaking culture and finally proud citizens of a free and independent Syria. But one's religion was a private family affair and should in no way interfere with the ability of Syrians, from all backgrounds and classes, to enjoy harmonious relations. And, indeed my own family was eminently ecumenical. Since my respective sets of grandparents belonged to different Christian denominations, I was baptized in two churches to keep both families happy.


Hind Kabawat with Sheikh Ahmed Hassoun, Syria's Grand Mufti and Rabbi Marc Gopin, Professor of World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University.

The spirit of kinship with all religions was a fundamental tenet in my family, and in many others. But, for much of the history of the region, it was not always a tenet shared by everyone.

The present culture of sectarian and religious conflict in the region has, however, exceeded the historical norm. Whether the Middle East can enjoy religious peace and tolerance will depend on whether mosque and state and church and state can be kept apart.

I personally believe it can.

Secularism, of course, has been one of the basic foundations of the Baath, and other nationalistic parties party in Syria in addition to the former Baath regime in Iraq. In many ways, Baath secularism worked well. Look no further than post-Sadaam Iraq to see what can happen when sectarian replaces secularism as the basic motivating force in the political discourse. But the secularism of the one-party autocracies of the Middle East has a fundamental flaw. A one party rule provides no mechanism for people to peacefully express and resolve their differences. Such repressive political culture almost always becomes a victim of its own political rigidity.

One of the arguments employed to justify one-party rule is this: given free and open elections, the radical Islamists would prevail and impose on the rest of us—minorities and secular Muslims—a repressive religious theocracy where basic human rights would be infringed upon. For many, this is a compelling argument. But I believe it ignores the potential effect, overtime, of mass media, the internet, and mass education in transforming the existing rigid and non tolerent attitudes of many segments of Middle Eastern societies into much more vibrant, cosmopolitan and sophisticated communities.

In order for those instruments of change to have their desired effect, it is essential that regional sectarian violence and sectarian motivated political confrontations in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, must stop.

The transformation of the political discourse, and the call for a more open, democratic, inclusive and secular political system in teh Middle East has been often due to the efforts of Christian and other minority communities who were instrumental in the developement of secular political movements and parties in the Levant, and helped in creating a tolerant society and environment during my father's generation .
Will Arab societies in the Middle East be able to transform themselves peacefully to democracies without becoming, unwittingly, Taliban-like Muslim theocracies? Well, for those of us active in the reform movement in the region, it is through building, brick by brick, the foundations of a vibrant civil society where open debate, a free media, an independent judiciary and a military that answers to its civilian masters, not the other way around, prevails. From our perspective, unless Arab societies move in such a direction, they will never be able to compete successfully with societies in the West and the emerging East.

Sure, some states in the region have been blessed with the economic windfall of oil revenues. But surely common sense—and sound planning—demands that Arab societies in the Middle East plan for a post-oil-based economy. And some of us—Syria, for example—are already there. To succeed, harnessing the intellectual and entrepreneurial talents of our people, not windfall profits from oil, will be the basis of a sustainable economic future. And a more advanced economic society—and the prosperity it will generate–will not emerge in a repressive political climate.

Those advocating such reforms in the region are sadly subject to a good deal of harassment from authorities. It seems that a disproportionate percentage of reformers, and prisoners of conscience, are secular Christians and Muslims. Does this imply that the concerns of the liberal Muslims and Christians differ from the concerns of other groups?   Not at all. But they possibly realize more than most the consequences for all of us if extremists were to take control of our societies. Religious and social freedoms as well as women's rights and the rule of law will be threatened, and the region's stability will be at risk.

Relations between followers of different religions in Syria were quite cordial. When my youngest brother was born, my parents named him Omar. Not a big deal at the time. But thirty years or so later, new friends often ask me why my brother has such a "Muslim" name. But the answer was simple. To my parents, and to most Christians at the time, a Muslim name did not carry any negative connotation.

As I noted at the beginning of this article, Muslims, Christians and Jews lived, most of the time, in harmony during hundreds of years of Ottoman rule. And when I was growing in the region, we cherished our Muslim compatriots and Muslim culture of the wider Syrian community. There was no contradiction between being a "good Christian" and being a "proud Syrian" and an "Arab patriot." All these elements contributed much to our cultural, religious and political identity.

Just how important "Muslim Culture" is to me as a Christian became apparent last year when I traveled to Mostar, a small town in Bosnia, in the former Yugoslavia, where I visited the famous Mostar bridge, which had been destroyed in the civil war, itself a testament to what happens when religious differences become inflamed.

While visiting a number of Bosnian churches and mosques, I was overcome with emotion and nostalgia for my Syrian Culture and the memory of my grandparents. The architecture and ambience seemed the same. It was like I had been transported back in time and place.

There is, however, one notable difference. Unlike the former Yugoslavia, Syria has been spared the tragedy of a society disintegrating on the basis of religious and sectarian difference. That must never happen. And it will not happen if we can, together—all shades of Muslims and Christian—build a secular, open, tolerant society. Those peacefully advocating for such a society should not be "rewarded" for their efforts by being imprisoned and denied some of their basic human rights.

Syria, which has achieved a leading political role in the region, and earned widespread support and even affection for its principled positions among the Arab people, could enhance further its image and acquire additional respect, internally, regionally and internationally, if it becomes more tolerant of sincere and patriotic reform activists and thinkers.

Comments (405)

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401. Akbar Palace said:

You’re right, I’m nothing special. But I don’t think I ever claimed to be (and if I did, or insinuated that, I apologize).


Just clarifying, you are not special in terms of Israelis who want to make peace and who are critical of their government (Israel) for not “doing enough” to make peace. Sometimes, you give the impression that “most” or “all” Israelis are anti-peace: ya’ani, YOU are “special”.

For example you state that 70% of Israelis are NOT willing to give up the Golan for peace. I think that number is misleading. I did a quick search for that statistic, and it looks like it depends on the question. One article said was just about half (52%). Also, these polls vary wildly on the mood of the country. Most Israelis were willing to give up the WB, Gaza half of the Old City of Jerusalem to the Palestinians before Oslo met its death.

Even you, Shai, give mixed signals:

As for fighting Hamas, on the one hand I’m for talking to them in any opportunity possible (they are our bitter enemy, and with enemies you also talk), but at the same time, I’m for fighting them continuously, as is the case in war.

Israel is ready to make peace, but it takes two to tango.

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May 29th, 2008, 2:26 am


402. Enlightened said:


Thanks, I was not aware of it! Damn fine voices we Australians have. I have been waiting for this post to finish, I had one meagre comment, considering the Post was not one of my favourite topics.

Anyways, we were looking forward to The Lebanese soccer team to come to Australia two years ago (06), but we got the Iraqis this year playing Australia on the weekend ( can you tell how much I hate talking about religion?)

Anyway thanks for the link, we move on to QN’s new post about Mubayed’s article. Interesting discussions for sure.!

Ps I sent you a email a few months ago, no response did you get it?

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May 29th, 2008, 4:19 am


403. Honest Patriot said:

Hmm – Enlightened, did not get ur email; otherwise I’d have responded. I’ll try fishing in the spam folder. — Cheers

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May 29th, 2008, 4:54 am


404. Shai said:


I am not suggesting that most Israelis don’t want peace. I don’t know of one nation on earth where that statement would be true. I am suggesting that, according to polls taken over the past decade, including in recent days, some 70% of Israelis are unwilling to give up on the Golan (not WB, Gaza, E. Jerusalem), even in return for peace. So they want peace, but not to give back the Golan. By the way, I’m glad you mentioned that 52% figure, because on the day the announcement was made, May 21st, Yediot Ahronot’s printed edition’s front page had a 48% “for” figure, and Alex asked me to find an English link showing this. I wasn’t able to, also not in Ynet, and never found it again. But I did see many of the 70% figures again… So I think as stated above, most in Israel still aren’t willing to give back the Golan, and of those 70%, we need to switch over some 20.1% to have a majority “for”. I read somewhere this week that Yossi Beilin reminded people that also before the Camp David Accords were presented to Israelis, a similar 70% were against withdrawing from Sinai. After seeing the agreement, 70% were for it.

With regards to the Palestinians, I agree with you, Israel was certainly ready to make peace, and even Sharon was ready to start withdrawing from the West Bank, but then two bad things happened – Sharon fell ill, and Hamas took over Gaza. So now we’ll have to wait. Btw, I think I’m inconsistent only when I say one thing one day, and the opposite the next day. I’m not inconsistent when I say in the same breath peace with Syria – war with Hamas. A person can be dovish in one realm, and hawkish in another, without being inconsistent, I think. Most, however, would rather categorize me quickly into either Liberal or Leftist, and then indeed see an inconsistency. But as I said yesterday, I’m neither one. In fact, I refuse to identify with any political party. I don’t like more than 50% of the agendas of all the parties in Israel, and am quite against a multiparty system. But even if/when in Israel there will be a Left, and a Right, I hope to still see myself as neither one.

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May 29th, 2008, 5:10 am


405. Hear the changes coming | Antony Loewenstein said:

[…] reform is an urgent call to secular […]

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October 31st, 2008, 1:32 am


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