Arab Liberals: the last hope for reform

Special to The Daily Star

An interesting phenomenon has been taking place of late: coverage in the international media of the activities of Arab and Muslim terrorists has given way, for a short while at least, to a consideration of Arab liberal intellectuals and activists and their potential role in the longed-for reform process in the Arab world. 

Although different authors seem to have a different understanding of what they actually mean by “Arab liberals,” one thing appears to be constant: the liberals are assumed to have secular leanings and a certain favorable, or at least more realistic, disposition toward Western values, culture and interests. They are, therefore, clearly regarded as a minority within a minority.

Realizing this, analysts seem to be quite divided over whether Arab liberals can succeed in having a real impact on the contemporary Arab political and cultural scene. Still, they seem to agree on the fact that the liberals represent the last hope for a peaceful indigenous transformation of the Middle East.

Nothing could be more true. Arab liberals are currently caught between a rock and a hard place – that is, between regimes whose grip on power is still strong and who have every intention of making it even stronger (to ensure a smooth succession in their leadership, if nothing else), and societies where religious extremism is making deep inroads and developing a more “romantic” popular appeal. Arab liberals are indeed under siege, and that’s putting it mildly.

The reality is that Arab liberals are currently fighting to retain the last foothold that liberal values still have in the Arab world. In this they have no choice but to cooperate with external forces, at the risk of being denounced as traitors or pawns of the West. For they have no supporters within their own societies, except the ones who might benefit from the liberals’ involvement in various domestic developmental activities. These activities, however, are always monitored by the authorities and could be shut down at a moment’s notice.

Still, Arab regimes are not the only hurdles that liberals have to clear. Their societies present formidable barriers as well, as the liberals often have to deal with issues that are socially problematic. Take the issue of minority rights, a topic I have been addressing in Syria. Raising this as part of an ongoing effort to increase popular awareness and appreciation for democratic values is bound to make many people, and not only regimes, quite uneasy.

For example, people who have been raised on the myths of Arab nationalism will, understandably, have a difficult time accepting the legitimate aspirations of the Kurds, Amazigh or Berbers living in their midst. As they grew up believing that their countries were part of an Arab homeland, in their minds granting separate cultural rights to other ethnic groups undermines the national character of the state.

Similarly, the idea of granting equal rights to religious minorities, be they Christians, Jews or members of heterodox Muslim sects, is still quite problematic. The institution of “dhimmitude,” that is of declared trusteeship over religious minorities, still influences the way in which many Muslims think and behave toward these minorities. The heterodox sects have even greater difficulties to contend with, as the dhimmi institution did not accommodate them.

Gender issues, the urban-rural divide and prevailing traditional versus modern sexual mores are some of the other issues that Arab liberals have difficulty addressing. Yet, as the recent United Nations Development Program’s Arab Human Development Reports have demonstrated, these issues go to the very heart of the contemporary Arab crisis and cannot be ignored.

There are those who believe that economic reform should at this stage be given top priority in the Arab world, and that these other, “social” issues must wait. This is, however, a gross oversimplification. The intricate relations between minority groups and majority populations, rural and urban centers, and men and women, have too many implications for economic reform to be pushed to the back of the line. Unless they are seriously addressed, they will be serious obstacles to reform.

Because they are working against so many prevalent assumptions and convictions in the Middle East, Arab liberals seem to have no choice but to seek external sources of funding and expertise to support their various activities.

This alliance of sorts that is emerging between the region’s liberals and their willing international backers comes as a last-ditch effort to develop, modernize and democratize the Arab world, peacefully and from within. This is unmistakably a struggle against all odds, but that is exactly what makes it so necessary. In a region where events have always had international repercussions, no one can afford to pay the price of failure.


Written in Washington, D.C. during my fellowship at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.