Time to stop importing Western solutions to Arab problems
There are two major issues that need to be addressed in this regard. First, we need to unpack what is meant by Islamism and secularism within the Arab context and, second, we need to reframe the debate and root it in what the conflict is actually about and how it has nothing to do with the real problems on the ground.
First, secularism as an idea is quite alien to the Islamic world in general and the Arabic world in particular. In fact, the word itself never appeared in any Arabic text until the early 20th century, when it was coined from European languages. Since then, it has become synonymous with atheism in the minds of many people in the region. The history of Europe, which originated the idea of secularism, is quite different and was easily capable of developing this concept because of the separation between God and Caesar in the Bible, as well as the bloody history of European religious wars, which are now being repeated in our region. Politically speaking, secularism does not mean denying religion, but in fact, as in the US, protecting religion from government interference and political manipulation. It is about establishing the rights of citizenship for all, irrespective of religious belief.
Second, the quest to establish what is called an Islamic government, despite their fragmentation and inner conflicts, rests on the fatal misunderstanding that Islam does not require or even have an Islamic government in its teachings or history. Islam simply requires that Muslims need an Islamic law, not government, to fully practice their religious rights, for example as in the law of inheritance. Islamic history, however, also shows how various Islamic empires accommodated the rights of minorities by also granting them the right to apply their own laws equally among their followers. As Islamists engage in more internal conflicts, they are actually mimicking European history and making the calls for secular politics even stronger.
In the murky confusion of today, now that both sides have become an integral part of Arabic public discourse, the region needs Arabs themselves to search inwardly and come up with their own authentic and indigenous frameworks to solve these issues, not import Western solutions that have nothing to do with Arab problems or their history and culture in order to fight radicalism and terrorism.
To combat radical Islamist violence and address the challenges facing us, we need a new narrative that can reframe and cast such issues in the light of our own history, culture, and needs, not import ideologies from the West as if we are importing cars or appliances.
Hafed Al-Ghwell is a former adviser to the board of directors at the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell