Where Is the Arab Voltaire?

VoltaireNo one could have anticipated that a simple man from Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia could trigger a cascading change in the Arab world. The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouaziz has done just that. The Arab Spring is the most important event since Arabic countries gained independence.

Old and young, men and women, employed and unemployed, seculars and Islamists have taken to the streets. For now, the hearts and minds of protesters are bent on a single goal—getting rid of the dictator. But years of economic mismanagement and political oppression have left the region in a state of ossified decay. On almost all fronts, the Arab world has stagnated, if not regressed. While countries such as South Korea and Brazil have made significant economic and political progress, Arab leaders continued to neglect the needs and wishes of their societies. The challenges facing the region include poverty, unemployment, food and health insecurity, lack of political and social freedoms, and the oppression of women empowerment. These dismal socio-economic conditions, combined with a youth bulge and the spread of the Internet, generated an explosive mix. It was just a matter of time before a spark ignited a revolt.

Confronting the challenges facing the changing Arab world requires a new vision of society, politics, and economics. But where will this vision come from? Many leaders of the protest movements have emerged, but yet to emerge is an Arab counterpart of Voltaire and Rousseau. What made the French revolution more than a fleeting moment of storming the Bastille are the ideas of Enlightenment thinkers that found their ways into salons and cafes. Their ideas of equality, liberty, and fraternity resonated with French society at large. The Arab world would do well to remember that although Maximilien Robespierre secured the death of France’s last king, Louis the XVI, it was the ideas of the enlightenment that ultimately shattered the institution of the monarchy and paved the way for the creation of a new society governed by democratic principles and liberal values.

Without an intellectual paradigm underpinning and sustaining the Arab spring, it is hard to see how, and if, the uprisings will be able to create a new societal and political order that can reconcile the divergent voices. The absence of ideas and debate could steer the uprisings onto one of two paths. Either the protests turn out to be just a burst of anger gradually resettling into another form of dictatorship, or the region will plunge into conflicts along ethnic or sectarian or ideological lines. Now that the Arab street has shown courage to confront the democratic deficit, it has to muster the courage to lay the foundations for a new society by inspiring thinking and discussion.

There’s no shortage of Arab thinkers and philosophers to build on. The Arab tradition of ideas is rich and vast, dating back to the eighth century. The thirst for knowledge led Arab thinkers to enthusiastically recover the works of the ancient Greeks, to produce many books in the spheres of science, poetry, and philosophy, and to create a vibrate society. That period has long been ignored, viewed as artifact of distant history. A second period of Arab renaissance (Nahda) emerged in the late 19th and early 20th century, but it quickly collapsed. Afterward a stream of Western ideologies – socialism, communism, liberalism – have come and gone. For different reasons Western ideologies failed to win hearts and minds, giving way to the rise of Islamism. Yet after several decades of “Islam is the solution,” it has become abundantly clear that the Arab world at least has not come together around a common Islamic narrative.

Nothing is more likely to jeopardize the noble objective of the Arab uprisings than their lack of a vision for a new society based on tolerance, freedom, and dignity. For the Arab world to realize a new societal order it needs to reignite the fire of learning and free inquiry, to revitalize its intellectual history, and to empower its intellectuals to chart an alternative to authoritarianism. Call it Arabic liberalism or whatever you will, the Arab world is starving for a renaissance guided by moral values and processes from within the Arabic tradition.

The Arab world has had its caliphs, sultans, and sheikhs, but it has not had a Voltaire. Never has the Arab world more urgently needed an Arab Voltaire who can break the false dichotomy between tradition and progress. This Arab Voltaire is not against public piety but speaks out for the separation between religion and state. His mission is to bring Arab society to the forefront of the 21st century without marginalizing its cultural values or its Islamic tradition and yet standing steadfastly against fanaticism, backwardness, and intolerance.

Without an Arab Voltaire it is difficult to see how the Arab world can escape the cycle of authoritarianism. The force of the uprising may unseat one dictator, but what could stop another from seizing power?

Islam Qasem is a strategic analyst at the Hague Center for Strategic Studies and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.