06/23/2011, 00.00
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An "ambiguous" Arab Spring and a "squalid" West

by Bernardo Cervellera
The upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa give rise to hopes, but also to fears of an military or fundamentalist involution. The Churches of Tunisia and Egypt want to live alongside the entire population. The debate on the "secularism" of the institutions and religious freedom. A tired and "cowardly” West is in need of a new evangelization. The outcome of the Oasis Scientific Committee meeting.
Venice (AsiaNews) - The "Arab Spring" is ambiguous and there is still a very strong risk that it may be betrayed by Islamic fundamentalism or political or military authoritarianism. But it is also a "point of no return" because it brought out the need for pluralism within Arab Islam itself. This is why to ensure this pluralism, religious freedom and the life of Christian communities is the best guarantee for a democratic future and an open civil society.

At the same time, the "Arab Spring" also calls into question the values that the West, where the very values that the Arab world is seeking are translated in ways that marginalize religion or extol relativism.

These are some of the themes that were the focus of a three-day meeting (June 19 to 22) of the Scientific Committee of Oasis magazine in Venice, under the chairmanship of Card. Angelo Scola. A meeting that saw the presence of bishops and patriarchs from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, and Islamic and Christian scholars from the most qualified universities in the world.

Ambiguity in the present and future

The uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa are "ambiguous" primarily because they have taken different paths in different countries: non-violent revolution (or almost) in Tunisia and Egypt; bloody conflict in Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia. All, however, were motivated by the people’s demands for a more dignified life, for work, for a regime change, for democracy seen as an opportunity for groups and minorities that make up the population of the countries concerned to become the protagonists of their societies.

Various experts have intervened to point out that all this shows the deep need for a plurality that is respected and experienced and the desire for a society that is based on the dignity of the person and not on power or corruption. In this sense, the "uprisings" reject a monolithic Islam, which leaves no room for different ways of living the Muslim faith or other religious minorities. For this reason, in many cases (especially Tunisia and Egypt) Christians took to the streets to demonstrate side by side with young Muslims.

Msgr. Maroun Laham, Archbishop of Tunis has repeatedly said that Christians "are not afraid" of these upheavals. On the contrary, the Christians of the Middle East (and North Africa) must be helped to integrate more and more into the social fabric of their peoples.

In this regard, the Catholic patriarch of Alexandria Antonio Naguib, recalled that during the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, "Christians did not ask for the West’s protection." The imam of Al Azhar and the Mubarak government have argued instead that Benedict XVI had requested such protection for Christians, but this is a misinterpretation of the words of the Pope (see AsiaNews.it, The 20/01/2011 Islamic Al Azhar University suspends dialogue with Vatican).

A "third way" for secularism

The prospects of the young people’s revolt still remain suspended however. Mainly because in addition to the desire for change, there are several other factors: the army, the fundamentalist groups, the old nomenclature. Some experts - such as Mark Movsesian, Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St John's University (New York, USA) - recalled that at the end of the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire tried to secularize society (Tanzimat) guaranteeing full citizenship to all groups (including Christians) and pushing for democracy. But the fall of the empire led to the Turkish military power and caused the backlash of the Armenian and Christian genocide.

In the search for a society that gives full citizenship to all social groups, the Middle East is faced with two models: the "American", in which the state is neutral toward religions, but allows them to exert an influence in society, though subject to respect for human rights, the "French" in which religions are reduced to the private sphere, excluding them from public life. Several authors - and among these, Lebanese Salim Daccache, of St Joseph University (Beirut) - have shown that in Lebanon and the Middle East people have a profound sense of belonging to their religious communities, so it is important to seek "a third way ", in which the state gives space to the influence of religion in society, but at the same time guarantees the plurality of religious expressions.

It must be said that fundamentalist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or Salafi parties in Tunisia are also involved in this search for a "third way", although some of these experts believe that the moderate positions taken by these groups are a pre-election gimmick rather than a sign of real change.

Card. Scola repeatedly stressed that the positive future of the "insurgency" can be verified in the passage towards institutionalization, in the spaces that new social structures and political will allocate to religious freedom.

The weary West

In this context of upheaval and of searching the silence or the pusillanimity of the West (Europe and USA) has clearly emerged. It had always supported the various dictators of countries involved in the "jasmine revolution" and remained speechless before the demonstrations, preaching respect and justice when governments (supported and recognized by Europe and America) have tried to suppress the movement even with violence .

Some (Prof. Vittorio E. Parsi, Catholic University of Milan) attempted to show the NATO intervention in Libya as a commitment to "human rights", but many pointed out the local Churches’ criticism of the intervention, which leaves no room for diplomacy, and many suspect that the Western military manoeuvres in Libya hides its oil and financial interests.

The parsimoniousness of the West’s indifference to the Arab revolutions (or its partial interest), has pushed Card. Scola to conclude the meeting by recalling the importance of evangelization, not only in the Middle East, but also in Europe, where secularization is dragging Christians to live Christianity as if it were merely a cultural or charitable inspiration. "We need - said the patriarch of Venice – to return to a Christian identity that is live on a personal and communal level."

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