Christian humanism to help the unexpected “Arab spring”
by Bernardo Cervellera
The scientific committee of the journal Oasis opened its annual meeting to discuss the present and future of the ‘Jasmine Revolutions’. Great new things are now possible, ranging from the battle against poverty and the struggle for human dignity to the rejection of Islamic radicalism. There are also worrisome signs with regard to fundamentalist groups and fears in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Europe. For Patriarch Scola, a new “economic reason” is necessary. Christian humanism must help the changes underway.
Venice (AsiaNews) – In less than a year, the Middle East (and North Africa) has radically changed following its new and “unexpected Arab spring”. What is its fate? What contributions can Christians make to stabilise such change? What are the consequences for a powerless Europe that is looking at events with grave concerns as waves of new refugees reach its shores? These are some of the questions raised by the Scientific Committee of the journal Oasis, which at present is holding its annual meeting in Venice, chaired by its founder, Card Angelo Scola.
The meeting, which ends on 22 June, is being held at the Study Centre of San Servolo Island. It brings together Church authorities from Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, as well as academics and scholars from various parts of the world, to address to issues raised by the meeting’s topic, namely “Where is the Middle East heading? New secularism and North Africa’s unexpected turn”.
This morning, following the customary greetings for the occasion by Oasis director Martino Diez, the Patriarch of Venice outlined the problem. Notwithstanding reactions that range from “optimism to pessimism” towards the changes underway, Card Scola stressed that the Arab spring is bringing forth a “new secularism” that is not rooted in (Islamic) religion, but in the search of human dignity, as people react to the humiliation of poverty and the lack of rights. At the same time, he acknowledged the revolution’s fragility and its need for time to solidify and consolidate, especially in economic terms.
At the same time, he looked at the problem from a European perspective (a continent that is “tired, passive, dissipated and divided”), which has focused only on the flow of refugees that reach the its shores (a few thousands), oblivious to the fact that poverty-stricken Tunisia has welcomed ten times that number. Europe, he noted, must rethink its economy and the global economic system in order to meet the demands of the “Arab spring”.
The answer is a “new economic reason”, as outlined by Benedict XVI in his Encyclical Caritas in veritate, whose focal point is the development of Africa and the need to go beyond the globalisation of goods and people (even refugees) to include the globalisation of riches and values.
For this reason, the Arab and Western worlds need “Christian humanism” to bear witness, with, as its basis, the dignity of the human person (of man created in God’s “image”, Genesis, 1:27; or man as God’s “successive authority” on earth, Qur‘an, 2:30).
The other presentations were more analytical, centred on specific situations. Malika Zeghal, of Harvard University, looked at Tunisia and the temptations of al-Nahdha, a radical fundamentalist organisation that has resurfaced after Ben Ali’s fall.
Prof Nikolaus Lobkowitcz (Eichstaett University) compared the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe to the current Arab revolution.
Mgr Maroun Lahham, archbishop of Tunis, talked about the Church’s marginal role in the Arab spring in Tunisia, describing it however as an example of the “seeds of the Kingdom” outside the borders of the Church.
Among the various papers, the one by Olivier Roy, professor at the European University Institute in Florence, stood out. For Roy, the “Arab spring” is a point of no return that fills him with optimism.
In his view, the uprising is rooted in individuals (not masses), demanding their rights. What is more, it has undermined political Islam (for it has nothing in common with Khomeini’s revolution, Palestinian demands, or the Muslim Brotherhood’s claim that the Qur‘an is the solution to societal problems) and it supports “personal dignity more than group “honour”.
In this context, religion is taking a backseat because at the root of the unrest are the multiple choices of young people (the real agents of revolution), some following Sufis, others opting for spiritual masters, and still more choosing yoga or Zen . . . .
Yet, the presence of radical groups is worrisome for the future. For now, all that can be said is that the immediate outlook is one of debates, even acrimonious ones, which will touch some aspects of the relationship between religion and politics, like apostasy, blasphemy, etc.
Roy also noted how much world public opinion has been stunned by the course of events, how it has generated fear in Iran and Saudi Arabia, raised concerns in Europe over its economy and refugee flow and alarmed Israel over the destabilisation of the Middle East.
According to the French scholar, the nature of the Arab revolution is not however measured by “secularism”, but by the place, religion can play in the new socio-political framework that could emerge.
In any case, changes underway are a path towards “universal values”, which are close but not reducible to the notions of “man’s dignity” and “good government” that are part of the Western tradition.