Paris (AsiaNews) - Mgr Maroun Lahham, patriarchal vicar to Jordan and a former archbishop of Tunis, spoke at a seminar in France on 19 January on the role of religion in the development of Arab societies. The text of his address can be found on the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem website. In it, the prelate explains how Islamist parties hijacked the Arab spring and goes on to offer some ideas on how Arabs can develop a future democratic society. He warns Islamists and the West that since the awakening of Arab peoples the Arab world is no longer the same. "While the Arab people were always afraid of their leaders now it is the leaders who are afraid of their people."
The role and place of religion in society, in general, and the political world, in particular, is a question as old as the world. Since the Edict of Milan in 313, the relationship between these two "worlds", that is to say, politics and religion has had endless variations: the submission of religion to politics, the submission of politics to religion, the clear and almost negative separation (the law of 1905), the more flexible separation (in English and German speaking countries). Nowadays, on the side of the Christian religion, Vatican II speaks of "mutual independence and healthy collaboration" (GS76) and on the European political side they speak about "positive secularism". The time tones down ideological remarks.
However, this framework seems to be fairly balanced and does not apply to the Arab world. First, societies are not the same, but also the role of religion in politics and society is not the same. Religion, or rather the fact of religion, has always had and continues to have a role in the development of Arab societies. I will not dwell in the past, because the topic which interests us has a strong reference to the present, to what they call "the Arab spring", and especially to the new political regimes which have taken over, regimes of Muslim persuasion or Muslim regimes with Salafist factions period.
Having moved from the opposition to the government, the religious parties were forced to speak on economics and politics, without nevertheless renouncing the desire (will?) to change the society and to make it "evolve" in an Islamist direction. Certainly, they do not say it, they were also defending themselves, but there are many examples: failed attempts - to introduce Sharia in the new Tunisian Constitution; a stricter line in observing the Ramadan fast, partial and full Islamic veil; political speeches in mosques; trial balloons to re-introduce polygamy; to make Halal hotels and Haram hotels; to change the law of adoption and the law of guarantee; to introduce the full veil in universities .... Not to mention slogans such as: "Islam is the solution", "I want to be governed by the Law of God" (Sharia), "a good Muslim is a veiled Muslim", etc.
That said, the presence of Muslim or Islamist regimes at the summit of power is legitimate and legally indisputable. This is an absolutely new fact. And in this there is a lesson for the West and another for Muslim parties themselves.
To the West: The Middle East and the Arab countries, in general, are no longer the same, and a turning back is unthinkable. The Arab street has exploded, and while the Arab people were always afraid of their leaders now it is the leaders who are afraid of their people. This change is of utmost importance, and I do not know if the West is able to measure the significance.
It is no longer possible or permitted to deal with Arab despot leaders, to condone the violation of human rights under the pretext of protecting its own borders against illegal immigration or stop the advance of Islamist parties. Arab countries are Muslim majority countries, and the West must change its course of action and deal with this new reality.
For the Arab countries who choose to be governed by political Islam, they should know that political Islam is moderate or it has no chance of success. No country, Arab or otherwise, can live in a religious or political "ghetto". I give an example: political Islam has to deal with banks powered by interest, which is not allowed in rigid Islam governed by Sharia.
With a West that accepts new rules of the political game, and with an open and moderate political Arab Islam, life becomes possible.
I ask again: the religion as it is today or as it will appear tomorrow in several Arab countries, can Arab societies change and what is their role in their development? Let me sketch an answer.
First of all, I know that the time of the prophets is over. What I say are ideas that are solely my own.
The religious fact can successfully change or evolve Arab societies:
And if that does not happen? If this does not happen, the parties with Islamic tendencies will have had their chance. And since all the world is talking about freedom and democracy - which is already huge for Arab countries and the religious parties themselves - it will need to give the same opportunity to other parties. The party that will govern Arab countries and develop Arab societies to be better will be the party for which hundreds of young people have sacrificed their youth and their life.