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Toufic Gaspard interview: liberalism is the only remaining option for Arab societies

Saturday 17 January 2015

Shaffaf Interview with Toufic Gaspard

Shaffaf- From a Beirut perspective, how did the Daesh disaster come about? Who is to blame?

Toufic Gaspard: Unfortunately, the wars in Iraq and Syria have revived the historical Sunni-Shiite hostility. In Iraq, the Shiite regime, supported by Iran, has been very harsh on Sunnis since the downfall of Saddam Hussein, and the uprising in Syria effectively put the majority Sunni population against the heavy-handed military response of the Alawite Assad regime against the uprising. Daesh is an extreme fundamentalist Sunni response to what is perceived as the continuous losses of the Sunnis in both Iraq and Syria against Shiite opponents.

However, I would put the blame above all on the Iranian project, and on the political and economic failures of the Arab regimes, which both constitute a fundamental reason for the rise of Daesh. The Iranian project has effectively started with the Khomeini revolution in 1979, and its expressed objective of exporting its Islamic revolution to the region at large. The project is still ongoing and public, though without its “Islamic revolution” part: Iranian officials frequently and openly express satisfaction with regard to their political and military strength in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and, recently, Yemen. Of course, that has exacerbated the double historical hostility: religious of Sunnis versus Shiites, and ethnic of Arabs versus Persians.

In addition, the Arab regimes of Nasserism and Baathism, and many other regimes, have failed politically and economically. They had turned despotic with a severe control of freedoms, and a poor economic performance record that is distinguished by low standards of living and high unemployment, especially among the young. The liberal alternative was simply non-existent in terms of parties or projects. Islamic fundamentalism became the only available option that filled the void following the collapse of Arab regimes during the recent Arab uprisings.

Shaffaf- Have the so-called Islamic State succeeded in attracting young Sunnis? Are there many Lebanese in the ranks of Daesh? Could the so-called "Lebanese sunnism" withstand the present hurricane?

Toufic Gaspard: Among young Arabs, including the Sunnis, many are unemployed and, more important, have practically no prospects of getting a decent job in the future. Their horizon is blocked. The only appealing alternative in a society that has remained fundamentally religious, and where a liberal tradition or party is weak or non-existent, is to join a radical group such as Daesh, or similar groups. At least, these offer a “romantic” and adventurous prospect that has always appealed to the young. Critically, Daesh and other radical groups have thrived much more on the absence of promising and viable alternatives than on the appeal of their projects.

It is hard to come to reliable figures concerning the number of Lebanese who have joined Daesh. If the recent fighting in Tripoli and Arsal between the Army and fundamentalist groups is an indication, then their number is not significant. However, the number of Sunnis who sympathize with Daesh must be quite large, sympathizing not with the practices or ideology of Daesh per se but in opposition to the perceived Shiite or Iranian project.

Whether traditional “Lebanese sunnism” can withstand the Daesh hurricane is an open question. Already, the Al-Mustaqbal party, which was founded by the late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and currently is the largest and most influential Sunni party in Lebanon, is losing adherents and sympathizers to the radical Islamic groups, though not necessarily to Daesh. The reason is that those leaving Al-Mustaqbal criticize the party’s failure in confronting Hezbollah in Lebanon and in stopping it from fighting in Syria. The outlook is that traditional Lebanese sunnism would continue to lose ground and adherents to the extent that Hezbollah would remain armed in Lebanon and continue fighting in Syria.

Shaffaf- Some analysts, including some Lebanese politicians, fear the present resurgence of Sunni and Shiite fundamentalism could threaten the existence of modern Lebanon in its present frontiers. Is the danger that imminent?

Toufic Gaspard: I do not believe so. Lebanon has withstood many existential shocks since the Cairo Agreement with the PLO in 1969. The Lebanese system is a stable system because it is the result of a consensus among the major political-religious forces in the country, namely Christian, Sunni, Shiite and Druze. Moreover, for decades, the leadership of these forces has been benefiting substantially, politically and financially, from this consensus.

However, if this stability means a proven resistance to shocks, it does not necessarily mean progress. In fact, the current Lebanese system is, by its nature, resistant to reform because executive power rests with the Council of Ministers combined. Hence, the performance of the system since 1990 has mostly been one of “cutting deals” and an exchange of benefits among leading parties or political groups rather than a system producing or even caring about political and economic reforms.

In the medium to long term, Lebanon will be subject to two major risks. The first is economic, as the economy is gradually undermined by falling productivity (the result of the outflow of the skilled and the inflow of the unskilled since many years) and growing public debt, to which the authorities pay no practical attention except the pronouncement of empty slogans. The second risk is an existential one and relates directly to your question. If the current wars raging in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, etc. lead to a reconfiguration of the state borders in the region, then Lebanon also would likely be reconfigured, particularly if Hezbollah continues to operate as a separate armed entity within Lebanon.

Shaffaf- In a previous article you signaled out the futility of Arab Renaissance attempts to reconcile Islam with modernity. Is secularism, à la Ataturk, if it were possible, the way out?

Toufic Gaspard: It would certainly be a major step in the right direction. We should remember, however, that modernity and religion, including Islam, are essentially antagonistic in the political sphere, and cannot co-exist. Religion derives legitimacy from eternal, supra-human principles, while with modernity people determine their own fate.

Note, however, that Turkish secularism is still a work in progress, and is now in danger of regressing with President Erdogan. Historically, the interests of the Turkish state stood above all else, including religion. And religion was to serve the state. Thus, Kemalism, with its emphasis on a strong central state, fitted well in Turkish society. But Ataturk wanted a “secular society of Muslims”. That is why Imams continue to be civil servants, and religious teaching is provided in public schools. So secularism in Turkey has always been a mixed affair, especially since it has never been democratic with its repressive policies towards non-Sunnis and the Kurds.

There is currently a very strong revival of Islam in Turkey. According to the Financial Times, Erdogan was recently rejoicing at the fact that the number of students at the state-run Imam Hatip religious schools has shot up from 63,000 in 2003 when he first came to office to 983,000 today. Moreover, Erdogan has previously stated that he wished to “raise a religious youth”. So the secular project in Turkey, already incomplete with Kemalism, may be in jeopardy. Hope lies, however, with the organized liberal and secular groups in Turkey.

Shaffaf- You called on liberals and social democrats to play a more prominent role in Arab societies. Is Arab liberalism compatible with the endless Arab-Israeli struggle?

Toufic Gaspard: Yes, it is. I believe that liberalism is the only option left for Arab societies, liberalism understood essentially as effective democracy, including the respect of universal human rights, and the separation of religion from the public sphere. Note that liberalism should be the option irrespective of the issue or problem at hand, because liberalism carries the absolute values of individual rights and freedoms, and self-determination through free, transparent and regular elections in a society of citizens. History shows that such a system is the best we know, and it has unmistakably succeeded in many countries, mainly in the West.

The Arabs have already tried the so-called secular strategies of Nasserism and Baathism, which effectively were a mixture of Arab nationalism and state-controlled development. These strategies failed on all the essential fronts: on the Arab nationalist front (no independent Palestine), political front (dictatorships, no freedoms) and economic front (poor growth, high unemployment, widespread poverty). Since about the 1970s, Islam has gradually become a socially and politically dominant force in the Arab world, and the Arab-Israeli struggle has become a religious rather than a national issue.

While Islam is a powerful mobilizing force, political Islam is also failing because it is only providing a rallying cry and does not carry a political, social or economic program. That is not sufficient to win the struggle.

Again, liberalism remains the only option that can bring us democracy and prosperity. Of course, there are liberal individuals in the Arab region but few genuine liberal parties that constitute a force for change. This is the main problem we encounter today. We keep entertaining the hope that liberal parties, from center or left, will emerge and will publicly seek to establish the foundations of a true secular and democratic society.

* Toufic Gaspard is a lebanese economist and writer.

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