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‘The Arab Spring has Yet to Begin’

An interview with Boualem Sansal.

3:15 PM, Oct 20, 2011 • By JOHN ROSENTHAL
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Arab society is almost entirely Islamic and very conservative. It is as such very close to religious fundamentalism. Even in a country that is very open and modern like Tunisia, the spirit of ordinary people is impregnated with Islam. It’s their religion, it’s their tradition, it’s their culture, their everyday life. They have a natural tendency to listen to the religious discourse of the Islamists with great sympathy. One talks to them about God, about paradise, about justice – in the Islamic sense of the term – and people like it a lot.

When Western governments make clear that they accept the prospect of “moderate Islamists” taking power, it is extremely dangerous. It represents a form of encouragement to all Islamists, including the most radical, who say, “okay, then let’s try to pass ourselves off as moderates” – like the Muslim Brotherhood does in Egypt – and it discourages the democratic forces. Moreover, it is also a subtle way of suggesting to the military that it should negotiate with the “moderate Islamists.” It is a way of saying that they should establish a sort of power-sharing arrangement. But one has to keep in mind that we are talking about the Muslim world. This is to say that if society does not move toward democratization and secularization, it will always fall back upon political Islam.

The fundamental issue remains the same: the Muslim world and its elites need to have the courage to accept the idea of individual freedom. Freedom of organization, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, sexual freedom. All forms of freedom. In this context, Islam should be simply an individual matter: a form of spirituality that belongs to the private sphere. It is nobody else’s business and nobody should interfere. But society as such is governed by a consensus among citizens on the basis of the law: not on the basis of religion, but on the basis of the law. Everyone has the same rights and responsibilities: whether one is Muslim, Jewish, or Christian, whether homosexual or heterosexual, and so on. The sole basis is the law.

If one does not insist on this, we are going to see the same sort of evolution as in Algeria. In 1988-1989, we thought we had done it. We had become democrats. Three years later, there is civil war. The war lasts ten years. Then it is over and we think: it is okay now, people are rid of the Islamist influence and we are all going to become fanatical supporters of secular democracy. But this is not what happened at all. On the contrary, all of society became submerged in Islam. I live in a university town. In 1988, there was one mosque. After a civil war in which 100,000 died, now there are fifteen mosques. On Friday, all the streets around the mosques are full of people praying. And who are they? They are academics: professors and researchers who have done their studies in the United States, France, Germany, England, Belgium.

Once a country enters into a process of regression, it does not stop.

(Translated from French by John Rosenthal)

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