Is Liberalism the way to reform the Middle East? [Archives:2008/1160/Viewpoint]

May 2 2008

Fifteen academic researchers, journalists, and human right activists gathered in Ankara, Turkey last week to discuss how to promote free society. The Association for Liberal Thinking (ALT) who hosted the conference claims that “liberalism” is the ideology that can best promote a free society.

The concept of liberalism stresses individual freedom over societal freedom. According to Turkish intellectuals at the ALT, that means the guarantee of a free society, in which individuals should have the abilities, tools and channels to pursue his or her individual desires inside of the societal framework.

Liberalism is distinct from socialism, nationalism, and secularism because individuals' rights include the right to religious freedom, which encompasses the right to practice any religion of the individual's choice as well as the freedom to be non-religious. Liberalism also encourages economic freedom through free trade and open markets.

Freedom of speech and the freedom to partake in political activities such as voting and forming political parties or civil society organizations are also part of this ideology.

Religious freedom, and economic freedom were the most debatable points at the workshop, and participates did not hide their fears that such values are not suitable for application in Middle Eastern countries. Right now, the region's citizens are undergoing difficult economic and social upheavals that are preventing them from competing in the global marketplace. In addition, most Arab Muslim countries strongly believe in Islamism, not just as an ideology but also as rule of law (sharia).

Clearly, Liberalism is an ideal that cannot be practiced in the short term in the Arab World, where the authorities control the lifestyle of the individuals. After decades of this type of rule, individuals themselves begin to accept that it is the government, sheikhs, or tribes who should take responsibility for determining their rights.

In Yemen, for example, where religious and tribal sheikhs have great influence over the population, citizens do not understand or accept Liberalism with an open mind. Many people think that such a philosophy will threaten their way of life, and political authorities are afraid of having their power revoked through the popularization of Liberalism. Yemen does not have a free economy, since most of its business enterprises are in some way tied to the state. Obstacles such as corruption and a high unemployment rate prevent the economy from becoming a free entity with local and international investments flowing in from around the world like so many of the neighboring gulf countries. But with that economic freedom come social trends and customs from outside – something that both citizens and politicians in the region fear.

Politicians are likewise quick to accuse Liberalism of opening the door to extremist parties, whether they are religious or political. They say that under the Liberalism umbrella, these extremist parties are able to practice threatening activities and emphasize their ideologies to the exclusion others, which will threaten not only individual freedom and the Liberalism philosophy but society as a whole. “Protecting the culture and the social aspects of a society,” was and is still used as an excuse for dictatorial governments to dominate their citizens by limiting human rights and silencing the media.

Some of the participants assumed that Liberalism was merely the latest approach by which the United States government will use to gain more influence in the region. This could be true, as foreign countries have been competing for regional power though the force of their ideologies, such as Islamism, socialism and nationalism, for quite some time.

Others participants said that that promoting freedom of the individual in the changing Arab world is not just a suggestion but a compulsory element of development. Ideologies – even those with the best intentions – can harden and become dogmatic, as in Turkey where the workshop took place, which imposes secularism throughout the country. Liberalism could be guilty of the same offenses.

With all these changes, there are many questions still needing answers. Are Arab Muslims citizens ready to accept Liberalism? Can Middle Eastern governments comprehend and employ Liberalism to overcome economic, religious, political travails that limit rights and freedoms? Do regional governments and their citizens label Liberalism as an unacceptable, Western-only belief interfering with the cultural norms of the Arab Muslim masses?

The answers of these questions can only be found in the future. But there is no perfect ideology that can ensure human rights all of the time, in every situation. Each of us must individually take on the responsibilities that come with freedom.