Arab liberals debate - Lebanese Pierre Akel hosts the popular Web site Middle East Transparent, which receives 50,000-60,000 hits a day. While the Paris-based site is trilingual (Arabic, English, French), its particular value is that it has become a forum for Arab liberals who would otherwise have no outlet for their writings.
from metatransparent (English version)
No Red Lines
A Reason interview with Middle East Transparent's Pierre Akel
Lebanese Pierre Akel hosts the popular Web site Middle East Transparent, which receives 50,000-60,000 hits a day. While the Paris-based site is trilingual (Arabic, English, French), its particular value is that it has become a forum for Arab liberals who would otherwise have no outlet for their writings. Akel himself has written for Arabic newspapers in London and Paris. He moved to France in 1976, after studying economics at the American University of Beirut and philosophy at the Lebanese University. He also took history at the University of Paris, Sorbonne. He finances the site himself, and for the moment, only the enthusiasm of his readers and writers keeps him going.
reason: Describe your Web site, Metransparent.com.
Pierre Akel: In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, it seemed to me that Arab liberals had to take a stand against the barbarian wave threatening to engulf the region. The danger was imminent. Only, no one could provide a comprehensive definition of Arab liberal currents. Americans tended to rely on English-speaking analysts, many of whom live in the United States and Europe. My friend Barry Rubin has written extensively on Arab liberals. However, Barry does not read Arabic and has what I call a "pro-Israel bias." He tends to shed a negative light on Arab liberals. I myself was much more familiar with the Islamic fundamentalist movement than with liberal currents. I had talked to the "Londonstan" leaders, read their writings and explored the many fundamentalist Web sites in Saudi Arabia.
Metransparent was an attempt to explore such liberal currents as exist inside the Middle East. I discovered the different strains of Arab liberalism along with my readers. An independent Web site was necessary in order to allow people to write what they really had in mind, not merely what they were allowed to write. It was also necessary as a forum for the diverse currents in the region.
To understand Arab liberalism, one has to understand not only what it now represents but where it emerged from: In Syria, it mostly comes from the remnants of the communist or Marxist left—just like the Eastern European dissidents of 30 years ago. In Saudi Arabia, it comes from the very heart of Islamic fundamentalist culture, but also from the orthodox Sunnis originating in the Hijaz, where the cities of Jeddah, Medina and Mecca are located. Hussein Shobokshi is a good example. It also comes from the Shiite minority in the oil producing Eastern Province. In Tunisia, it comes from the reformed Islamic university Al-Zaitouna. In Egypt, liberals are inspired by the great liberal tradition that was crushed by the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
reason: What's your average day like when it comes to finding articles? Whose articles do you tend to run?
Akel: We get our articles by email from practically every Arab country. Right now we have too many opinion pieces and are late in publishing what we receive. Most of the authors—we have more than 200—write exclusively for us; some send their articles to Arabic newspapers and to us, and we publish complete, uncensored versions. I believe we have something like 25 opinion articles from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates per week, a bit more from Egypt, and many more from Syria, which has a formidable civil society movement. Tunisians also contribute quite a bit, as well as Moroccans, especially Berber intellectuals, and Yemenis, Algerians, etc.
I am especially proud to say that, soon, half of our writers shall be women. Usually, I receive letters from potential authors asking what "our conditions" are for accepting contributions. We answer back that we are a democratic and liberal Web site, with no censorship or red lines.
The Web site also has a reputation as a forum for liberal Shiites, both Saudi and Lebanese. But, most importantly, I believe we are the most daring site in advocating an Islamic Reformation, as represented by such writers as Gamal Banna [the brother of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna], Judge Said al-Ashmawy, and Sayyid al-Qimny, all from Egypt; and by many writers in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Islamic reformers are part and parcel of the Arab liberal movement. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are the two countries where calls for an Islamic Reformation are the most advanced.
reason: Is there room for Middle Eastern liberalism today, between dictatorships and Islamists?
Akel: Remember the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Autumn of the Patriarch, where people open the palace doors to discover that the dictator has been dead for a long time? This applied to the Soviet Union and now to Arab dictatorships as well. Dictatorships are dead; they lost the ideological and moral high ground years ago. The battle is between fundamentalists and liberals. Liberalism is the wave of the future. The Middle East is not like Afghanistan, if only because of oil, and cannot be allowed to turn into a Taliban-led region. Since 9/11 both Afghanistan and Iraq have been liberated. This is the trend.
reason: Who do you feel are the liberal heroes in the region? Who do you find most interesting among political commentators?
Akel: You can find liberals in unexpected places. Ahmad bin Baz, the son of the late mufti of Saudi Arabia, is certainly a liberal. He wrote stunning articles in Al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper, but then was shelved. He was probably "advised" by the religious scholars to stop writing. Mansour al-Nogaidan and the great Wajeeha al-Huweider, the best Arab feminist nowadays, are brilliant Saudi liberal examples. Ali Doumaini is another. In Egypt, I already mentioned a few names, and can add to them Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Abdel Moneim Said, Ali Salem, and others.
Of course, in Syria Riad Turk is a brilliant example of Arab liberalism. Though he spent some two decades in prison for his communist convictions, I talked to him for four hours and he never once mentioned Marx or Lenin. He even criticized the Lebanese Democratic Left Party, with which I am close, because for him being of the left is not necessary at this historical moment; a democratic movement, he told me, was enough and more adequate.
The Tunisian Lafif Lakhdar is another radiant example. The Lebanese Shiite Sheikh Hani Fahs is a liberal writer. And of course the late Samir Kassir, whose assassination last June was a terrible blow to us all, both in Lebanon and in Syria. Kassir was the intellectual most aware of the organic relationship between the modern democratic movement in the contemporary Levant and the 19th-century Arab liberal renaissance known as Al-Nahda.
reason: How has the Internet been able to affect political attitudes in the Middle East? Or has it?
Akel: In the Arab world, much more than in the West, we can genuinely talk of a blog revolution. Arab culture has been decimated during the last 50 years. Arab newspapers are mainly under Saudi control. The book market is practically dead. Some of the best authors pay to have their books published in the order of 3,000 copies for a market of 150 million. This is ridiculous. Even when people write, they face censorship at every level—other than their own conscious or unconscious censorship. Meanwhile, professional journalism is rare.
In the future, I would like Metransparent to promote tens (or even hundreds) of blogs representing human rights and activists groups in many Arab cities. This has already started. Just to clarify a point about the Arab cultural scene. Freedom House writes a yearly report about the Arab world. It never mentions books. I have published official Iraqi censorship documents for the 1990s. Emile Zola, Agatha Christie, Shakespeare, Alexander Dumas, and tens of 19th-century Western writers were banned by Saddam Hussein. The list even included Learn English in Five Days. The whole of classical literature was banned by the Baathists.
reason: In recent years the Middle Eastern satellite media has gained much prominence. How does the Internet compare to it, in your experience?
Akel: When it comes to satellite television in the region, Al-Jazeera is controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, while many of the rest are under Saudi control. Al-Arabiya, for example, is owned by the Al-Ibrahim, the brothers-in-law of the late King Fahd. Even the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation cannot cross certain Saudi red lines. Yes, you can hear a liberal point of view here and there. But, to take one example, both Abdul Halim Khaddam, the former Syrian vice president who turned against the regime of President Bashar Assad, and Riad Turk, the Syrian dissident, have been under a Saudi ban from Al-Arabiya for the last month, because the Saudi leadership does not now want to annoy the Assad regime. For once, Al-Jazeera has also banned them, but for Qatari political reasons. Qatar is lobbying on behalf of the Syrian regime in Europe.
On the Internet, people can publish whatever they want: no red lines. They can use pen names if they want. People read, send comments, and they transmit information to their friends by email and fax, etc. The regimes' monopoly on information has been broken. Remember: Three months ago a Libyan writer was assassinated and his fingers cut for writing articles on an opposition Web site. The Internet is a historical opportunity for Arab liberalism.
Of course, liberals cannot compete with Al-Jazeera. We do not have the financial means to start a liberal satellite channel. Hundreds of Arab millionaires are liberals. Only, they cannot stand up to their regimes. Arab capitalism is mostly state capitalism. If you are in opposition, you are not awarded contracts by states. So, for the near future, we do not expect much help from these quarters.
reason: How is Metransparent funded?
Akel: We are not funded and are surviving by personal means. I have been paying all the expenses, because promises from a number of Arab businessmen never materialized. On many occasions I have thought of calling it a day and ending Metransparent. The burden is getting heavier every day. We are trying to get financial support free of political conditions, but that is not easy. The advertisement market is smaller when you are mostly an Arabic-language Web site. What keeps the site alive is the amazing reaction from the readers. Metransparent has 50,000–60,000 hits per day, with no publicity and no mailing campaigns on our part. This means there is demand. Plus, I find it hard to disappoint all those generous writers who have been with us for two years. Some of the Syrian writers do not even own a computer. They have to beg friends to type and email their articles. We shall keep on as long as possible. There is, probably, a light at the end of the tunnel. Or, we will close down.
reason: Liberals have been among the most severe critics of the war in Iraq. However, one might say that for the first time the U.S. has rejected alliances with regional despots; that Iraq was a start; and that liberals have missed an opportunity by so vocally opposing the U.S.? How would you respond?
Akel: Most liberals, at least among our writers, favored the U.S. military intervention in Iraq. I myself have written articles in support, before and after the invasion. I didn't support it because of Iraqi WMD, however, but for democracy. We would have liked President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair to say openly that they were invading to liberate the Iraqi people. Remember, even Riad Turk was not against the U.S. intervention. A Syrian, Abdul Razzaq Eid, who spent most of his life in the doctrinaire Syrian Communist Party of Khaled Bekdash, even wrote articles welcoming it.
Things changed with the disaster that was Paul Bremer. The U.S. should have turned things over to the Iraqis immediately after liberation. Former Pentagon official Richard Perle was absolutely right about this point. Most liberals still believe the U.S. is serious about democracy, for reasons explained by Bush in his second inaugural address. Democracy in the Middle East has become a vital American interest. It's either democracy or many future Osama bin Ladens striking against U.S. interests.
I admit some liberals took longer to overcome the Arab-Islamic taboo against approving foreign intervention. This is increasingly behind us. Yet, what Iraq proved was that the U.S. could not do the job alone. Internal democratic forces had to be mobilized. We are part of this "internal" process. I should add that outside intervention should not only be military. Ideally, we would like something like the Helsinki Accords, where the international community's relations with the Arab world involve spreading democracy, defending Arab dissidents, human rights, women's rights and minority rights. Syrian dissidents have been calling for this for years. Last year, Metransparent circulated a petition asking the United Nations to create an International Court to judge the authors of fatwas condemning people to death.
reason: If you had to cite in one sentence the major challenge for Arab liberals in the coming year, what would it be?
Akel: Managing relations with the Islamists. They are the liberals' adversaries but also, in certain cases, their necessary partners. To take an example from a completely different context: In the 1980s, French President François Mitterrand co-opted the French Communist Party and accelerated its implosion. Saad Eddine Ibrahim in Egypt and Riad Turk in Syria are wagering on a similar development in the Middle East. You bring Islamists into the open, encourage them to take part in the political life of a country, and they are bound to disintegrate into their various component elements. For example, the leader of the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ali Sadruddin al-Bayanouni, recently opted for peaceful negotiations with Israel and even for a possible recognition of Israel. This would not go down well with other Syrian Islamists. Dissension shall occur over issues like this one and others. It is either this or the Assad and Mubarak regimes will last for a long time. The same applies tto Hamas. Co-opting Islamists is a risky proposal, of course. Where liberals should never make concessions is where Islamists tend to be harshest: the status of women. In that domain no concessions must be made.
Reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor at the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut.http://www.reason.com/links/links020906.shtml
Last modified 2006-08-06 08:34 PM