"Where are the moderate voices from the Arab world?"
This common lament often leads to nostalgic evocations of the Golden Age of Islam. US President Barack Obama recently harked back to this period of Islamic enlightenment, innovation and tolerance in his June 2009 Cairo speech, in which he attempted to redefine the relationship between Muslims and the United States.
Actually, there is no need to reach back 1,000 years to find Muslim advocates for tolerance and moderation. Amongst the many examples of this around the world is the realm of Arabic literature.
The Arab world is rich in literature–including a surge of new novels and non-fiction–that examines all aspects of Arab life and advocates a vision of a multicultural society that respects human rights. These works draw on the traditions of the medieval Golden Age, and of the Arab Renaissance of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Eight decades ago, the seminal scholar Rifa'i Al-Tahtawi, once head of Al-Azhar Mosque and University (Obama's host in Cairo), advocated tolerance towards non-Muslims and engaged in vibrant debates with contemporary European intellectuals. In his 1830 book An Imam in Paris, he argued for an open, moderate version of Islam. Such ideas were not restricted to Egypt. Writing at the turn of the 20th century, the pious Syrian scholar Abdul Rahman Al-Kawakibi urged the separation of mosque and state to protect the purity of Islam from political manipulation.
Today's Arab Muslim authors also bravely delve into taboo subjects from the correct interpretation of Islam to women's and minority rights, government corruption, extremism and political oppression. Some advocate a more tolerant version of Islam, one that has become increasingly marginalised.
Why are some of these moderate voices not better known in the Middle East or the West? To begin with, they are banned in parts of the Arab world.
The notorious case of Egyptian Islamic scholar Nasr Abu Zayd illustrates how governments collude with or ignore the intimidation of progressives by fundamentalists. Conservatives branded Abu Zayd a heretic for penning a moderate interpretation of the Qur'an and filed suit against him in a Cairo court. To the shock of Arabs who support a separation of church and state, the court supported the heresy charge.
In 2006, Egyptian police went from bookstore to bookstore, confiscating copies of a book called The Modern Sheikhs and the Industry of Religious Extremism, which urges religious and government authorities to play a more positive role on such issues as the environment, corruption and women's rights. They were acting at the behest of Al-Azhar's Islamic Research Center which, under Egyptian law, has the right to censor books and other cultural products.
Yet the popularity of books such as The Yacoubian Building by Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany, now in its eighth reprinting, attest to a growing demand for works that are authentically Arab and not doctrinaire. Like the Nobel Prize winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz, Al Aswany candidly exposes social and political problems plaguing Egypt through stories about the lives of ordinary people.
Still, with some notable exceptions, the works of these new Arab writers, as well as their predecessors from the last century, are not always found in bookstores in the Middle East today.
What is accessible are religious tracts, both historic and contemporary.
With a click of a mouse anyone can access entire libraries of militant texts available online, while banned books by mainstream Muslims which could find their way to Arab readers were they posted online are nowhere to be found. Yet it is these writers, contemporary and renaissance, who offer tolerant, open-minded alternatives, anchored within their own traditions. And they offer the Obama administration the possibility of forging a genuine connection with Arab publics.
The administration aims to replace the advocacy of American values with a new focus on empowering local voices. Those policies, taking shape at the US Department of State under a new Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Judith A. McHale, represent a promising departure from the failed "spoon-fed democracy" approach that Admiral Mike Mullen rightly criticised recently.
If the US government learns anything from the failure of the US-funded al-Hurrah television station, it should be that foreign bureaucracies should not manufacture messages of democracy and tolerance to be broadcast at the Arab world. Such impulses need to come from within. They should be organic and authentic and free of government fingerprints.
The Obama administration could start by condemning censorship and persecution of writers, and encouraging investments in education, literacy, libraries and broader Internet access. Non-governmental groups could support the publication and dissemination of mainstream Arab Muslim authors through universities and other institutions such as the Library of Alexandria, which plans to re-issue the Arabic classics.
Westerners cannot and should not attempt to script Arab thought. What the United States and its allies can do, however, is help ensure that the voices of diverse Arab Muslims are given a platform, equal to that given to fundamentalists.
* Cynthia P. Schneider is Distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy at Georgetown University and a senior non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution. Nadia Oweidat is a researcher at the RAND Corporation and a D. Phil candidate at Oxford University. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the authors. The full text can be found at ac360.blogs.cnn.com.