altArchbishop Lahham, Patriarchal Vicar for Jordan, and former Archbishop of Tunis gave a lecture on “the role of religion in the development of Arab societies” at a conference in France. We publish here his speech given in Paris on 19 January 2013.



The role and place of religion in society, in general, and the political world, in particular, is a question as old as the world. Since the Edict of Milan in 313, the relationship between these two “worlds”, that is to say, politics and religion has had endless variations: the submission of religion to politics, the submission of politics to religion, the clear and almost negative separation (the law of 1905), the more flexible separation (in English and German speaking countries). Nowadays, on the side of the Christian religion, Vatican II speaks of “mutual independence and healthy collaboration” (GS76) and on the European political side they speak about “positive secularism”. The time tones down ideological remarks.
However, this framework seems to be fairly balanced and does not apply to the Arab world. First, societies are not the same, but also the role of religion in politics and society is not the same. Religion, or rather the fact of religion, has always had and continues to have a role in the development of Arab societies. I will not dwell in the past, because the topic which interests us has a strong reference to the present, to what they call “the Arab spring”, and especially to the new political regimes which have taken over, regimes of Muslim persuasion or Muslim regimes with Salafists factions period.

1. A first point to note is that Arab societies, Muslim or Christian, are societies with a strong religious matrix. The religious reference is natural and a part of the lives of individuals and societies. We must take this into account if we want to understand what is happening in the Arab world.

2. On the other hand, we remember that the religious, in this case Muslim, was totally absent during the protests by young and old alike in the recent movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. These movements were of social, political and human persuasion. This is also due to the fact that religion in these countries was not subject to challenge, the Arabic religious is quiet, even though the degrees of membership and religious practice varies from one country to another ( Tunisian Islam is not Egyptian Islam for example).

3. The Arab Spring movements were spontaneous, without prior political structure, without ideology, without real charismatic leaders, and they could overthrow rather harsh political regimes that lasted for 20, 30 or 40 years.

4. Islamic religious movements (and international politics, but this is another topic), climbed the bandwagon, they came to power with free and democratic elections, and they began to have a leading role in changes in Arab societies. We’ll discuss it again. I think that we should not be surprised by the rise of Islam and Islamism or their political “victory”. Here’s why:

+ First, and we repeat it enough – especially for Westerners – religion is a constitutive element in the lives of people and Arab societies.

+ In countries that have experienced the Arab Spring, political systems did not allow the existence of any serious opposition party. Tunisia, for example, had some opposition parties, as well as Egypt, but it was facade.

+ By contrast, Islamist parties well and truly did exist, except in Libya (and this is why – in parenthesis – they did not win even if Libyans are 100% Muslims). These parties were oppressed, persecuted, jailed, but they were well organized and structured. The persecution only give them more strength and willpower to resist and survive.

+ Once the “oppressors” disappeared, they found themselves all alone to take the political scene. They were organized, well structured and they had social and religious programs fairly well defined, which was not the case for economic and political programs. On this, we will discuss later. While dozens of new political parties emerged before the election (more than 120 in Tunisia), they were but newborns with no programs and no political experience; and their divided voices indirectly helped the Nahda Party (the Tunisian political party with religious reference) to have a relatively easy victory.

Having moved from the opposition to the government, the religious parties were forced to speak on economics and politics, without nevertheless renouncing the desire (will?) to change the society and to make it “evolve” in an Islamist direction. Certainly, they do not say it, they were also defending themselves, but there are many examples: failed attempts – to introduce Sharia in the new Tunisian Constitution; a stricter line in observing the Ramadan fast, partial and full Islamic veil; political speeches in mosques; trial balloons to re-introduce polygamy; to make Halal hotels and Haram hotels; to change the law of adoption and the law of guarantee; to introduce the full veil in universities …. Not to mention slogans such as: “Islam is the solution”, “I want to be governed by the Law of God” (Sharia), “a good Muslim is a veiled Muslim”, etc.

That said, the presence of Muslim or Islamists regimes at the summit of power is legitimate and legally indisputable. This is an absolutely new fact. And in this there is a lesson for the West and another for Muslim parties themselves.

– To the West: The Middle East and the Arab countries, in general, are no longer the same, and a turning back is unthinkable. The Arab street has exploded, and while the Arab people were always afraid of their leaders now it is the leaders who are afraid of their people. This change is of utmost importance, and I do not know if the West is able to measure the significance.

It is no longer possible or permitted to deal with Arab despot leaders, to condone the violation of human rights under the pretext of protecting its own borders against illegal immigration or stop the advance of Islamist parties. Arab countries are Muslim majority countries, and the West must change its course of action and deal with this new reality.

– For the Arab countries who choose to be governed by political Islam, they should know that political Islam is moderate or it has no chance of success. No country, Arab or otherwise, can live in a religious or political “ghetto”. I give an example: political Islam has to deal with banks powered by interest, which is not allowed in rigid Islam governed by Sharia.

With a West that accepts new rules of the political game, and with an open and moderate political Arab Islam, life becomes possible.

I ask again: the religion as it is today or as it will appear tomorrow in several Arab countries, can Arab societies change and what is their role in their development? Let me sketch an answer.

– First of all, I know that the time of the prophets is over. What I say are ideas that are solely my own.

– The religious fact can successfully change or evolve Arab societies:

• If it takes a clear and decided position against the Salafist movements that have made their official appearance in the countries of the Arab Spring and also, at the same time, the Islamic parties. This is not the case of the government parties in Tunisia and Egypt. There is in these countries a certain complicity between the government and the Salafists: a laissez faire position, of soft and gentle convictions. Recently, positions become clearer, and I hope that the reason is not only the next elections in Tunisia in June 2013.

• If political Islam adopts a democratic policy which guarantees human rights and freedoms arising from, to begin with, reciprocity and freedom of conscience, and not only freedom of worship. This is a point that is still meets a lot of resistance from the Muslim side because it goes against the literal interpretation of the Koran. Still, here is opened a great chapter for which we must sooner or later find a solution.

• If it accepts democratic politics game, it involves the procrastination of power. Hamas in Gaza, which delays elections indefinitely for fear of losing, is a sobering example.

• If it manages to offer people a valid economic program. Because even if the Arab peoples are Muslims in their genes, their first need is that of living (primum vivere deinde philosophare) and work.

• If it manages to offer the West a serious political agenda and to come out – like the West – from the complex East/West history, the Crusades/Colonialism, Islamization of Europe/ evangelization of Islam, etc. A purification of memory is required on both sides to achieve peaceful relations between these two worlds.

And if that does not happen? If this does not happen, the parties with Islamic tendencies will have had their chance. And since all the world is talking about freedom and democracy – which is already huge for Arab countries and the religious parties themselves – it will need to give the same opportunity to other parties. The party that will govern Arab countries and develop Arab societies to be better will be the party for which hundreds of young people have sacrificed their youth and their life.

+ Maroun Lahham