Arab liberal forces, in this first decade of the twenty-first century, have a historical opportunity to grow and flourish. One of the most difficult challenges they face, however, is the need to confront Islamist fundamentalism. They can best achieve this objective indirectly, through concerted efforts to build truly democratic systems, to establish an atmosphere of cultural openness as well as by spreading awareness regarding human rights.
This approach on the part of the Arab liberals is based on their understanding of the historical experience of the Arab World throughout the last two centuries. It is well known that it was Islamic culture that predominated throughout the Arab world from the Middle Ages up to the end of the 18th century. Untill it began to crumble in the late 18th and early 19th century, the Ottoman Empire, embodying the Islamic Caliphate, ruled most Arab countries.
As the Ottomans weakend, and Western influences began to spread, things began to change. For Egypt, the most populous and most culturaly influential country at the heart of the Arab world, this change came in the form of the establishment of Mohamed Ali Pasha's regime in 1805. This signalled the beginning of Egypt's modern renaissance, and resulted in a significant opening towards Europe. Mohamed Ali sent academically outstanding graduates from Al-Azhar to study in Europe, especially in France. They returned to Egypt bringing with them, for the first time, European values of liberalism and enlightenment. The encounter between Islamic culture and liberal European values was repeated throughout most Arab countries. This gave rise to ideas of Islamic "Reformism", given expression by historical figures such as Refa'ah el Tahtawy in Egypt and Khayr Eddin Al-Tunissy in Tunisia, and which were the result of the interaction between Islamic and liberal values.
However, this enlightened approach towards liberal thought was to undergo a change as the result of major political changes in the Arab and Islamic worlds, such as the fall of the Islamic Caliphate in Turkey and the European occupation of Arab countries. These developments encouraged the growth of fundamentalist Islamist forces, which adopted a confrontational attitude towards the West. Fundamentalism gradually replaced the forces espousing reform and an interactive approach to the West.
A democratic environment, which allows all political, social and cultural trends the freedom of growth and self-expression is the only means with which to contain the forces of bigotry and rigidity.
Fundamentalist ideas were, furthermore, given structural expression, particualrly through the organization of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, founded in the early 1920's.
While the quasi-liberal and semi-democratic nature of most Arab political systems following World War I served to restrict the growth of fundamentalism, the changes within the international system following World War II in fact gave it a golden opportunity to flourish. The United States - the dominating super power in the region since that time - regarded Islamist fundamentalism as an important tool in its struggle against communism. At the same time, authoritarian nationalist regimes which ruled over the Arab world, harshly repressed all forms of political opposition. While this seriously weakened other political forces, it only served to strengthen the fundamentalists, and push them further down the road to militancy, as it became clear in the early 1970's.
The most significant turning point for the fundamentalists came following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Communist Block in the early 1990's. As the United States was no longer in need of their services, it began to view the fundamentalists as potential enemies, an attitude which developed to outright war following the events of September 11, 2001.
The history of militant Islamist fundamentalism in the Arab world clearly illustrates that it derived its strength from condusive international conditions on the one hand, and non-democratic, authoritarian systems of government on the other. While external encouragement to these forces has luckily come to an end, authoritarian regimes unfortunately still have the upper hand in the Arab world. The lesson Arab liberals have taken to heart is the following: militant Islamist fundamentalism can only be confronted through concerted efforts to establish real and effective democratic systems in our countries. A democratic environment, which allows all political, social and cultural trends the freedom of growth and self-expression is the only means with which to contain the forces of bigotry and rigidity.
Improving the educational system, encouraging cultural interaction with the rest of the world and educating the younger generations about the principles of human rights will all help undermine fundamentalism. This should also be accompanied by significant efforts to address the problems of the system of religious education, up to and including Al Azhar University, in order to allow the emergance of a temperate, modern religious discourse. A discourse which embodies the Islamic values of coexistence and tolerance that the fundamentalists have tried so hard to distort.