Why does the Arab world need Humanism?

Humanism has the potential to entirely re-frame the conversation about free speech, civil rights and the place of religion in the Arab world today. Forms of activism advocating secular and progressive values tend to focus primarily on the what but humanism can help emphasise the why and highlight the reasons for making ethical choices and why its important to move beyond religion in trying to build a better society. Instead of Atheists and free-thinkers constantly being in the defensive and struggling for the very fundamental right of being able to reject ideas, they can start voicing their opinions on important moral questions and be able to propose better ideas and solutions. Humanism can equip this ever-growing minority of dissidents with a framework that enables them to deal with difficult questions they are faced with on the purpose of life and the source of morality and to become a part of important activism to change the mindset holding our society back.

How is Humanism different from other forms of activism focused on human rights?

Unlike human rights groups which focus on specific campaigns, the main focus of Humanism is asking broader questions about the philosophy of life and how to come up with a better moral framework that ensures the rights, freedoms and wellbeing of all members of society. Humanism is also explicitly non-religious and we directly challenge the idea of Gods, infallible scripture and the existence of a divine moral code.

In the Arab world and within other predominantly Muslim nations, the role played by Humanism will be slightly less political in nature than that of secular activists whose main role is to challenge Islamism and Islamists. Humanism’s main aim will be to challenge the mindset of ordinary individuals who may or may not be supporters of Islamism but still subscribe to a dogmatic way of thinking.

Isn’t humanism a western concept? Are you trying to push a foreign agenda?

One of the main ideas we aim to tackle is the notion that humanism, secularism and different aspects of modernity are purely western ideas.

Since the dominant ideology of the West has been liberalism, and since Western powers have been at war with the Arab and Muslim world (both directly and indirectly), liberal ideas have tended to be viewed as apologia for Western interests and many liberal and secular activists get accused of being native informants and trying to advance a western agenda.

However, it is important to realise that the values of humanism are universal and not confined to any one nation or specific part of the world. There is a rich history of free-thinkers, skeptics and rationalists in the Arab and Muslim world and their legacy should be revived. There is also a long and rough history of dissent and struggle against fanaticism even before western imperialism.

Why bring up religion and not just focus on common liberal values?

Religion plays a role in defining how we view justice and define what is moral and so it becomes a major obstacle when trying to fight for certain “common values” such as women’s rights or secularism. Some people might feel that trying to involve religion in any movement pushing for change in the Arab world will be too contentious but we believe its necessary.  Changes in the way society views the role of women or gay rights or other matters were the result of a debate society had within itself about what is good and acceptable.  Scrutinizing religion, ‘blaspheming’ and transgressing the boundaries of what is holy and beyond criticism will have to be part of this process.

This does not have to be in the form of confrontation. People don’t often change their opinions on the spot but the availability of such material is extremely important for doubters in the long-run

Aren’t there more pressing issues to discuss in the Arab world before trying to introduce a new philosophy such as humanism?

We believe humanism is the solution for the most pressing issues facing the Arab world today from violence to poverty, sectarianism, human rights violations and others.

Some people might argue that the root-causes for these problems has nothing to do with religion and that different political and economical grievances are the real reason. However, we see religious dogmas as a part of the problem and a hinderance that has to be tackled head-on. Change cannot come about with a change in mindset and engaging in debate.

Wouldn’t leaving religion create an emptiness and “vacuum” in society?

A common concern shared both by religious and non-religious people is that pushing for religion to take a back-seat in society will create a moral and cultural vacuum. The idea is that religion provides a certain framework which includes morality along with rituals and traditions that keep society together. However, humanism directly tackles this notion that we need religion to have a valid moral framework and it’s very narrow to think of religion as being the main or only source of identity. Far from creating a vacuum, moving away from religion can actually help us embrace all the beautiful aspects of our culture and heritage which were sometimes actually being erased by it.

What can be problematic is if people lose faith without knowing there is any sort of alternative way of looking at life out there. In this case some can start believing themselves what they have been brought up to believe about being irreligious is a sign of immorality and corruption. Some may suffer from an identity crisis when they fail to find anything to identify with and for that reason its important to establish this alternative identity: humanism.

Are all Arab Humanists Atheists or non-religious?

Many of us are atheists, other are agnostics or sceptics. Some choose to hold on to a Muslim, Christian or other religious identity and others don’t. However humanists generally reject the idea of Gods, resurrection and divine scripture and we believe its important to not devalue this life which is most likely the only life we’ve got.

How will Humanism in the Arab world be different from Humanism in secular nations?

Today in the western world, many people already tacitly accept humanism even if they don’t neccesarily identify as such. Humanism plays an important role in providing an identity for those are already irreligious. In highly religious and conservative parts of the world such as the Arab World, humanism will have to play a different role in putting forward an alternative worldview and directly challenging the outlook to life held by the majority.

The role of Arab Humanism today will be more similar to the role of Humanist groups and various non-religious bodies had in the late 19th century in Europe. A big focus will  also have to be placed on education and raising awareness. Needless to say, attempting to do such a thing and challenge religion head on in parts of the world where doing so is illegal and shunned by the majority of society won’t be easy.