The Moroccan journalist Ahmed Benchemsi was the founder, editor and publisher of a French and an Arabic news magazine before becoming Visiting Scholar at Stanford University. He is currently writing a paper on “The Seeds of Secularism in the Post-Spring Arab World.” Last Thursday, he delivered the keynote address at the Couchiching Conference on “The Arab Spring: Implications and Opportunities for Canada.”
Across the Arab world, he said, despite laws prohibiting everything from premarital sex to alcohol consumption, a powerful sub-culture practices these activities while suffering from an overwhelming sense of guilt for not living up to the ideals encoded in their laws.
So, he wondered, how does a culture live with these contradictions? He answered that it is done through an intense “internal dialogue by which Islam is not the defining paradigm of Arab societies – hypocrisy is.”
From Benchemsi’s experience, the best way the Arab world could overcome this schizophrenic internal monologue was by authentically describing the present. He called this process “secularism from within.” That was the way to expunge the guilt felt for breaking and disobeying unrealistic rules. He advised young Arabs to adopt the label of secularism to cultivate the individual freedom that was inextricable from democracy.
“Secularism from within” was really honesty from within, he said. He believed that was what young people should begin practicing, for a society based on lying and cheating was not sustainable in the long term. “Honesty is a revolutionary force. If secularists can label and practice honesty, who knows? They might win.”