Many debates between Islamists and secularists have taken place in the Arab political sphere with the aim of building bridges of communication between the two actors who contributed to the transformations that have taken place in the Arab world. Despite the multiple dialogues between Islamists and secularists, conflict and tension have prevailed on both sides, with conflict taking on all forms of material and moral violence. One of the most significant indicators of the crisis in communication is the emergence of violence. That being so, this study broaches the problem using Habermas’s basic idea, which focuses on violence as a disease of human discourse and communication. According to Habermas, violence is the result of distorted discourse between fundamentalists and others; it is a distorted discourse because it does not recognize the other as it is. The study employs the Habermas communicative action theory as a central concept. Accordingly, Habermas’s theory of communication is invoked to understand the causes of the escalation of violence in the Arab political sphere.

INTRODUCTION

Habermas grew up and lived in Germany during the time of Nazism and World War II, when violence prevailed in all its forms. He was deeply affected by these disasters. In all his works, Habermas tried to find ways to achieve social integration rather than conflict and tension, and the solution he proposed was to build a public space where all issues could be discussed so that understanding and consensus rather than conflict and violence could be achieved. He couched his communicative project in his work The Theory of Communicative Action (Habermas 1987a), although this proposition remains present in all his other writings.

To begin, a definition is called for of the concept of communicative action from research in the field in which this act is carried out, which is the public space. As Habermas puts it, the public sphere is when “a group of people have agreed to discuss subjects of public interest or common interest (Fraser 2003).” It is a public and democratic political space open to all and ensures a debate and dialogue between various sensitivities, opinions, and thoughts. Habermas believes that there is a strong relationship between democracy, communication, and citizenship (Al-Ash’hab 2006, 48). Thus, the process of communication can be successful only in the space of democracy, a space in which equality of citizenship rights is achieved among all.

Public space allows the formation of public opinion on the issues at hand, in the framework of a popular democracy that allows citizens to express their views. Habermas says that “the principle on which the modern state is based is the idea of sovereign people, whose idea must be expressed in the form of public opinion.” So, if we ignore this natural result, and if we did not make public opinion the source of the political authority of all operational decisions for the entire society, then the reality of modern democracy will remain unsubstantial” (Al-Ash’hab 2006, 61). Hence, the public sphere is political communication when it becomes established in the state of law and in rights (Habermas 1997, 189).

Every citizen has the right to enter this space, but on condition that some of his or her affiliations are relinquished and he or she become transformed from a private individual to a citizen who shares this space with others. “This space is the kingdom in which individuals have agreed to contribute to public debates, so that everyone can solve the issue at hand, and no one enters into public space with a privilege that no one else has” (Mashrouhi 2008, 163). This space can be achieved only in the context of participatory democracy. The ultimate proposal Habermas made to ensure equality of all members of society in the public discussion was based neutral procedures being implemented. This alternative was seen by Habermas as the only solution capable of maintaining the universality of ethics (Habermas 1992a, 10). This represented a challenge for Habermas’s idea regarding how debating participants can abandon prejudice on themes that derive from their cultural and moral milieu. Elaboration of this problem, attributed to Habermas, and how it sets out the conditions of the communicative process within the theory of communicative action is discussed here.

The theory of communicative action is a central concept of Habermas. His definition of the aim of communicative actions “are those acts where the levels of action for the actors who belong to the communicational process, unrelated to the needs of politics, but linked to the deeds of understanding” (Habermas 1987b, 10). The communicative action is distinguished from other acts in that it does not seek to find means to influence others, but rather to seek an understanding and mutual consensus without any type of coercion or compulsion. Therefore, Habermas’s communicative action is based on two main pillars:

  1. 1.

    First, there are basic conditions related to the modality of communication that must be available for the communication process to succeed, in addition to the conditions already described that belong to public space.

  2. 2.

    Secondly, the ultimate purpose of the communication process is to achieve understanding and consensus among the interlocutors on the issues at hand.

The first pillar is concerned with the conditions of the communicative process. The success of dialogue depends on respect for a range of requirements in the context of a debate on ethics. If understanding is the ultimate purpose of communicative action, it therefore can only be aspired to by the interlocutors on the condition that the majority elements do not affect one or another part, since that would inevitably lead to the failure of communication. In this context, Habermas says:

The activity of mutual understanding is subject to a basic condition by which the concerned parties achieve a draft of their common consensus... They seek to avoid two dangers: the first is the failure of mutual understanding and misunderstanding; the second is the failure of action and total failure. The avoidance of the first danger is a necessary condition for avoiding the second.

Even if the conditions for public space are met, and even if the intention of the interlocutors is to reach consensus, the process of communication may fail if either party tries to influence the other party without convincing it.

In this sense, even if the resulting understanding were to succeed, it would be only a temporary agreement to be breached as soon as a party discovered that it had been influenced by a factor such as deceit, for example. In contrast, the understanding that is reached through persuasion and conviction is the type that lasts. Furthermore, three conditions which are necessary for understanding between interlocutors: correct language, accurate language, and honest statements. Nonetheless, as has already been said about the independence of public space, the problem of the actor’s relationship with his/her environment arises once again.

Habermas responded to this objection by emphasizing that it is impossible to isolate the interlocutors from their surroundings, but that understanding and argumentation between them remain the most important factors. Without these factors, there is a shift from understanding to agreement resulting from the factor of influence. Habermas wrote that any understanding is constituted by elements of culture, society, and personality (Habermas 2005, 435–36).

Hence, the solution for Habermas is for group members to agree on common norms that facilitate the communication process. Thus, everyone’s commitment to these values leads to compliance and integrates the individual into his or her social group. Habermas proposed the following rules:

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    Anyone able to speak has a full share in the debate.

  2. 2.

    Anyone has the right to raise any form of objection or to object to any assertion whatsoever. This right shall include the right of belief in opinions and to express them.

  3. 3.

    It is not permissible to prevent any of the interlocutors from discussing or to use any means whatsoever to prevent them from doing so. (Habermas 1986, 111)

In addition to the above rules, Habermas added two others in the form of premises:

  1. 1.

    The normative affirmations of validity should include cognitive significance and can be treated as affirmations of truth.

  2. 2.

    The need to enter into a real discussion of the establishment of standards and orders based on the continuous, conversational mind rather than the individual mind. (Afaya 1991, 206)

Based on these values that must be agreed upon, the objective of Habermas was to achieve agreement on cosmic standards established rationally through argumentation. Taylor (1994, 26), however, believed that this consensus was not possible given the dominance of self-ethics within modern societies, as each of us adopts ethical positions for purely subjective reasons. The mind, therefore, loses the faculty of judgment within ethical debates (Taylor 1994, 26).

With regards to the second pillar, if communicative action is directed towards understanding, the verbal act should be judged as an acceptable provision when that understanding is achieved (Habermas 2005, 430). Habermas, therefore, did not call for the establishment of ethical norms for the debate stemming from the self, as had Kant, or for the philosophical concept in general. Instead, he sought to make a theoretical study of the peaceful methods and procedures that enable the interacting-self to develop those ethical norms through dialogue (Habermas 1992b, 35–36). In this sense, the practical debate becomes “an instrument of essential importance in the enactment and justification of norms, because justification is a deliberative, autonomous process that is not separate from consensus” (Yafout 2013).

Habermas has distinguished between the consensus and the understanding: the first can occur under influence; the second is the objective of the communicative process which can occur through persuasion and argumentation. Understanding is a communicative, beneficial consensus that has a rational basis since it is based on common convictions (Habermas 1987b, 295). “Understanding means the consent of participants to communicate through the reference of a statement, while consensus means the self-recognition of references of demands declared by the speaker” (Habermas 1987b, 133). Thus, understanding is an agreement on the social and ethical norms that govern a society rather than merely a verbal agreement. Meanwhile, language is the instrument to achieve this understanding among the interlocutors. The objective of Habermas’s philosophy is to achieve a consensus instead of disagreement in accordance with the contemporary philosophical concept. Touraine (1992) commented on this concept when he wrote: “Habermas reasonably thinks that democracy cannot be reduced to settling a dispute, as there is no citizenship without a consensus” (393).

The ultimate objective of the communicative process for Habermas is to achieve consensus among the interlocutors, while bearing in mind that the starting point is disagreement and conflict between the interlocutors (Valner 2001, 108). Habermas recognizes that there is disagreement as a starting point for each dialogue, but the dialogue must lead to consensus. Here Habermas’s theory was criticized for the fact that insofar as the communicative process involves multiple actors whether limited or not, it is difficult to achieve a consensus between them, considering that disagreement is more capable of innovation than consensus is and that the latter kills creativity (Lyotard 1979, 13). Despite this criticism, the objective of Habermas’s theory is to achieve the terms of consensus through the following statement: “Speak so that any other speaker can understand your words and be able to accept your opinion” (Al Ash’hab 2006, 39).

We conclude through this conceptualization that overcoming violence and social conflict and protecting integration and social solidarity require political communication that can be achieved only through a democratic public space that guarantees both freedom of expression and a proper communicative action that in its turn ensures understanding through respect for the normative conditions of communication between the interlocutors.

An examination of the Arab political sphere raises questions about whether these conditions are available within it, or whether the crisis of public space, intolerance, and dogmatism that the Arab world is suffering from today, which has fueled violence in all its forms, makes this impossible. This is the problematic that will be discussed in this study, but first and foremost we will broach the reason why Habermas’s theory of communicative action was selected.

Currently, Arab societies are suffering violence and terrorism in all its forms. Most of this violence exists between movements with contradictory references and ideologies. Every movement sees its opinion as true and uses all instruments, even armed ones, to impose its opinion on the others and on society. This situation has generated not only violence but also counterterrorism, violence between Islamists and secularists that started during the 1970s. Arab dictatorial regimes in some cases practiced violence and fueled conflict and tension. Once these regimes fell, violence returned to the forefront between both parties.

If this is a matter of violence between movements with different convictions and references, Habermas provides us with the solution, which is to open discussion and dialogue between these parties with the aim of agreeing on the constituents required by the state. It is for this reason that we invoke Habermas’s communicative action theory, for despite the different context, it serves the objective in this study, which is to identify the causes of the outbreaks of violence and terrorism. After the events of September 11, Habermas built a new vision to bring the two sides closer together. He raised a fundamental challenge of how to reconcile between faith and knowledge and between religion and reason in a postsecular society. He asked the question of how a modern mind that has separated from metaphysics can understand its relationship to religion (Habermas 2008, 13).

The solution would be to open a public debate between the two parties, granting them freedom of expression with the aim of achieving consensus between religious views that need to be translated into worldly language. In contrast, secular citizens need to exercise self-criticism, given that, according to Habermas, “civil democratic natures cannot be imposed on all citizens unless religious and secular people pass through supplementary educational programs” (Habermas 2008, 201). Here Habermas posed many questions about such a dialogue, including:

  1. 1.

    Are secularists capable of tolerance and serious dialogue with religious parties, despite generations of contempt for religion?

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    Can secularists trust and believe that many of the conceptual secularist principles stem from religion and are they able to publicly accept religion?

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    Are the parties willing to enter into a dialogue of tolerance while recognizing that tolerance is always bilateral, be it between the clergy among themselves or between atheists and secularists? Secularists should not exclude the religious from the dialogue, which should be conducted within the framework of respect for one another as free and equal members of a meaningful political society for proper communication (Habermas 2008, 208).

Habermas’s recipe has been largely criticized, based on how it seems to require that religious citizens give up their religious convictions to participate in a public debate, since it is understood that a religious citizen achieves his or her existence through religious faith. In response to this, Habermas distinguishes between ordinary citizens and politicians; politicians being the ones who ought to follow this process. On this point, he says: “If we accept this objection—which I find potent—the liberal state that openly protects freedom of religion through fundamental rights . . . the state cannot expect all believers to justify or take their political positions independently from their religious convictions. This provision can only be addressed to politicians who, within the framework of the respective institutions, are subject to the duty of neutrality in relation to the different visions of the world, as well as all who seek public mandate” (Habermas 2008, 208).

Habermas has fallen into a clear contradiction between recognizing believers’ right to adhere to their religious beliefs in a public debate, and using these arguments with secularists who are not convinced of their theoretical framework but demand, at the same time, to take positions in the public space independently of their religious convictions. There is yet another contradiction: Habermas demanded that no citizen be excluded from the public space no matter what his or her convictions were, while at the same time emphasizing that professional religious citizens in politics are the only ones who are required to abandon their religious convictions in the public debate, and that they are, therefore, better equipped to engage with secularists.

Despite these objections, Habermas’s solution remains applicable for our societies today, in which violence has become a threat to social cohesion. Just opening a dialogue between opposing parties, from Habermas’s perspective, may help to stem the level of violence.

In examining the Arab political sphere, the basic premise arises from the fact that the voice of violence has increase in proportion to the silence of dialogue. The reason for this lies in a social and political structure that does not allow proper communication according to Habermas’s approach. In addition to the structure of Arab political space, the crisis arises from the interlocutors themselves, whose attempts at dialogue have failed for reasons of self-interest related to their rejection of and contempt for one another and the impossibility of reaching agreement on the nature of the required state. Within the Arab political sphere there have been numerous efforts at dialogue between Islamists and secularists. An intellectual dialogue between Hassan Hanafi and Muhammad Abed Al-Jabri was published in Dialogue of East and West (Hanafi and Al-Jabri 1990) and between Muhammad Arkoun and Muhammad Salim al-’Awwa in The Political System in Islam (Ghalyoun and Al-‘Awwa 2003). These are intellectual dialogues that have ended in disagreement. These dialogues are political and ideological exercises in which understanding and consensus are absent, so any common ground they establish can only be temporary.

Tunisia has experimented with a dialogue between Islamists and secularists that led to many outcomes within the framework of the October 18th Commission.1 Morocco has also experimented with dialogues between Islamists and secularists. Accounts of these were published by Nishan magazine and in Confrontations between Islamists and Secularists.2 Under the auspices of the Centre for Arab Unity Studies in September 1989, a “national-religious dialogue” was held that brought together the intellectual and ideological sides in Cairo. This dialogue succeeded in bringing about consensus among the intellectuals. However, consensus was absent among the militants.3 

These dialogues are the subject of analysis in this article. The methodology of discourse analysis is used here to determine the extent the norms of communicative action as defined by Habermas were maintained. Although great effort was made to represent the numerous other dialogues that cover the diversity of fields, from intellectual dialogue to ideological dialogue, and the multiple contexts, from Cairo to Tunisia to Morocco, with the different nature of public space in these countries, space constraints do not allow their inclusion in this study.

Based on communicative action theory by Habermas, which identifies the three basic pillars of a proper public space, dialogue on terms and criteria to ensure success, and consensus leading to understanding, the following plan for this study was adopted, examining:

  1. 1.

    Public space in the Arab world and the distortion of communication

  2. 2.

    Islamic-secular dialogue and the absence of tolerance and dominance of contempt

  3. 3.

    Difficulty of understanding insofar as it fuels disagreements between Islamists and secularists in the Arab world

PUBLIC SPACE IN THE ARAB WORLD AND DISTORTION OF COMMUNICATION

Habermas’s communicative action theory purports that public space has two basic characteristics. It is a space in which democracy prevails and every citizen has the right to freely express their ideas without coercion or pressure, and a space in which the condition of independence is achieved whereby each interlocutor enters the space in isolation from affiliations so that they can communicate with others.

The Crisis of Democracy and Freedom in the Arab World

If by democracy is meant the way political power is exercised through respect for human rights and freedom of expression, and the right to elect and monitor governors (Al-Jabri 2007), such rights remain an unthinkable in Arab-Islamic culture (Al-Jabri 2007, 71). In Islamic political thought, any specific chapters are hard to find on issues such as shura (consultation), democracy, or justice in the secular political sense of the word, while the meaning of the “Hereafter” is strongly present (Al-Jabri 2007, 73). Nonetheless, this absence in Arab and Islamic political culture does not mean that the concept cannot be realized today. The Qu’ran and Sunna basically encourage shura and justice. This could represent the starting point for new thought that could possibly establish democracy and replace nondemocratic regimes.

The nondemocratic regimes in the post-independence countries in the Arab world have dominated from ocean to Gulf, and all attempts at political modernization have failed. Thus, the opinion of political leaders has dominated and freedom of expression and the will of the people have been violated, with democratic mechanisms being used superficially and pragmatically to ensure the continuation of dictatorship regimes.

In this undemocratic atmosphere, the state has, in the Arab context, restricted all attempts at dialogue between opponents, considering that the interest of the state resides in conflict rather than consensus and understanding. Hence, the state has not hesitated to repress both Islamist opponents and secularists alike. This was evident from the fact that most seminars and meetings between these parties were either held in secret or under foreign sponsorship. Furthermore, leaders have inflamed conflicts and tensions between these movements, as illustrated by Ibn Khaldun’s concept of tribalism.

In Morocco, for example, over the past decades Islamic-secular dialogue has been under the absolute rule and absence of democracy in political life, enabling those in power to exploit the conflict between two parties in order to present their leadership as the sole alternative to all other parties, and consequently to hold the major balance. The official policy in the religious and educational field has contributed to the intensive spread of Salafist thought and Islamic movements in face of leftist opposition and its various factions and movements. Otherwise, the state tries to use leftist and modernist thought to restrain religious extremism after it has become a threat to the powers that be (As’id 2008, 10).

In Tunisia, the state power faced the October 18th Commission movements, which were formed as a space for consensus and dialogue between secularists and Islamists, by using violence, whether to disperse the gatherings or to prevent meetings. In Egypt, where Islamists had been suppressed since the Nasser revolution, space was more dictatorial and leftists were suppressed under the Sadat and Mubarak regimes. Thus, dialogues were reduced between the parties.

The Arab Political Sphere and the Absence of Independence

Bertrand Paddy, Mohammad Abed al-Jabri, and Abdullah al-‘Arawi are three thinkers who agreed that the Arab political sphere had lost its independence, despite their disagreement about the reason for that loss. Bertrand Paddy offers some insight about the crisis of political communication in the Muslim world that is still valid today, despite the strong social movements that the region has experienced. Paddy stresses that the reason for the success of the European model is the independence of the political sphere from others. He wrote that it was through a historical process that a new sphere in social life emerged, allowing a political space for political practice; this came about through competition between the royalty and the Church and presented itself as an alternative to both in political life. This allowed the idea of a contract between the monarch and the people as a source of the monarch’s legitimate power. In this context, the birth of a political space was linked to the idea of a contract, the superiority of law, and the idea of representation to ensure that the political sphere overtook the religious sphere (Paddy 1996, 22–23).

In contrast, according to Bertrand Paddy, Islamic civilization never experienced the independence of the political sphere because the Islamic city had always remained linked to the monarch, and never aspired to forming an independent special political space. Therefore, the monarch does not allow citizens the opportunity to learn from the experience of living in urban communities, and the tasks of dividing the work that provided the modernity of the Western city. There is no center for the formation of a bourgeoisie that aspires to performing a representative function, to gradually practicing political power, or to managing its demands and material interests. Quite the contrary! The Islamic city has developed by reshaping the traditional tribal and sectarian groups along the lines of tribalism (Paddy 1996, 227–29).

Mohammad Abed al-Jabri criticizes this conclusion and emphasizes that the hypothesis has not been proven that the presence of the Church in Europe was the reason for the successful establishment of an independent political sphere nor that its absence in the Islamic world was the cause of failure. Al-Jabri emphasizes that many countries in Asia, such as Japan for example, have been developed despite having no church. He says that there is even a more realistic explanation for the development in Europe: the conflict between the parties was internal, and there had been no external intervention, as was the case in the Muslim world. However, the fear of “the other” in collective memory—“the other” being the Islamic world—pushed European powers to form a coalition and to transform, while in the Islamic world external intervention, from the time of the Crusades on to modern European expansion, accompanied all the developments and affected the Islamic world (Al-Jabri 1991, 19). This has been repeated presently with the revolutions that took place in several countries and the subsequent external intervention was a factor in the failure of the transition processes towards democracy.

Al-Jabri identified many determinants affecting political behavior in the Arab-Islamic sphere that have hindered the development process. They include:

  1. 1.

    The tribal trend: Al-Jabri refers to kinship and tribalism as defined by Ibn Khaldun, as political behavior depending on the solidarity of extended family relationships rather than on democratic representation. Thus, belonging to a city, group, sect, or party is what solely determines attitudes towards governance and politics.

  2. 2.

    The booty: This plays the role of the economic factor in countries where the economy is based on land and taxes on rental income. Land taxes mean all that the state takes from society; it is what powerful authority imposes on people overwhelmed by royalties and taxes. Rent tax is any income that the person receives from his property or from the monarch (emir) without the need to perform any productive work.

  3. 3.

    The creed: This is a determinant, whether religious or ideological, and takes effect in terms of belief and approach. The content is not important in the creed, but rather it is the ability the creed has to motivate and mobilize that is important. The creed directs the behavior of the believer leading him to commit suicide or to protest, and to sacrifice himself and others for the idea, whether religious or material. (Al-Jabri 1991, 48–49)

Al-Jabri concluded that these determinants inhabit the Arab political psyche and social imagination. Therefore, at every historical stage, they appear to obstruct any progress towards development. Thus, the establishment of a democratic constitutional system requires reformatting the Arab political mind, and this will be achieved only by reshaping and replacing its three determinants with contemporary historical alternatives. The modernist movements that the Arab world has known have not reshaped these determinants but merely repressed them. The result is that with all the setbacks, frustrations, and repression, tribal, sectarian, religious extremism has returned to dominate the Arab sphere with full force. Therefore, to achieve development, the “tribe” must transform itself to become a political and civil organization, the booty into a taxed economy, and the creed into a mere opinion subordinate to the law and state institutions (Al-Jabri 1991, 73).

The repressions cited in Mohammad Abed Al-Jabri’s research on the Arab political mind continue to influence and prevent the communication and dialogue between the different parties that would be necessary to build a consistent vision of a project to establish democracy that enshrines human rights.

Abdullah al-‘Arawi spoke of the need for the Moroccan political sphere to be independent for any democratic transition to be achieved. He said, “Democratic interpretation is basically the liberation of politics, protecting the latter from whatever elements that are more or less precious than itself, and the separation from it of any logic that is not appropriate for it. Hence, by stripping politics of thought and action, of excesses and impurities, other fields also become liberated from politics, and all powers, talents, and efforts will be directed towards it. For example, sport is the constant test of what the human body can do. Art is a test of what imagination can do. Science is a test of what intelligence can do. Philosophy is the test of what reason can do, and piety is a test of what willpower can do, and so on. These fields are independent of politics and the latter is independent from them also. Thus, this results in genius and adaptation in both cases. Otherwise, if politics prevails over every field, it will drag everything to rock bottom” (Al-‘Arawi 2009, 154). So, to ensure that politics is noble, it is necessary that its field of practice be independent. Otherwise, it will become corrupted by the diseases and impurities of other fields.

Abdullah al-‘Arawi added that experiencing the reality of power and the state in the Islamic world requires understanding the raw material used to conduct politics: in other words, awareness of the psychology of individuals, and their ideas about governance and the state. He further argues that the image individuals have of the state is the result of the education they receive from the family, the imam in the mosque, and the sheikh in the neighborhood, who are themselves influenced by Islamic works and writings that offer imagined representations of the state which al-‘Arawi calls “Islamic utopias”; this education, therefore, does not come from the state alone (Al-‘Arawi 1983, 121).

Nonetheless, all these studies show that the Arab political sphere is full of creeds and ideologies that render any dialogue between Islamists and secularists sterile, and that each interlocutor enters the debate with value judgments related to ideological affiliations, while refusing to abandon them in the dialogue. This abandonment is one of the conditions that Habermas established for the communicative process in public space to be successful. If the crisis of political communication is linked to the space in which dialogue occurs, in this instance, it is characterized by the absence of democracy and freedom of expression, and by the dominance of ideologies, and is also linked to interlocutors who are dominated by dogmatism, seclusion, and rejection of tolerance. This adds an additional crisis of subjective thinking.

THE ISLAMIC-SECULAR DIALOGUE: ABSENCE OF TOLERANCE AND DOMINATION OF CONTEMPT

Appraising the follow-up to seminars and meetings in which there was dialogue between secularists and Islamists in the Arab world, it becomes clear that a sarcastic style of language prevailed on both sides. Islamists were calling secularists as atheists, outcasts, misguided, and infidels. In contrast, secularists called Islamists obscurantist, ignorant, obsolete, and irrational. It is important here to recall at this point that Habermas made the recognition of the other as it is, as well as the rejection of all offensive words about the other, a necessary condition for the success of the communicative process.

In the National-Religious Dialogue, there is a notion used by Islamists that nationalism was imported for the purpose of fragmenting the Islamic ummah (nation), and that socialism is a “red crawl” aimed at eliminating the remaining constituents of continuity and stability in Islamic countries. Democracy and secularism are slogans imported to strike at Muslims in their faith, inherited culture, identity, and history. Therefore, the solution is the inevitability of an Islamic solution through the application of Islamic law.4 Tariq al-Bishri, one of the participants in this dialogue, stressed that the origin of secularism is the West, and that secularists are alien to Arab-Muslim societies, which have resisted foreign intervention according to an Islamic reference. Islamists are those who inherited thought, while secularists as those who adopted foreign thought. The Islamic political trend tends to be by the composition of its basic value and nature opposed to the tendency of Westernization (Al-Bishri 2005, 7–30). In the same context, Munir Shafiq published his book Responses to Secular Theses, which is a violent attack on secularists and on Westernized secular thought (Shafiq 1992).

Secularists did not hesitate to mock Islam, in their turn, and exploited some of the violence and strife that have occurred in Muslim history through linking Islamists and violence. This was mostly done through taking the example of terrorism as practiced today by jihadists in many regions of the world. Fouda (1992, 12) was one who launched a violent attack on Muslim history even including the era of the Orthodox Caliphs, by writing, in his book Before the Fall:

If this may be said about the reign of Orthodox Caliphs, it is also permissible to say even more when dealing with the analysis and criticism of later periods, when the banners of religious rule rose, and religious leaders claimed that this was the right Islam; that they were the preservers and custodians of the book (Quran), and that they were Sunna’s followers, and yet they nevertheless resorted to killing unjustly and unnecessarily, and introduced subjects and thought into communities from the early days of Islam. (12)

Fouda’s writings received a response from Sobh (1985) in his work Rush before the Fall and the Fall of the Owner (Sobh 1985). This was previous to Shafiq’s (1991) response in his book Between the Rise and the Fall, when he wrote: “This has allowed Frederick Engels, for example, to justify every brutal method to establish a system of slavery, because it is a historical necessity to emerge from the age of brutality” (Shafiq 1991, 57), confirming that the history of Marxism was a history of violence. He described the secularists as naïve (Shafiq 1991, 99).

In Morocco, Ahmad ‘Asid, a participant in the Islamic-secular dialogue, posed many provocative questions to the Muslim interlocutors (‘Asid 2010), such as:

  1. 1.

    The moments depicted as a “golden age” of Islam, the stage of prophecy and the Orthodox Caliphs, were also a stage of terrible wars, fierce fighting, and great events and were not a stage of peace, civilization, and prosperity?

  2. 2.

    If the Qur’an contains abrogated texts (naskh) that date back fourteen hundred years that are recognized by the jurists themselves, why then are these texts still memorized, recited, and explained? Does this not mean that these texts are not “abrogated” and that Muslims have the right to consider them as references to be adopted in their behavior? What is the clear and explicit position regarding the texts used to justify terrorism and causing harm to people and their interests? Why does a Muslim cite the “positive” verses and conceal others when in a defensive mode, and then surprise you with texts with a terrorist content once in position of strength?

In the same context, one leftist said, in condemnation of Aljama (the Justice and Charity Movement) for exiting the 20th February Movement: “I was not surprised by the exit of the Justice and Charity Movement, since I was surprised by the metaphysical political alliance that took place between a medieval theocratic movement and a movement which presented itself for a brief period as a movement of modernity and openness (Moqseidi 2012).” Thus, the Islamic project is obsolete (Afkir 2008, 48).

On the other hand, many Islamists have not hesitated in describing all those who contradict their views as being misguided infidels. In his book Dialogue with the Virtuous Democrats, Yassin (1994, 5) describes his democratic interlocutors as follows: “the virtuous democrats, with whom we like to discuss on the same level as authoritarian rulers” (Yassin 1994, 5).” He adds:

Through the experiment in the sphere of conflict and the arena of politics, the soldiers of God (Jundullah) will meet, clash, and be faced with other calls which their education, organization, and project propose to the people on a different basis than the foundations that for centuries have made us a great nation. In the land of Muslims are the remnants of progressive revolutionary retirees, the widows of ideology who have lost their ideals of justice and the enthusiasm of their struggling sons has been extinguished with the collapse of Soviet empires. In some Muslim countries there are those who are still insolent, their senses are dulled and their thought is backward, who insist on picking up the worn-out fabricated theses which its founders put in the dustbin of history, and propose a trivial rag to the nation as banners of victory.

Here is an intellectual debate in which interlocutors do not respect each other and who use every event to undermine dialogue. This has influenced the ideological and political discourse among those who struggle from different directions, within which this debate has emerged forcefully, often turning in many instances from verbal violence to direct physical violence. This has been seen over the past few years in the university arenas of the Arab world between both sides. It is an era of confrontation, not one of dialogue and communication.

DIFFICULTY OF UNDERSTANDING AND FUELING DIFFERENCES BETWEEN ISLAMISTS AND SECULARISTS

Understanding is central to Habermas’s theory of communicative action. The difference is huge between consensuses reached through understanding and the influence that coercion and pressure have on outcomes. That being so, the issue of finding a modality capable of bringing about understanding between parties with fundamental references, as in the case of dialogue between Islamists and secularists, is a major difficulty. Habermas emphasizes that to reconcile multiple cultures within this communication there are four directions:

  1. 1.

    Subjecting multiculturalism to the criteria of state consultative management through dialogue, with a constant search for consensus and balance whenever the balance of power between cultures is disrupted.

  2. 2.

    Demanding a review of heritage and traditions in order to be open towards the other and to practice self-criticism, which makes the culture of the majority interact with the minority culture.

  3. 3.

    Achieving intercultural coexistence, which requires that all citizens be mutually recognized in a single political culture, namely, the democratic consultative culture.

  4. 4.

    Affirming the need to always reach middle-ground solutions among different cultures that should be based on rational principles that meet the interests of all through discussion, dialogue, and debate. (Al-Mohamadawi 2011, 326–27)

We will focus here on two main themes: the relationships among religion, politics, and freedom; and the extent of interlocutors’ ability to understand the significance of those relationships.

Relationship between Religion and Politics

A noisy debate is taking place in Arab political space about the relationship of religion in regard to politics, with Islamists upholding the fundamental role of religion in political life and secularists considering, on the other hand, that the presence of religion in politics is a threat to democratic values. According to Burhan Ghalyoun, Islamists emphasize the inevitable and natural link between Islam as religion and as a system of governance. In that sense, the believer does not complete his faith unless he unites his worship practices with his worldly practices.

Rationalist doctrine holds that Islam is a religion concerning the relationship between the believer and God and that political systems are alien to Islam. Thus the believer has the right to choose rationally the political system he or she wishes (Ghalyoun and Al-‘Awwa 2003, 94).

In the context of intellectual dialogue on this subject, two prominent Arab intellectuals, Hassan Hanafi and Muhammad Abed al-Jabri, launched this dialogue and reached a similar outcome, although not without paradoxes. Hassan Hanafi concludes that “Islam is a secular religion in its essence, and therefore it does not need additional secularism derived from Western civilization” (Hanafi and Al-Jabri 1990, 38). Al-Jabri then agrees that “secularism, in the sense of separating religion from the State (Hanafi and Al-Jabri 1990, 44), has no sense in Islam, because there is no church to be separated from the State.” Perhaps, the reason for this relative consensus is the ideological convergence between the two intellectuals, as Hassan Hanafi is classified within the Islamic left, and Mohammad Abed al-Jabri is one of the leftists who proposed a renewed reading of Islamic heritage.

Burhan Ghalyoun and Mohammad Salim al-‘Awwa continue this intellectual dialogue in their book The Political System in Islam, which emphasizes that political and social organization requires modern rational rules to prevent differences and solve problems. However, this does not mean that Islam as a religion is against these rational rules, with the distinction between Islam as a text (Qur’an) and Islam as jurisprudence, used in many periods to produce autocratic systems opposed to democracy. Then, what is required of Islamic movements today is to carry out self-criticism and to review the text to build a true democracy that conforms to requirements of the times, on the condition that this intellectual jurisprudence remains relative and not absolute and holy. Thus, these movements will succeed in moving from the level of political practice attached to the religious call to the level of the intellectual call that establishes a new human and rational democratic policy (Ghalyoun and Al-‘Awwa 2003, 96).

Mohammad Salim al-‘Awwa takes the view that Islam as a text does not include a specifically detailed regime that Muslims must adhere to and is not cast in a static timeframe to be applied to all ages, but rather that Islam is intended as a religion and any state based on Islam implies the acceptance of a general Islamic reference, which allows opinions, plurality, and diversity in political affairs. He concludes that all or most political issues are matters of judgmental supposition, and therefore require that jurisprudence be renewed and adapted to every age to meet public interests (Ghalyoun and Al-‘Awwa 2003, 117).

Here it is clear that there is consensus among thinkers, but it is not without disagreements. According to Burhan Ghalyoun, it is a consensus between Islamic democratic and rational democratic thinkers. The latter emphasize that attachment to an imaginary Islamic state should not continue, even in terms of bringing its concept closer to the concept of modern democracy and its pluralistic values, because this would lead to emptying democracy of its content. He argues that the solution is that freedom becomes the principal ruling moral and political life (Ghalyoun and Al-‘Awwa 2003, 261). Mohammad Salim al-‘Awwa, on the other hand, requests Burhan Ghalyoun to reconsider some labels he used such as the “herd mentality,” “frozen mind,” and “burying of conscience” and to relinquish projecting on the Muslim community the principles of European intellectual criticism about the effects of ecclesiastical control in the Middle Ages (Ghalyoun and Al-‘Awwa 2003, 270).

As for the political dialogue between the two parties, within the framework of the October 18th Commission in Tunisia, mentioned before, there was general consensus on the relationship between the state and religion. The movement stated: “Faced with these challenges, the movement of October 18th is committed to defending the vision of a relationship between the state and religion and identifying benefits from the creative interaction between the constituents of our Arab Islamic civilization and the modern human gains, especially human rights, collective and individual freedoms, as a prerequisite for progress, development, and dignity. . . . It is the duty required of a democratic State to grant Islam a privileged status, as being the religion of the majority of people without any monopoly or exploitation, guaranteeing the right of all beliefs and convictions and protecting the freedom of performing religious rites.”5 However, this consensus is relative, imposed by the conditions of confrontation with the regime. Once the regime of Ben Ali fell, each party returned to its old slogans—the Islamic solution versus the secular solution. Perhaps what has lessened the value of this consensus was that many movements of secular and Islamic parties have refused to participate in the movement and did not comply with its decisions. However, the dialogue under the movement was for both parties to be trained in facilitating the consensus process in the national dialogue after the revolution.

In the National-Religious Dialogue seminar in Cairo on the issue of the application of Shari’a, Mohammad ‘Amara emphasized that secularism and the application of positive foreign law were due to the intervention by colonial powers. Therefore, it was time for all, Muslims and secularists alike, to demand the application of Islamic law in order to achieve national independence and to restore the legitimacy and legality of the natural law of the nation. This does not mean that the Islamic state would be a religious state as it was in Middle Ages in Europe, nor would it be a secular civil state as it is in the modern European era. It would be a civil Islamic state, in which the people would be the source of authority in terms of adhering to the Sharia, and the law would not permit illegal acts or forbid legal acts. In the same vein, Mohammad Salim al-‘Awwa stressed that Islamic peoples demand the application of Islamic law, and the solution is through elections and ballot boxes.

On the other hand, in the same dialogue, Abdul-Ilah Balqiziz responded to Islamist ideas, saying that without any doubt, the objective of demanding the application of Islamic law is purely to achieve political gains. This explains why most Islamists who participated in the political game in the Arab world have abandoned this requirement once they reached political institutions. Nevertheless, the fundamental problem is the problem of determining Sharia. Does it mean that the Holy Qur’an cannot be amended? Or is it that Islamic jurisprudence is not yet able to employ reason in dealing with the text?

Al-Jabri confirmed this assertion and affirmed that demanding the application of Shari’a is purely a political demand. He also stressed that the application of Shari’a provisions should take into consideration the reasons for enacting these provisions, and as long as these reasons are abandoned in the current era, there is no need to apply them. He cited the rule of Mahdi Ben Tumert, who worked on the application of these provisions, which led to chaos in the state. Therefore, the Caliph al-Muwahidi Abdel Mo’men was compelled to replace the provisions by other sanctions according to consultation with jurists.6 

In Morocco the position was not very different between the two sides, where secularists accused Islamists of taking their references as absolute, given that religion transmits from a divine source, making it the sole reference on how to proceed (As’id 2008). The secularists argued that religion and politics must be separated and that religion must detach itself from the political sphere in general and be treated as a special matter (Al-Zahi 2008).

In contrast to the secularists, Moroccan Islamists see religion as having a role in public as well as in private life, a role that is not carried out through coercion. These movements also demanded that Shari’a be a source of legislation. They asserted that each society has its own constants, from which the so-called law-making authorities are drawn. Therefore, secularists are required to abandon the idea that secularism is the solution, and religion cannot be neutralized in religious societies. Moreover, they also demand that the “Principality of the Faithful” and scholars be freed from subordination to the royal institution so as to have a free voice. Shari’a for them is therefore the primary source of legislation, with a distinction between the area of advocacy, which should not be exploited in politics, and the management of state affairs as a human issue and not a divine matter (Al Khalfi 2008).

In the same movement, Abdul Salam Yassin said: “Secularism is generally the separation of religion from the state, and this ultimately means to rule according to the human soul’s desires which unite by consensus . . . . Secularism is closely related to democracy, as being its encouragement, image, support, and necessity” (Yassin 1994, 19).

Thus, within this debate, secularists, on the one hand, saw the use of religion in politics as incompatible with the rules of democracy. On the other hand, Islamists believed that religion is the basis of political practice in Islamic society. This means that understanding, as Habermas described, has not been achieved on the relationship between religion and politics and the state. Each party has only expressed its natural position consistent with its authority without making any concessions, bearing in mind what has already been said: that academic intellectual debate led to relative consensus.

DEBATE ABOUT THE CONCEPT OF FREEDOM

In the National-Religious Dialogue seminar already mentioned, a degree of consensus between interlocutors was found about the demand for political freedom. This is because both sides have suffered from despotism. In his speech, Rashed al-Ghannouchi called for freedom to be considered as a sacred principle and for the rejection of political despotism in all its ideological forms and types.7 Moreover, Fahmi Howeidi called for making the issue of freedom and human rights an arena in which the two sides would fight despotism. This is a consensus that is almost the only point of convergence in the dialogue between the two parties in the Arab world. However, this consensus remains a procedural consensus required by the conditions of confrontation with existing regimes.

The struggle between both parties has intensified on the meaning of freedom. Secularists have accused Islam of being against freedom, while Islamists believe that freedom in its Western sense is alien to Islamic culture and therefore must be limited to be freedom within the framework of . Furthermore, Islamic political thought has been addressing this point in great detail since ancient times. In this context, Tariq al-Bishri says: “Freedoms and rights as enshrined in international covenants and statutes are relative rights that should stand at the limits of the absolute religious constants, namely the subordination of the relative to the absolute” (Al-Bishri 2005, 103).

In the Islamic-secular dialogue in Morocco, secularists asserted that “freedoms are civil and not absolute, so they are limited because no one has the right to be free to the degree of causing prejudice to the rights of others. It is not our right to set limits on freedom unless it affects the freedom of others . . . . The religious ideology espoused by political Islam is not entirely compatible with democracy and human rights since this ideology is based on absolute Shari’a. Therefore, the establishment of laws as a rule of democracy is impossible, because God has enacted all rules, and Islamic ideology relies on religious discrimination, which is contrary to human rights” (Al-Hilali 2008, 60).

Islamists tried to respond to secularists’ claims, especially with regard to the freedom of belief and the freedom of women. Certainly, freedom of belief is one of the strongest elements of Islam. Even the Prophet’s saying (hadith) about the apostate’s sanction was a talk about the “pervert of religion, who left the group,” namely that it related to a certain political context of high treason (Al Khalfi 2008). With regard to the rights of women, Islamists believed that these rights are definitively defined in strict and explicit religious texts. Therefore, it is not permissible to resort to other foreign references in cases relating to individual liberties and public morality (Ahrashan 2008).

Abdul Salam Yassin said about human rights that the solution was not to import the idea of human rights, since the concept was not conceived in the Islamic world nor did the law originate in Islamic history; it is not a divine law nor a curriculum from the Prophet. He added: “Human rights in the global discourse are the holiest sanctities—in speech and protest—in the religion of democracy . . . so every talk about human rights if it does not document the issue in the covenant of honoring promises it is in fact a political complement” (Yassin 1994, 218–19). He asserts about democracy, that “if what they (namely the educated class) call democracy does not know Islam, and we are not meeting anyone except on Islam, is there anyone blessed with the virtue of knowledge, the virtue of love and freedom as well as the virtues of religion to have a meeting with?” (Yassin 1994, 4).

Through addressing these controversial topics between secularists and Islamists, it is clear that what governs the relationship between the two parties is conflict and confrontation, which made for few moments of dialogue, often fraught with reciprocal accusations, making impossible the idea of accepting the other. Nonetheless, dialogue between both parties has always been used as a strategic opportunity for these parties to provoke their followers and rather than to convince the other party through sound argumentation. The ultimate objective of each party is to convince the public of its opinion and not to convince the other interlocutor in the dialogue. Hence, this has contributed to extremist ideas.

In the symposium of National-Religious Dialogue, Essam al-‘Arian said that the debate did not lead to a convergence of views on the subject, but rather had set the debate back by years, as though little if anything has been achieved in these dialogues, where suspicion and mistrust had prevailed between the two parties. Tariq al- Bishri emphasized the same idea at the same seminar by saying, “When objections are repeated dozens of times, and clarification repeated dozens of times on the application of Shari’a it is not only boring but gives a sense of futility.”8 Secularists and Islamists did agree on one single point: the impossibility of understanding and consensus.

Nonetheless, we have seen that there was relative consensus on many points among intellectuals in the dialogue that took place between Mohammad Abed al-Jabri and Hassan Hanafi, and between Burhan Ghalyoun and Mohammad Salim al-‘Awwa. We also saw that convergence is possible on practical issues to resolve crises, but that when the dialogue focuses on theoretical and ideological abstracts, the division becomes deeper (Al-Bishri 2005). Thus, a proportion of Islamists and secularists have managed to be in agreement with the government of Ben Kairan in Morocco on the project of government, despite their different references.

To achieve consensus absent from the dialogue between Islamists and secularists, Mohammad Abed al-Jabri has proposed a methodology as follows: “If the philosopher wants to discuss the issues of religion, he must first recognize the principles of religion. If the scholar wants to discuss the issues of philosophy, he must first recognize the principles on which philosophy was built. . . in this way the philosopher can understand religion within the religion itself, and the scholar can understand philosophy within philosophy (Al-Jabri 1993, 236). Thus, Habermas’s condition for the success of communication is achieved when each side “borrows” the other’s mind to understand and recognize it as it does with its beliefs and values.

Alternatively, Wajih Kawtharani spoke about the necessity of “abandoning the controversial approach of some Islamist parties and some national parties who make slogans a means of intimidation. It is a controversy produced by the fear surrounding destiny and identity; it is the result of the failure of past experiences. Therefore, we must work to accommodate our historical conclusions within historical awareness, rather than offering magic solutions to solve problems whether they be secular or Islamic.”9 This is the methodology that must be followed to reach understanding between the parties on controversial issues, considering that the challenges are the same for all parties. It is the building of the democratic state that has been postponed in the Arab political sphere.

CONCLUSION

This study has five main conclusions:

  1. 1.

    The concept of democracy in the Arab political sphere is absent, and freedom of expression has disappeared. This has led to narrowing of the dialogue between Islamists and secularists. Indeed, existing regimes, in pursuing their own interests, have played one side against the other in fueling the conflict and tension between the two parties, thus creating further strife and confrontation.

  2. 2.

    Politicians in the Arab world have not succeeded in ensuring the independence of the political sphere from other spheres, as is the case in modern countries. Thus, ideologies of various kinds, both religious and secular, have dominated, which has distorted communication between the two sides.

  3. 3.

    The study of various dialogues between Islamists and secularists in the Arab world has revealed the prevalence of cynicism, contempt, and intolerance between the two parties. This has prevented the realization of conditions for communicative action, as defined by Habermas, namely recognition of the other.

  4. 4.

    If understanding is Habermas’s ultimate objective of communication to overcome existing crises, dialogue between Islamists and secularists is marked by stalemate, as both sides have been unable to emerge from the dogmatic fences behind which they are barricaded. Hence, instead of considering dialogue as an instrument of understanding to establish the democratic state, it has become a tool to incite each side’s followers and to fuel strife and violence in all its forms.

  5. 5.

    The root cause of the escalation of violence in the Arab political sphere is the absence of the constituents for rational dialogue between the conflicting parties. After experiencing the social upheaval in the region, many countries entered into cycles of conflict and civil wars. Thus, the language of the dialogue has been replaced by the language of weapons. Several countries, such as Tunisia and Morocco, have succeeded in securing a type of relative social peace. One of the contributing factors to that was the opening of a dialogue between Islamic and secular parties. Even though the parties cannot agree on various issues, and verbal and physical violence continues in both countries, it may still be considered an opportunity for the parties to get some training on how to debate, which may contribute to the success of transformation. It will be interesting to see if the parties in other countries can take lessons from this.

Notes

Notes
1.
This organization includes the most important Tunisian opposition parties represented in Paris (the Conference for the Republic; the Renaissance Movement; the Tunisian Workers’ Communist Party; the Democratic Union for Labor and Liberties; and the Nasserite Partisans), as well as the most important human rights organizations in Tunisia (the Association of Families and Relatives of Political Prisoners; the Committee for the Defense of Liberties and Human Rights in Tunisia; Tunisian Solidarity; the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia; and Free Voice), in addition to several independent faces active within the immigrant community and the Tunisian diaspora.
2.
(a) The Nishan dialogue was attended by Mustafa al-Khalfi, a researcher and editor-in-chief of Al-Tajdid newspaper, and Omar Ahrashan, a researcher and a leading member of the Justice and Charity group. Secularists were represented by Ahmed ‘Asid, a researcher, and Nur al-Din Zahi, a researcher, and the dialogue was conducted by Mohammed Darif. The contents of the dialogue were published in “Islamists and Secularists Face to Face,” Hespress, June 30, 2008. See Mu’ti Munjeb, Confrontations between Islamists and Secularists in Morocco: Supervision and Preparation (Rabat: Kawthar Press, 2008). (b) See Tariq al-Bishri et al., eds., The National-Religious Dialogue: Papers and Discussions of the Intellectual Symposium organized by the Center for Arab Unity Studies (Beirut: Center for Arab Unity Studies, 1989). (c) See the positions taken by Radwan Al-Sayyed in Radwan Al-Sayed, “The Nationalists and Islamists in the Arab World and the Needs of Dialogue and Convergence,” in al-Bishri et al., The National-Religious Dialogue, 78. (d) See Mohammed ‘Amara and others, in al-Bishri et al., The National-Religious Dialogue, 201–7. (e) See Rashed Ghannouchi in al-Bishri et al., The National-Religious Dialogue, 268. (f) See al-Bishri et al., The National-Religious Dialogue, 230–50. (g) See al-Bishri et al., The National-Religious Dialogue. (h) See Tariq al-Bishri et al., eds., The National-Religious Dialogue: Papers and Discussions of the Intellectual Symposium organized by the Center for Arab Unity Studies (Beirut: Center for Arab Unity Studies, 1989). (i) See the positions taken by Radwan Al-Sayyed in Radwan Al-Sayed, “The Nationalists and Islamists in the Arab World and the Needs of Dialogue and Convergence,” in al-Bishri et al., The National-Religious Dialogue, 78. (j) See Mohammed ‘Amara and others, in al-Bishri et al., The National-Religious Dialogue, 201–7. (k) See Rashed Ghannouchi in al-Bishri et al., The National-Religious Dialogue, 268.(l) See al-Bishri et al., The National-Religious Dialogue, 230–50. (m) See al-Bishri et al., The National-Religious Dialogue.
3.
See Tariq al-Bishri et al., eds., The National-Religious Dialogue: Papers and Discussions of the Intellectual Symposium organized by the Center for Arab Unity Studies (Beirut: Center for Arab Unity Studies, 1989).
4.
See the positions taken by Radwan Al-Sayyed in Radwan Al-Sayed, “The Nationalists and Islamists in the Arab World and the Needs of Dialogue and Convergence,” in al-Bishri et al., The National-Religious Dialogue, 78.
5.
See statement issued by the 18th of October movement, December 10, 2009.
6.
See Mohammed ‘Amara and others, in al-Bishri et al., The National-Religious Dialogue, 201–7.
7.
See Rashed Ghannouchi in al-Bishri et al., The National-Religious Dialogue, 268.
8.
See al-Bishri et al., The National-Religious Dialogue, 230–50.
9.
See al-Bishri et al., The National-Religious Dialogue.

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