The Egyptian comedian, Bassem Youssef, wrote in al Shorouk, translated by MEMRI, on Sept. 23: “We demand that the world respect our feelings, yet we do not respect the feelings of others. We scream blue murder when they outlaw the niqab in some European country or prevent [Muslims] from building minarets in another [European] country — even though these countries continue to allow freedom of religion, as manifest in the building of mosques and in the preaching [activity] that takes place in their courtyards. Yet, in our countries, we do not allow others to publicly preach their beliefs. Maybe we should examine ourselves before [criticizing] others.”
Whenever I was asked during the Iraq war, “How will you know when we’ve won?” I gave the same answer: When Salman Rushdie can give a lecture in Baghdad; when there is real freedom of speech in the heart of the Arab/Muslim world. There is no question that we need a respectful dialogue between Islam and the West, but, even more, we need a respectful dialogue between Muslims and Muslims. What matters is not what Arab/Muslim political parties and groupings tell us they stand for. What matters is what they tell themselves, in their own languages, about what they stand for and what excesses they will not tolerate.
This internal debate had long been stifled by Arab autocrats whose regimes traditionally suppressed extremist Islamist parties, but never really permitted their ideas to be countered with free speech — with independent, modernist, progressive interpretations of Islam or by truly legitimate, secular political parties and institutions. Are we seeing the start of that now with the emergence of free spaces and legitimate parties in the Arab world? Again, too early to say, but this moderate backlash to the extremist backlash is worth hailing — and watching.