Being on a conference about science and Islam during the Arab spring, as I am right now, means one subject keeps returning: will democracies come?
The speakers are scientists, medics and historians of science from Egypt, Jordon, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, UAE. The mood is uncertain, though not without hope. The consensus seems to be that Tunisia will likely have a happy outcome. Libya is condemned to horror. Egypt hangs in the balance: the risks are the failure of civic society to deliver on the unleashed aspirations of 80 million people, and the Muslim Brotherhood gaining enough of a foothold to constrain a new democracy.
What’s happening in Syria and Bahrain is frightening – spiraling violence, medics who treat wounded protesters arrested. Yemen is a different and alarming case again. Pakistan is being discussed too, for obvious reasons, and is perhaps the most disturbing disturbed country in the Middle East.
Hope seems to stand or fall on what you think freedom of speech, once secured, can deliver politically. Is it enough, unleashing an inherent inclination towards toleration, curiosity and goodwill, nurtured by the best instincts in Islam? Or does freedom of speech require the traditions of a mature civil society too, so that the different voices of a million individuals are orchestrated into a constructive and creative conversation?