Dominic AsquithHMA, Cairo
The word “radical” has become abused. In British 18th century history the Radicals were those who campaigned for changes in political representation, particularly as regards the underprivileged. The word literally means going to the root or origin. But it has now become associated with anything that is extreme.
I wonder if those who have been campaigning to ban the publication of The Thousand and One Nights think of themselves as radicals, attempting to return society to some pre-10th century origin, before al Jahshiyari compiled the first written version. Drawing on an oral tradition that went back through the Persian Hazar Afsana, which itself contained stories of Indian origin, al Jahshiyari created a literary phenomenon. According to the Peruvian novelist Vargas Llosa it competes with the Bible and Shakespeare in being the most published, adapted, translated and embellished in history.
The art of storytelling is at the heart of all that is civilizing in fiction. Chaucer in England and Boccaccio in Italy understood it as long ago as the 14th century. To ban the publication of the Thousand and One Nights seems to be taking the root out of human nature – the reverse of radicalism.
This brings to mind another contemporary misuse of radicalism – the association that it has these days with those who pursue their aims through violence. “Radicalisation” is often used to describe the process which those undergo who carry out terrorism. To be radical, however, does not mean you have to reject western values, or liberal democracies, or tolerance of “the other” or trying to engage with those who have different beliefs. Indeed, those 18th century English radicals were trying to ensure those values were more widely respected. As a recent report by the London-based think tank Demos argues, radicals (as opposed to terrorists) are “more likely to recognise their own ignorance and stress the importance of context, reflection and learning”. Radicals reject the status quo, but they can be non-violent. Raising the banner of “radicalism” does not mean you turn your back on rationality – or indeed human values, by killing innocent people.
How Muslims are responding to the challenges of modernity is the subject of another fascinating analysis by a team of Muslims of very different backgrounds under the supervision of the deeply impressive Professor Yasir Suleiman at Cambridge University. The report urges Muslims to identify shared values between Islam and other world views, pointing to the Qu'ran's emphasis on qualities such as good neighbourliness, charity, hospitality and non-aggression.
I’ve come across a large number of “radical” people in Egypt over this past month, Muslims and Christians. They are very peaceful. They are working deep in the communities in which they live. I would describe their radicalism in the following way: they are passionate about improving the daily lives of those around them, of whatever religion - the things that really matter like health, education and employment. They raise money and they devote huge effort every day to making it happen: non violent radicalism going to the root of the problem.