Held over three consecutive days in March, the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies’ Annual Conference on the Social Sciences and Humanities (March 12-14, 2016) provided scholars across the Arab region with a peerless opportunity to discuss two themes with pressing relevance to contemporary Arab societies: liberty and urbanization. While seemingly disparate, a series of three keynote addresses delivered on the three days of the conference highlighted the interrelationships which bind the twin themes of the meeting together. Fahmi Jadaan, Azmi Bishara and Abdulrahman Rasheeq, the three keynote speakers, also used their interventions to refute Western concepts of “Arab specificity”.

Jadaan, speaking on the first day of the meeting, presented a reading of Arab-Islamic political philosophy, showing how contemporary questions of political liberty, civil rights and freedom of expression had their roots in the earliest Islamic polities. Jadaan dismissed the idea of the “benevolent dictator” often used by apologists who wish to paint Arab demagogues of eras past as just rulers. Says Jadaan, a Palestinian-French academic “the idea of a benevolent dictator is a fiction”, albeit one which, he said, was successfully deployed to justify the earliest Muslim states. 

Speaking on the second day, ACRPS General Director Azmi Bishara elaborated on the universality of ideas of personal liberty and freedom, by pointing out how Arab-Islamic thinkers in the modern era had independently created a conception of personal freedom. While comparable to Western ideals of personal freedom, the concept expounded by the thinkers of the modern Arab Renewal was rooted in long established Islamic principles. Yet these same ideals were, as Bishara pointed out, also amenable to development and change alongside the modern world: the earliest modern Arab declaration of liberty, which was founded on the ethical, Islamic principle that human beings are uniquely capable of choosing between right (“good”) and wrong (“evil”), is that “all humans are born free”. Yet this was, said Bishara, merely a refutation of the “naturalness” of slavery. Liberty is more than merely the non-existence of slavery, however, and nineteenth century Egyptian writer Rifaa Al Tahtawy would advance this further by conceptualizing an Arab-Islamic concept of personal liberty rooted in both religious/theological ideals of the sanctity of life and the right to privacy. In 2016, these ideas have particular relevance in the midst of wide ranging controversies over the right of governments, including in democratic countries, to access private information on their citizens.

Notwithstanding its universality, Bishara also highlighted that liberty was never an innate or “natural” human characteristic. It was, instead, a uniquely human social construct which could only be defined within the context of an individual living within a wider society. This, in turn, was what brought the otherwise abstract concept of liberty into a more tangible reality of urbanization in the Arab world. The third and final keynote address of the Conference was delivered by Abdulrahman Rasheeq, a Moroccan sociologist. 

If liberty is more than merely the negation of slavery, and in fact included freedom of association and the right to dignified housing, then the rapid pace of urbanization in the Middle East and North Africa would also impact the practical realization of liberty as a principle. In concrete terms, as pointed out by Rasheeq, this means accommodating the policies which were imposed by the French colonial authorities in Morocco. One major legacy left by the French was the introduction of strict zoning regulations, which at first were intended to enforce a spatial separation between the Europeans colonists—who at one point accounted for 30% or more of the residents of Casablanca—and the Moroccans. 

Once the yoke of European colonialism was overturned, however, the newly empowered Moroccan authorities found themselves dealing with concentrated, urban poverty with masses of people eking out a better life for themselves in the country’s urban centers. According to statistics cited by Rasheeq, the six largest Moroccan urban centers alone account for over 25% of the country’s population, with the Kingdom overall reflecting a global trend towards the urbanization of the population as a whole. The Moroccan Royal Court has already had some time to accommodate the reality of urbanization and an urbanized urban population: Rasheeq credits the 1981 urban riots in Morocco’s cities with forcing the government to sit up and listen to the demands of a now-liberated population, whose freedom to live in cities also guaranteed their right to mobilize.