Kamal Al-Labwani is an influential Syrian democratic activist who believes in separation of mosque and state. He is the founder of the Syrian Liberal Democratic Union and currently resides in Jordan.
He was first imprisoned from September 2001 to September 2004 by the dictatorship of Bashar Assad because of his advocacy for democracy. He was again arrested in 2005 and was released on November 15, 2011 along with 1,180 others. In February, he resigned from the Syrian National Council, the opposition umbrella body based in Turkey, accusing it of being undemocratic and controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood.
“There has been no Islamist democratic country in history, and we do not want to try to be the first,” Labwani told Reuters.
“This region will not stabilize without a reformation in Islamic culture that creates an Islam compatible with liberal values and modernism and breaks the totalitarian dogmatic Islamist thinking,” he said.
The following is ClarionProject.org Senior Fellow Ryan Mauro’s interview with Labwani:
Ryan Mauro: Thank you for the interview. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Kamal Labwani: I am a Sunni Muslim who believes in God. but I refuse to identify my political identity as a Muslim. We have to be clear that the matter of religion is different than the matter of politics. We need a civil democratic state [in Syria] that respects religious freedom.
The West really doesn’t understand the deep desire [among Syrians] to reform, not only politics, but also culture and religion, to cut with seven centuries of deterioration, closed minds and lack of freedom, due to either occupation or dictatorship. This is the will of the Arab Sunni majority. By using the close-minded Islamist groups to lead the revolution, we will have to choose between democracy and Islam. Why?! Why can’t we try to make Islam more compatible with freedom and civilization? We need open minds, not the Muslim Brotherhood.
Ryan Mauro: One of the biggest fears of the West is that if Assad falls, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists will take over like they did in Egypt. Will that happen?
Kamal Labwani: I don’t believe this fear. The Islamists can’t control Syria without outside support coming from Qatar, Turkey, France, the U.K. and the U.S. I have seen how they all support the Muslim Brotherhood and how they put pressure on us to work under its command, to make all the opposition work under the supervision of the Muslim Brotherhood party through the Syrian National Council. Why?
Why is this revolution banned from its real leaders? Why has this leadership been stolen and handed to the Muslim Brotherhood? Right now, I have only one answer: There is fear of the Syrian revolution and fear of a free Syrian people.
The way the regime falls will determine who will rule after. In theory, if a democracy exists, the result of any ordinary, free elections will not bring the Islamists, political Islam, or their organizations to power if the others make a coalition—the minorities that are 30% plus the liberal majority of the Sunnis equals more than half.
But, this is in theory. How we bring about democracy, how we construct the parties, what kind of constitution, the election laws—these are things it depends on. The real question is what we are going to do in Syria now. It depends mainly on what the West is doing.
Ryan Mauro: How can the U.S. and other countries help non-Islamists, like yourself, compete against the Islamists?
Kamal Labwani: In simple ways, they can support us with diplomacy, politics, media, facilities in neighboring states, also by financing, tools and communication. They can forward that support not to the Muslim Brotherhood, but to the liberal opposition. The support will make us able to keep our youth out from the influence of money from others that is used to buy loyalty. They exchange the money for obedience. We want support to the make people strong enough to be free, liberal, independent and self-confident.
If we have a real chance at democracy, then we can [compete against the Islamists]. We know it is hard to build democracy after decades of a totalitarian security system, but we have a very important tool. It is the revolution, the people, the youth, the women. Yes, I trust the people of Syria. I am not afraid of freedom in any way. Just cut the outside support coming to the regime.
Ryan Mauro: It is often argued that Islam is incompatible with true democracy and Western values. What do you say to that?
Kamal Labwani: I say yes, Islam as it is currently read and understood is not compatible with democracy or a modern way of life. I have working for Islamic reform for 25 years. When I was in prison for nearly 10 years, the main thing I did was prepare for this matter. I am ready now to open a workshop for Islamic reform in Damascus. It would be a revolution, a revolution in the culture.
We need to enter the genetics of the culture, the religion — not change the text but modernize the minds which read the holy book. All we need now is a space for freedom in an Islamic capital. We know democracy can’t be stable without the democratic culture. We want to continue our revolution to reach the real democracy that comes from our culture, not imported from outside cultures. We can do something in Islam like the Protestant Reformation. Islam is able to do this. The people are ready and waiting.
Ryan Mauro: You resigned from the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group. Why?
Kamal Labwani: I refuse to lie to the people who sacrifice and make them believe that they [the SNC] are loyal to their aims and able to represent them. I refuse the intervention of the foreign states, especially when they give orders to the leaders of the SNC, whom are loyal to foreign, not patriotic, interests.
I refuse the corruption, the monopoly of power, the money and arms for one party. I refuse the absence of institutions, of elections, of transparency. I resigned because they repeated the faults of the Baath Party regime. I resigned to put pressure on the SNC to do reform, reconstruction, but until now, they avoid it. I will stay apart from it and work in my own way, as I can, if they fail to make real reform.