Stephen M. Walt

Arab secularism and its discontents

I am pleased to offer the following guest post by Nasser Rabbat of MIT: Nasser Rabbat writes: The euphoria sparked by the 2011 Arab uprisings has settled into realpolitik. The youth who initiated the protest movements split into myriad organizations or withdrew in despair. The Islamists, disciplined through decades of clandestine political action, took over ...


I am pleased to offer the following guest post by Nasser Rabbat of MIT:

Nasser Rabbat writes:

The euphoria sparked by the 2011 Arab uprisings has settled into realpolitik. The youth who initiated the protest movements split into myriad organizations or withdrew in despair. The Islamists, disciplined through decades of clandestine political action, took over in Tunisia and Libya, and are poised to wrestle power from a recalcitrant army in Egypt. The secularists, assumed to be the natural allies of the West, are weak and divided. In Tunisia and Egypt, they garnered fewer votes in the elections than predicted. In Libya, they retreated from the National Transitional Council, leaving the Islamists to occupy its most powerful positions. In Syria, still struggling against a belligerent and criminal regime that is proving hard to nudge, the secularists in the opposition are constantly bickering, whereas the Islamists are organized and goal-oriented. Arab secularism, the events seem to suggest, is a spent force. The United States and other Western governments, claiming to be responding to the realities on the ground, are engaging the Islamic parties as the defining new paradigm of Arab politics.

Is this a new turn for the West? Did the West support the secularists before the revolutions? And has Arab secularism really become irrelevant? My answer to all three questions is an emphatic no. To begin with, the record of the West in the Arab world is patently not pro-secularist. Indeed, if we are to limit our assessment to the regimes that have been consistently backed by the U.S. in the last fifty years, we will find on the top of the list Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Oman, and Morocco, all avowedly Islamic regimes, at least in their claims to legitimacy or their application of Islamic law. Conversely, some of the most ardent opponents of the U.S. have been the secular regimes of the Baath party in Syria and Iraq, though their secularism proved skin-deep and opportunistic. Moreover, when the United States decided to avenge the attacks of 9/11, perpetrated as they were by an extremist Islamist militancy, its most decisive act was to destroy the secular regime of Iraq. Eight years later, when the Americans finally withdrew from Iraq, they left behind not only a flagrantly sectarian regime, but also a political class composed largely of religious movements umbilically linked to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Nor does history show much Western support for the budding secular tendencies in the early twentieth century, which coincided with the colonization of most of the Arab world. Pragmatism may explain why colonial powers, Britain and France in particular, preferred to deal with traditional leaders. They had political influence, economic clout, and a wide base of clients. That they adhered to conservative forms of piety added to their usefulness: They understood the mechanisms of religious authority and could manipulate them to appease potential popular unrest. The few Arab secularists, on the other hand, even though thoroughly westernized and belonging to the social elite, were seen as troublemakers. Having been profoundly influenced by the principles of the Enlightenment, they formulated strong demands for liberation, democratization, and modernization. Many clashed with the colonial authorities and paid a heavy price of imprisonment or exile.

Independence, when it finally came, fell smack at the height of the Cold War. The West, which was eventually reduced to the United States, was seeking to build alliances of nations committed to countering the Communist threat. Conservative regimes, such as those of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, were obviously the most promising allies. So the West supported them regardless of their religious agendas. When military regimes came to power in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq after the defeat of these countries in the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948, they first toyed with accepting Western tutelage. Their subsequent turning to the USSR as a patron more sympathetic to their national causes, however, did not translate into espousing communism or rejecting religion. Ungodly these military regimes certainly were, but they were not secular. They neither believed in nor practiced the separation of religion and politics. They in fact heavily relied on religious symbolism to frame the image of their one inspired despot and his family or clan. This was the case of Anwar al-Sadat after Camp David and his successor Hosni Mubarak, as well as Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi, Hafiz and Bashar al-Assad. Fundamentalism and its defiant social expressions actually grew under their watch, even if they had been relentlessly suppressing all Islamic political organizations, or any other political activism for that matter.

Secularists had no place in such a system. Those who dared to speak out against it found themselves dismissed from their jobs, jailed, or forced to leave their countries. Some, who persisted in their criticism of the dictators or of the rigid views of the growing Islamist extremists, like the journalists Salim al-Lawzi and Samir Kassir in Lebanon, Hidaya Sultan Al-Salem in Kuwait, Farag Foda in Egypt, and Mohammed Taha in Sudan, were assassinated. Others, unable to cobble together a political structure to unite them like the Islamists had, channeled their political activism into more intellectual and artistic pursuits. Secularism, already accused of elitism because of the social background of its proponents, became even more rarefied as it migrated either away from the pulse of the street and into the confines of academia and art or out of the country altogether.

The 2011 uprisings seemed at first to bring secularism back to the forefront as a vociferous political force. Fueled by a new breed of activists — young, globally networked, and unbothered by considerations of class, religion or gender — the uprisings wielded the same principles that earlier Arab secularists have advocated. But like those earlier Arab secularists, the youth did not translate their secularist rallying cries into framers of political parties able to compete for the post-revolutionary governments. Some movements, notably the 6th of April Movement in Egypt, simply declared after the fall of Mubarak’s regime that it had no plan to become a political party, then lived to regret that impulsive decision. The prominent and reasonably popular candidate for the presidency in Egypt, Mohammad el-Baradei, withdrew from the race before it began, citing as a reason the reprehensible way politics was conducted by his detractors. The few attempts to register a secularist political presence in the elections in Tunis and Egypt were swept aside by the eminently more organized Islamist parties and by their shrewd appeal to the basic religiosity of the people, especially the poor and the illiterate.

Arab secularism, however, remains on the street and online. Though outdone in the current rush to power by the Islamists, it still has the ability to reassert itself in the political arena, if not as the ruling party, at least as lawful opposition and guardian of the principles of civic freedoms. The culture of lawful opposition, long absent under the totalitarian regimes, needs to be reinserted into the political discourse. This is as important a function as good governance for the well-being of the nascent Arab democracies. To that end, the efforts of the discontented revolutionary youth and the seasoned secular intellectuals should be united under the umbrella of political parties. The West should help them by recognizing their crucial political role and by treating them as long-term partners not just as recipients of training and aid.

In February 2011, after the victory of the Egyptian revolution in which they played no significant role, some of the most famous Islamic preachers gloated that the next government will be Islamic. Secularism, they contended, should be put to rest because it reigned for fifty years and failed. But true secularism has never had a chance to rule in the modern Arab world, except perhaps in Tunisia under al-Habib Bourguiba (1957-87). Otherwise, religion was always enshrined in the fiat constitutions of all the Arab kingdoms and republics, even those that were ferociously hunting down Islamists. Moreover, Arab rulers who hid behind secular masks, whether they were civilian or military, never separated religion from their politics. Many enlisted docile forms of religion and compliant sheiks as parts of their arsenal of control. In that, they were following in the footsteps of a long tradition of inglorious religion-based rule in the Arab world, which did not really end until the fall of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1923. It is thus more accurate to question what Islamic rule of the kind imagined by the vocal Islamist organizations will bring that was not tried before during the long centuries of what they themselves believe was an Arab decline.

Nasser Rabbat is the Aga Khan Professor of the History of Islamic Architecture at MIT.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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