The dangers of secularism in the Middle East
Amid Arab Spring unrest, Western analysts tout secularism, fearing the rise of Islamists in the Middle East. But stability will come from including, rather than excluding, religious groups in politics.
Notre Dame, Ind., Washington, and Cambridge, Mass.
Since the Arab Spring began last December, Western analysts have voiced a recurrent fear: that a long era of Arab stability will be replaced not by secular democrats but by Islamic theocrats.Skip to next paragraph
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In Egypt, they warn, the Muslim Brotherhood will overtake the young secular activists who bravely brought down dictator Hosni Mubarak. In Syria, they have claimed, Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship may be brutal, but it is a lesser evil than a Sunni majority that will oppress Christians, Shiites, and women. Such anxiety plays perfectly into the ruling rationale of the region’s secular sultans, who have resisted popular governance with the argument that it spells theocracy.
The choice facing Arab Spring nations at this point isn’t one between religion and secular government. It’s a choice between democracy that includes all parties – religious and secular – and a regime that imposes a rigid and exclusive secularism.
By allowing religious parties to have political participation, is there a risk that such groups will win some votes and acquire some political power? Yes. The question, though, is not whether such groups oppose liberal democracy and threaten stability – some surely do – but which kind of political environment mitigates their extremist tendencies. And which kind intensifies them.
America's policy of negative secularism
The reflexive fear of politically active religious groups is rooted in an ideology of secularism that persists among elite American foreign policy makers. Now, if secularism means a healthy distinction between religious and political authority, it is essential to democracy. Pope Benedict XVI called this “positive secularism.”
Negative secularism, by contrast, presumes that religion is irrational, premodern, violent, and headed for extinction – and has no place in democratic politics. Negative secularism mistakenly equates religious political participation with religious takeover and the subversion of democracy. Its answer to theocracy is "seculocracy:" the absolute supremacy of nonreligious principles in politics.
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Pro-government forces in Syria illustrated the attitude of seculocracy last week in Hama after they crushed protests there. They scrawled on the walls of the city such slogans as: "No God but al-Assad" and "God falls down and Assad lives."
During the cold war, negative secularism undergirded America’s policy in the Middle East. America’s overriding concern was finding reliable allies against the Soviets. In a few cases these allies were highly religious, as were Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Far more often, though, they were regimes built on nationalism, economic and social modernization – and the secular containment of grassroots Islam.
From Tangiers to Tehran, such regimes sought to control Islam by marginalizing, privatizing, and sharply regulating it. They gave legal and financial support to approved moderate Muslims; they jailed and tortured traditional dissident Muslims.
When Western liberals questioned why Mr. Mubarak imprisoned 20,000 of his Egyptian citizens, Mubarak replied: It’s either me or the Muslim Brotherhood. The US bought the argument. Such thinking partly explains why the Obama administration was slow to abandon Mubarak. Only days before the dictator’s downfall, according to The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, a White House official summarized Mubarak’s message to the US as “Muslim Brotherhood, Muslim Brotherhood, Muslim Brotherhood.”
Repressive secular regimes foster religious extremism
In the end, however, America’s policy of promoting secular dictatorships has simultaneously undermined democracy and stability and bolstered religious radicals. Instead, the United States will best advance its long term interests by encouraging the Middle East’s transitioning regimes to invite all nonviolent religious groups into the political arena.