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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.

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To be sure, the region contains many unsavory religious groups. Some advocate a harsh form of sharia that denies the rights of women and minorities, calls for the destruction of Israel, and declares America an enemy. Factions within Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood think along these lines, as do even more extreme Salafists.

But the growth of extremist religious groups is less likely within a political structure that includes, rather than excludes, them. In our recently published book, "God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics,” we present evidence that religious groups are most likely to become radicalized and violent when they live under regimes that deny them autonomy and political participation.

America’s longtime friend, the shah of Iran, epitomized the dangerous relationship between repressive secularism and Islamic radicalism. The shah’s harsh repression and manipulation of Iran’s ayatollahs helped turn many of them from quiet political indifference to violent militancy, generating the revolution of 1979 and all of the continuing challenges the Islamic Republic poses to American interests.

The dynamic is similar for religious terrorist groups that have arisen in the ensuing years. Overwhelmingly Islamic, these groups were incubated largely by the repressive policies of America’s Arab and South Asian allies, most of which were secular.

Inclusion sets the ground for peace, partnership

Conversely, we find that religious groups are most likely to be peaceful and supportive of democracy when they live under regimes that respect their autonomy. Islamic countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mali, Senegal, and Turkey demonstrate that when Islamic parties participate in politics they not only operate by the rules of the democratic game but also, in time, become more moderate.

Moderate Islam also exists in today’s Middle East. While some Egyptian Muslims have attacked Coptic Christians, others have formed protective prayer chains around Coptic churches. Today, a popular Muslim Brother is running for Egypt’s presidency on an independent platform of liberal democratic principles – even to the point of provoking his formal expulsion from the Brotherhood.

Earlier this summer, the US government resumed formal contact with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. This, in our view, suggests a positive turn toward a policy of religious engagement. If the United States wishes to advance democracy, stability, and the defeat of terrorism in the upheaval in the Middle East, it must continue to abjure the brand of secularism that views religion only as a threat. It must realize not only that religion is here to stay but also that, in the right kind of setting and through the right kind of policies, religion can become an ally, not an enemy, of American interests and ideals.

Daniel Philpott is an associate professor of political science and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame. Timothy Shah is associate director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs. Monica Duffy Toft is associate professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and director of the Initiative on Religion in International Affairs.


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