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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Secularism in the Middle East- an impossible dream?

I've been checking out some Middle East blogs lately- Sandmonkey, Big Pharoah, Hossam. I have to commend these bloggers on their vision for secularism in the Middle East but at the same time I have to wonder about the ability of Islamic states to embrace secularism.

It's something I've been thinking about lately because I have an upcoming public lecture and my topic for the talk is Islam and secularism in Australia.

The basic premise of secularism is a separation of the private (religion) from the public (affairs of the State). A nice idea but is it really possible? Although countries like the US and Australia define themselves as secular liberal democracies- just how secular are they?

Last night I watched an interview with Rupert Everett, a gay actor, who said that it is very difficult for gay actors in the US because the US is a very Christian nation. In Australia, the right wing Christian presence is becoming increasingly visible in the political arena as witnessed by the recent debate on the abortion drug RU486.

For secularism to be truly successful, religion must be wholly and solely a private affair. There can be no blurring of the boundaries between private and public. The notion of religion upon which secularism is based is one in which religion is defined as a spiritual practice- one that can be confined to the private and separated from the public. But what if a broader notion of religion is present- where religion is seen to be more a way of life than a private practice? This is precisely the dilemma facing Islam and secularism.

Secular Muslims, like myself, have no trouble confining religion to the private realm. Indeed, I have grown up with the notion that my religion was purely a private affair- something between me and God- and I thank my parents for instilling this in me.

But for many other Muslims it seems that Islam cannot be a private practice- it is, for them, a "way of life". Islam is the lens through which they view the world, the lens through which they articulate their needs, their views, their opinions- their world view is "I am Muslim therefore..." They define their identity wholly and solely as religious. But religion has no place in the public sphere of the secular state. So where does that leave them? and more importantly what does that mean for a secular experiment in the Middle East?

Secularism is brought into question where the state favours one religion over another- as Christianity is in both the US and Australia. If countries like the US and Australia are operating as pseudo-secular, how can we expect Islamic states to embrace secular democracy? There is no doubt in my mind that should secularism be introduced anywhere in the Middle East, Islam would be the religion of favour.

Is true secularism in the Mid East a pipe dream?


programmer craig said...

Hi Usual Suspect,

I think the problem is even bigger than you suggest. First, I disagree with you that the US (I'll only speak of the US because it is my country) is only "semi-secular" - we are entirely secular. The concept of secularism doesn't mean that religious people cannot hold office, or that they can't demonstrate/protest over issues that effect their religious practices, or that they can't lobby politicians to pass legislation favorable to them, etc. I'm skipping the thing about Rupert Everett as what he is alleging is homophobia and not really related to government at all. A secular society is just one where it is forbidden to try to put religion in play at a government/state level.

However... I don't think the western idea of "secular" would work in the Middle East, even if we could get a ME country to adopt a secular government, it wouldn't work. There is too much of a tradition (amongst Islamists and the ignorant) of using violence and intimidation to force their issues and their will upon others.

"Secular" doesn't mean squat when politicans face possible assination or violent mobs on the street. Democracies cannot exist in such circumstances, secular or not. So, I don't think it's even a question of being secular. It's a question of whether Islam (in it's current form) is compatibile with democracy.

I don't think it is.

Hossam said...

Hey suspect,
Thanks for the positive feedback on the blog.
Re: secularism in the ME, I believe it's not impossible to achieve. It's true religion is playing a HUGE role in ME politics today, but this wasn't the case in the 1950s and 1960s, and even uptill the mid 1970s... the Arab political arena then was dominated by secular nationalism and variations of Stalinist ideologies. The rise of Islamism was a function of how those tendencies, unfortunately, failed the masses in the region and brought defeats.
Arabs are not religious by default, and they won't follow blindly Islamist groups who advocate the fusion of religion and politics, just coz they are "religious". The Islamists delivered at some points where the Left failed, and thus was their current rise.
However, steadily since the 1990s, after the a decade of insurgency and counterinsurgency that weakened the Islamists in the region whether they were moderates or militants--a tiny openning started to exist for secular alternatives that did not exists before.
In Egypt to be specific, there has been a continuous revival of leftist politics following the outbreak of Al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000.. and today Egyptian lefties are being taken seriously by other Islamist groups, like the MB, which is an evidence of their considerable street presence. It's still a long way to go, but I'm optimistic...

The Usual Suspect said...

Hey Craig
Thanks for your post. I get your argument about the US being entirely secular and agree with your definition of secularism here. I guess what I really mean (but didn't say very clearly at all) is that where there is a preferred or priviliged religion, such as Christianity in the US and Australia, the purity of secularism is brought into question- particularly because minority religions will be adversely impacted. So, yes, US is secular but Christianity is the preferred religion maybe!

I think we need to distinguish between secularism and democracy. I think that Islam is compatible with democracy- infact the principles of Islam are very much similar to the principles of democracy (I have a paper I did on it somewhere but it was so long ago and I can't recall much at this time). However, I question if Islam is compatible with secularism because of the way that many Muslims view Islam as being incapable of compartmentalisation.

The Usual Suspect said...

Hi Hossam

Do you think we can go back to those days? I don't know if teh ME has moved so far away from secular ideology that there is no way of going back. Like you, I hope, but I am not optimistic.