Transcending the Secularism-Fundamentalism Binary Opposition

Friday, March 30, 2012

Gholamali Khoshroo
Senior Editor of the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Islam

The movements which have brought an end to such long-lasting regimes as the governments of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and transformed many Arab countries over the last 15 months have been among the most thought-provoking political developments in the past half century. Analyzing these movements and examining their nature as well as consequences have invariably provoked controversy and been subject to dispute by analysts and authorities. Explaining these developments in the light of the secularism-fundamentalism dichotomy has proved questionable and been done hastily since the very beginning. Those analysts who have tried to explain these developments in terms of secularism and democracy as opposed to fundamentalism and despotism have failed to adjust their intellectual model to the political realities on the ground.

One cannot interpret these movements as based upon secularism as those young protesters, figures and parties identified as liberal, secular and pro-Western did not gain considerable victories in the competitive and free elections following the overthrow of Mubarak and Ben Ali regimes and were thus gradually marginalized in spite of taking the initiative at the beginning and managing to bring masses to the scene of protests. In contrast, the political parties and groups which had been deprived of taking part in political activities for years due to their Islamic tendencies have now turned into the principal players of the political sphere in the these societies. Along parallel lines, the figures and activists who had been imprisoned or forced into exile under the pretext of holding Islamist views have now become prominent and respectable personalities trusted by the public. Furthermore, Islam which had been banned by forces from entering the public sphere in these countries has now turned into the main source of legislation.

On the other hand, one cannot title these developments as fundamentalist as Islamist groups have based their accession to power not upon the use of violence or force or the support of Western powers, but upon free and transparent elections and the popular vote. They have demonstrated a positive view of the diversity of votes, plurality of parties and fair competition among them while giving people the freedom to choose their own way of life. They also feel obliged to respect the rights of citizens, not least those of women and ethnic minorities. It should be noted, however, that Islamists themselves are comprised of a broad spectrum of groups with different views and approaches.

Therefore, one should seek to trace the nature and roots of these developments in relying upon and respecting the popular vote and invoking the truth of the unifying religion. In fact, the two major factors causing the shift of power and social movement are the votes of the people and Islam as a divine religion. Accordingly, one can reckon religious democracy as the most outstanding characteristic of these developments. Creating a successful balance between Islam and democracy is a significant and sensitive task which requires continuous scholarship, adherence to civil ethics and collective reason.

The exploration of the history of Middle East and North Africa in the past half century illustrates that past regimes in the region achieved independence through emphasizing Arab nationalism in the face of Western colonialists. Pan-Arabism had turned into the dominant mantra and approach in the regional countries for several decades, manifesting itself in the nationalist views of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser or Ba’athist attitudes; a mantra around which the aspirations of Arab peoples revolved. It is worth pointing out that the new movements and recent developments changed this nationalist, secular and authoritarian trend. Indeed, with the dissolution of such regimes, Islamic parties overcame their nationalist and liberal rivals in free and fair elections, ascending to power in the region. This victory represents the inefficacy of past nationalist and secular governments, which were not able in practice to create unity among Arabs, achieve independence and promote local Arab identity in spite of adhering to the motto of Arab unity.

This Arab nationalist approach failed to bring the question of Palestine – which had turned into the most pressing issue in the Islamic world and even in the West – to an acceptable end. What is worse is that the cause of Palestine became a political tool at the hands of pretentious and compromising Arab regimes. Additionally, during the past decades the standard of living of people in these states did not improve while unemployment, lack of development and backwardness helped widen the gap between the rich and the poor. It was in the context of these realities that people took to the streets and introduced a new path which was later given the title of Arab Spring by Western states. It is noteworthy that opposition to dictators formed only one side of these movements; the other side was opposition to foreign intervention in the region and interference in the internal affairs of these nations. In point of fact, Muslim nations of the region have been under pressure for many long years from autocracy, corruption, Westernism and secularism. Now these walls are collapsing one after the other as people have adopted a new approach to politics and society, which consists in:

- Confronting dictatorship and authoritarianism and their terrorizing military and security agents
- Opposing economic and social corruption among rulers and in the bureaucratic system
- Fighting the presence and influence of the West over their culture and society; and,
- Turning away from the imposed secularism which has been based upon prohibition of religion from entering the social and political spheres.

Some group of analysts have dubbed these developments the “Arab Spring” and some other group the “Islamic Awakening.” Our interpretation of them, however, will be different depending upon the angle we choose to view the movements. If we consider the Arab Spring a democratic movement launched by the middle class and based upon a secular approach and adherence to the West, then one should argue that the erroneousness of such a conception has already been demonstrated clearly in practice. The political parties affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, which won the elections in Egypt and Tunisia, had relied more upon the votes of the dispossessed classes and have a religious identity as well as an independent attitude. Therefore, one should ask, how the Arab Spring has toppled pro-West dictators and empowered Islamists? In these circumstances, one had better dub the Arab Spring the “winter of Westernism.”

If we look at the developments from another standpoint, then we can call the process the “Islamic Awakening” as Islamists managed to reinvigorate their solidarity and take active part in the political arenas with vigilance and via good organization. Announcing their political and cultural positions, they distinguished their approach from that of secular, liberal and pro-West forces, thus insisting upon their religious identity and national objectives.

Though Islamist groups had been systematically suppressed for several decade for political reasons, they managed to consolidate their position in their respective societies through different methods including active participation in affairs related to the common good. They had been restricted and stifled in Egypt and Tunisia for four decades under the allegations of being dogmatic, hardline and terrorist. Instigating phobia and cynicism towards the political ideals and demands of Islamists and more broadly creating suspicion about the final objectives of Muslims had in practice pushed them from the scene of public politics into isolation exile or jail.

What we are witnessing in Tunisia and Egypt today are people’s struggle for freedom in the face of dictatorship, their desire for the establishment of Islamic ideals instead of imported policies and violent approaches of the past towards religious culture and traditions, and finally their efforts for the establishment of justice as opposed to corruption, discrimination and poverty. Now the political wing of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is active under the banner of “Freedom and Justice” party, which itself shows that Islamists regards freedom and justice as two precious elements in the Egyptian society today.

Here one should be careful about and avoid a dangerous fallacy. As one should not consider this process as a conciliatory, secular and Western one by calling it the “Arab Spring,” in a parallel way, one should not dub it fundamentalist, militant, extremist and violence-seeking either by titling the movements the “Islamic Awakening.” Accordingly, one should not claim that since this process is not the “Arab Spring,” it therefore is a fundamentalist transformation; rather one should pay attention to its primary elements which include relying upon popular vote and emphasizing Islam. Consequently, one can argue that religious democracy is a characteristic aspect of this set of movements.

Today, Islamists – according to what they have declared in their agendas – do not seek to bring Islam back to society by coercion, but they are trying to eliminate the security and political obstacles which have so far hindered Muslims from taking part in political and civil spheres. Islamist groups in Egypt and Tunisia maintain that they are simply removing the hurdles to inviting people to Islam, but they are free to choose which path to follow. They say that they are following a lifestyle marked by love and free from corruption, discrimination and restriction as people themselves know the straight path. They are fighting against Islamophobia as its spread has led to the suppression and isolation of Islamic movements over the past decades. They say that they are considering Islam as the primary source of legislation, but at the end of the day it will be the people themselves who should choose their way of life and their rulers by freely participating in elections.

To what extent should religion play a role in controlling and adjusting political, economic and cultural relations is an issue which is theoretically challenging and merits being discussed and examined, and can practically corrected and complemented by using a method of trial and error. The establishment of a harmonious and successful balance between the views of the people and religious goals and values requires a deep perception and continuous intellectual effort. In other words, mulling deeply over these movements can raise important questions about the relationship between popular views and religious values among thinkers and scholars.

Once the Middle East, which is the cradle of great divine religions, comes to terms with the two elements of democracy and religiosity and its governments take into consideration the role of the people and religious values in strategic and macro decisions of their respective countries, then one can hope for a stable future for the region, the establishment of relations based on mutual respect and cooperation with the West, and finally for the creation of a lively and spiritually oriented society.

These developments will prepare the ground and create more suitable circumstances to interact with the West and reach mutual understanding provided that a new attitude and approach toward Muslims be adopted in the West. Such an imperative requires accepting Muslims’ religious identity and respecting their values and actions rather than propagating secular values as well as transcending the cliché of the intrinsic incompatibility of Islam and democracy and conceding the fact that in Islamic societies, religiosity and democracy do not necessarily contradict each other and are not mutually exclusive. One should transcend the common and established approach in the West according to which “secularism and democracy” as contrasted with “religiosity and dictatorship” are viewed as companion pairs, and instead employ the new paradigm of religious democracy to understand these developments better.

More By Gholamali Khoshroo:

*Nervous Attack of High-Ranking Commanders:

*Islamic Awakening: Review of Political Developments in Tunisia and Egypt:

*Victory of Islamists in Tunisia:

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