A Secular Uprising
10 Myths About the Arab Spring
As the Arab spring unfolds without loud and explicit calls for the establishment of Islamic states or modern-day Caliphates across the region, commentators and policymakers alike appear relieved by the apparent secular nature of the protests. Yet this emerging consensus on a “secular uprising” is both wrong and dangerous.
It is wrong for three reasons. First, those regimes that are being swept away by the current winds of change (from Egypt to Tunisia, Yemen, Syria and Libya) were, or are, all rooted in some sort of secular nationalist or socialist ideology. In their wake, Islam will likely play a more central role in the political and social life of these countries. Islamist movements, like the Muslim Brotherhood and others, appear the most organized to compete in upcoming elections in Egypt and Tunisia, for example.
In Libya the Transitional National Council, a sort of government-in-waiting, is a mix of secular liberals and Islamists. In Iran, which the somewhat misconceived term Arab Spring leaves out, the Green Movement’s demands for greater accountability and democracy are still framed within an Islamic conception of the state. While Iranian-style religious dictatorship is rarely the model to which protesters across the region look at, neither is the ultra-secular democratic France. Indeed, it is the Islamist infused Turkish republic that seems to have the most traction on the Arab and Persian streets.
Second, many have hailed Twitter and new media as the emblem of secular modernity’s impact on the uprisings. However, it is the Friday of prayers, such as Cairo’s “Friday of rage,” that has truly pulled people together, becoming the catalyst for the largest protests across the whole region. Between the mosque and the internet, religion more so than technology provided much of the social hardware for people to connect and mobilize together.
Thirdly, religious factors seep into the growing sectarianism that runs parallel to the current upheavals. Think about the targeting of Copts in Egypt or the national and regional implications of Shia-Sunni divisions in Bahrain and Syria. The destabilizing effects of identity politics across religious lines should not be underestimated and overlooked.
The sigh of relief that many throw at the supposedly secular nature of the uprisings is also a dangerous reflex. Such a view is the product of a Eurocentric mindset that portrays religion as an irrational force incompatible with democracy, against the backdrop of a secular rational and tolerant modernity. This stereotype regularly clouds the vision of commentators and policymakers on what is most important for the region’s prosperity and stability. And that is regime type.
Indeed, there are highly religious countries, such as the US or Turkey, which are successful democracies. And there are secularist regimes, such as Tunisia under Ben Ali or North Korea, which are hugely oppressive. Western policymakers should keep their focus, not on whether it is secularism or religion that produces instability, but on whether it is democratic or autocratic regimes that do so.