The Middle East Centre (MEC) at Oxford University recently hosted a webinar, “The Place of Religion After the [Arab] Uprisings”, featuring two speakers, Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution and Nadia Oweidat of New America.
Oweidat notes that there is no subject more important to the Middle East than religion not just over the last ten years since the “Arab spring” but over the past 1,400 years, shaping everything about the region, down to the geography and the language. Even when the Islamic world fell behind Christendom, there was a refusal to believe that there was anything moral or of values to learn; weapons and technology were absorbed from the West, but the culture and methods that led to the creation of these things were rejected.
“Every aspect” of life is affected by Islam, says Oweidat, and even when waves of reform came over the Middle East, they generally proved resistant to fundamental reforms of Islam’s role in the state. More to the point, those who tried to go in that direction found themselves ostracised, persecuted, and shut down. The arrival of the internet in the 1990s made it much more difficult to intimidate even the most radical voices in the debate—for better and worse, as it turned out. Strict secularists could now speak and spread their ideas; so could the jihadists.
The internet triggered an “avalanche of knowledge we didn’t even know existed”, Oweidat explains; banned books and other literature about Arab and Islamic history now became available at the click of a button. Many Arabs came to see the answer in a “civil state” or “civic state” (al-dawla al-madaniya), but there were harder-edged minorities now forming since they were able to access works like that of Abdullah al-Qasimi, the father of Arab atheism.
Hamid says that the “Arab spring” has “failed” and the central reason was the failure to “accommodate Islam’s outsize role in public life” [emphasis original]. “Islamism” did not exist before the 1920s, says Hamid, because when the caliphate was in existence it was taken for granted that Islam controlled the state and society; “it was [an] unspoken [fact], so it wasn’t said”. Since the demise of the Ottoman Empire, within the “independent” Arab world, “the primary cleavage became one around the role of religion and the state’s relationship with Islam”, says Hamid, the “fundamental divide”, rather than the economic Left-Right cleavages that tended to dominate societies outside the Middle East.
Hamid notes that with the spread of mass literacy and economic development, the growth of ideological, ethnic, and religious diversity is what one would expect, and it is not necessarily a lamentable thing that the secular-religious divide is the central factor, provided a solution is found to manage this. For Hamid, there is “one solution: democracy”, but not Western-style liberal democracy: a more “minimalistic conception” of democracy should be seen as an end in itself, not a means to an end—this is not about adopting democracy as a means of “getting to liberalism or rationality”; it is simply a way to “manage and regulate conflict” between populations that do not like (or even hate) one-another within states.
The alternative to a democratic and accommodationist approach is coercion, with one side dominating the other—and with the West’s favourability towards more secular forces, albeit truly secular forces in the Arab world are very rare, this has often been the path adopted in the region, with friendly anti-Islamist autocrats gaining Western support.
Oweidat counters that while non-Islamist states can be coercive, the Islamists are just as coercive—always, and everywhere. Whether it is the Islamic Republic in Iran or the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the idea of an Islamic state has ended in tyranny and disaster. Oweidat agrees with Hamid that “hard” secularism and liberalism has small levels of support in the region, but also agrees with Hamid that there is a broad opposition to clerical rule, so there is some common ground for a democratic settlement, provided the democratic framework can be guaranteed, which has been a problem when Islamists come to power by elections, as in Egypt, since they feel no obligation to leave office by the methods that brought them to it.
Hamid says that the problem of the small numbers of liberals and secularists in the Arab region is the central reason why there is not the symbiotic relationship in the Middle East between liberalism and democracy that has been, at least until recently, in evidence in the West. The practical outcome has been that Arab liberals often find themselves reliant on the military.
Both speakers said that it is very notable that in the Arab world, the clerical model of Iran’s regime—which had such wide purchase among Arab Islamists in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution—now has almost no supporters. Marxist-Islamist intellectuals like Ali Shariati, whose ideas about the dictatorship of the dispossessed was once so popular, are now forgotten in Egypt and even Tunisia, where the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood party, Rashid al-Ghannushi, was a vocal proponent of the Iranian regime in the 1980s.
Hamid says that the Islamist discourse in the Arab world now speaks of democracy, though it does have to be acknowledged that there is the “double discourse” problem with the Islamists—their commitment to procedural democracy is open to doubt.
Oweidat says that the attempt to reconcile Islamism and the nation-state is impossible. Islamism places God above all else and more to the point is able to repress opponents on that basis. For the nation-state, people are at the centre; no idea permits repression. Oweidat argues that Islamism is on the decline in the region, less because of the repression—the Islamists can and have recovered from this before—but because it ran into an intellectual cul-de-sac. The fact that secularists and liberals are a small number is not a lethal debilitation; as Oweidat points out, the Middle East has almost always been ruled by minorities (Muslims were a minority for centuries in the early Islamic Empire).
Hamid agrees that Islamism is in decline at the present moment, and reports that some Brotherhood members are turning to secularism and even liberalism. He cautions, however, that Islamists have a record of bounding back very quickly when opportunities arise. Oweidat adds a caveat to this: Islamists have immense funding—from states like Turkey and Qatar, as well as wealthy individual donors elsewhere—that allows them to propagate their ideas through mosques, cultural centres, satellite television channels, and the rest of it. It is unclear how secular liberalism would fare politically in the Arab world if it had equal access to finance as the Islamists.