Muslim's Multiple Modernities: Islamism and Secularism after the Arab Spring

Analysis, posted 02.24.2013, from Egypt, in:
Muslim's Multiple Modernities: Islamism and Secularism after the Arab Spring (Photo: Reuters)

Two years after the start of the Arab Spring, a discernible set of political trends confirm an argument I made in my book Islam, Secularism and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies. I argued that in Muslim societies the road to democracy, whatever twists and turns along the way, "cannot avoid passing through the gates of religious politics". What I meant by this was twofold.

First, the role of religion in politics needed to be democratically negotiated in emerging Muslim democracies and that political secularism had to be earned and not assumed. It was a fallacy to presuppose that Muslim societies had long grappled with the deeply emotional and divisive issue of the normative role of religion in politics and that a broad democratic consensus exists on the topic.

Stated differently, Western history is not universal history, and it is analytically flawed to assume that the Muslim world has had the same historical experience as the West with respect to negotiating the proper role of religion in government.

Secondly, I argued that religious-based parties and religious intellectuals could play a critically important role in the democratization of their countries provided they reconciled their political theologies with universal standards of human rights and the modern demands of democracy. This latter development is taking place – gradually, to be sure, but its manifestation is undeniable.

For example, the prominent role played by the Islamist Ennahda party in leading Tunisia's democratic transition demonstrates that forms of religious politics and democratic development are indeed compatible. While the case of Egypt and religious-based parties is more complex, a similar trend is visible in this country as well.

The indigenization of "Islamic secularism"

Looking ahead, it is clear that the transition and consolidation of democracy in Muslim societies will continue to be deeply intertwined with the ability of religious-oriented political actors to develop and indigenize a form of political secularism that is compatible with their cultural traditions.

In order to sustain and bolster democracy, this indigenization of "Islamic secularism" will have to approximate what the scholar Alfred Stepan has called the "Twin Tolerations", meaning that there must be a clear distinction and mutual respect between political authorities and religious bodies.

Achieving this will be difficult, partly because this process is inherently conflict-ridden but also due to the brutal legacy of the post-colonial secular state in the Arab-Islamic world and the secular nationalist ideologies that bolstered it.

In Syria today, for example, the Assad regime justifies its rule partly in the name of secularism. At the same time it has responded to pro-democracy protests with such extreme brutality that Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria have all charged the Syrian regime with pursuing a policy of state-sanctioned war crimes and crimes against humanity.

As a consequence, the challenges facing democrats in Syria in the likely aftermath of the demise of the secular dictatorship in Damascus will be formidable, especially in terms of reconstituting an authentic form of political secularism on the ruins of a rapacious secular post-colonial regime.


By Nader Hashemi

[Excerpt—See accompanying URL for full original text]