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As the appeal of Islamism fades, Arab secularism can soar

Jasmine Roman

Jan 12, 2013

The death of Arab secularism has been exaggerated. The mantra of secularism in the Arab countries is far more complex than a clear segregation between political and religious institutions, and the future of secularism in the region is more complicated than just the rise of Islamism.

Michel Aflaq, the founder of the Baath party in Syria, once affirmed that “the power of Islam has revived to appear in our days under a new form, that of Arab nationalism”. At the time, this argument triggered the anger of Islamists, who wanted to establish a stronger and broader Islamic presence. Sayyed Qutb, one of the leading lights of the Muslim Brotherhood, believed, on the contrary, that Arab nationalism had “exhausted its role in universal history”.

In societies where there is an ambiguous line between religion and culture, between the public and private spheres, and between individual and communal practices, the potential hold of secularism over individuals is, in the long term, at least questionable.

As Aflaq’s comment demonstrates, Arab nationalism, as he understood it, was still about Islam but had within it the space for secularism.

This unending skirmish between movements in favour of Arab nationalism, like the Baath, and those with Islamist inclinations has increased questions about the authenticity of secularism in the Arab realm. This was particularly the case after countries such as Egypt, Syria and Iraq gained independence and used fierce practices to eliminate any dissident dogmas — religious or non-religious.

In the years after independence, the governments of some of the Arab republics, though nominally secular, had inserted Islam in different formulations into their rhetoric to reach a wider public.

But this was a hybrid ideology. Nominally secular, but really about security, these states had the veneer of Islam.

Islamists, meanwhile, had been developing their ideologies, strategies and objectives under the shadow of torture in the dungeons of the state.

That created a situation where, after the Arab Spring brought drastic change at the political, economic, security and social levels, these organised groups were poised to make important gains.

Indeed, today the general perception is that Islamist factions across the republics are finding a resurrection after years of relegation and exclusion from the public sphere.

While initially Islamist groups abstained or were reluctant to join the revolutions, they have subsequently struck a blow against secularists and liberals whose bravery and determination held the revolutions together.

Particularly in Egypt, what started as general euphoria against the toppling of a dictator has increasingly become alienation for non-Islamists, as the same groups that were once oppressed are flexing their muscles and trying to enforce political hegemony.

Yet the Islamists in Egypt are a good example of why secularism is far from finished. The appeal of Islamist politics is gradually diminishing as the wider public begins to understand their real intentions.

Although the Islamic factions won the parliamentarian and presidential elections in Egypt, the first ballot boxes counted are not always accurate indications of wider political views. They may simply be a reaction to what came before. Indeed, as the Brotherhood and the more fundamental Salafi groups state their views publicly, they become less popular.

The sudden profusion of religious television channels are unmasking their lack of political awareness or in-depth religious knowledge.

Arabs can see how these groups utilise absurd discourses and antagonistic tones; blaming and insulting minority groups, demeaning women and threatening seculars and liberals.

While they give themselves the legitimacy to accuse others of apostasy (the Takfiri doctrine), they overlook that they are creating rejection by Muslims and non-Muslims, and by believers and non-believers.

The French academic Olivier Roy, who has written widely about political Islam, says: “There is a cultural gap between the Islamists and the younger generation that is less about Islam per se than about what it means for a person to be a believer.”

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The Revolution Becomes More Islamist

Robin Yassin-Kassab

with 11 comments

photo by reuters/ zain karam

Like ‘armed gangs’, armed Islamists are one of the Syrian regime’s self-fulfilling prophecies. Most grassroots organisers and fighters are secularists or moderate Islamists, but the numbers, organisational power and ideological fervor of more extreme and sectarian Islamists are steadily rising. So why is the revolution taking on an increasingly Islamist hue? Here are some points in order of importance.

First, the brute fact of extreme violence. As the saying goes, “there are no atheists in foxholes.” Not only is faith intensified by death and the threat of death, and by the pain and humiliation of torture, but tribal and sectarian identities are reinforced. We want to feel like we when in death’s presence, not like I, because I is small and easily erased. So in Syria at the moment many Sunnis are identifying more strongly as Sunnis, Alawis as Alawis, Kurds as Kurds, and so on. This is very sad and it immeasurably complicates the future task of building a civil state for all, but it is inevitable in the circumstances. The violence was started by the regime, and the regime is still by far the greatest perpetrator of violence, including aerial bombardment of villages and cities, and now the liberal use of child-killing cluster bombs.

Second, beyond patriotic feelings for Palestine and Iraq and an unarticulated sense that their government was corrupt, two years ago most men in the armed resistance were apolitical. Finding themselves having to fight, and suddenly entered onto the political stage, they search for an ideology within which to frame their exciting and terrifying new experience. At present, the most immediately available and simplest ideology on offer is Salafism. As well as for their stark message, Salafists are winning recruits because of their organisational and warfaring skills honed in Iraq and elsewhere, and because of their access to private funds from the Gulf. If this were the sixties, the revolutionaries growing beards would have had Che Guevara in mind (and if much of the ‘left’ in the world were not writing off the revolution as a NATO/Saudi/Zionist conspiracy, the left might have more traction). At present, Salafism is in the air. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the historical moment. And why were all these young men apolitical before the revolution? Why hadn’t they learned more of debate and compromise? Simply put: because politics was banned in Asad’s Syria.

Third, the perception that Alawis (and to varying extents other minorities too) are siding with the regime as it destroys the country and slaughters the masses has produced a Sunni backlash. To a large extent the perception is correct. The regime’s crucial officers, its most loyal troops, and most of the shabeeha in Homs, Hama and Latakkia are Alawis. It’s true that some prominent Alawis have joined the revolution, that Alawis were targetted by Asad’s sectarian propaganda from the start, and that Alawis have good historical reasons to fear the rule of the majority, but all this is academic to some of the men in the firing line. The situation has been made much worse by the lining up of supposedly ‘Shia’ forces in defence of the criminal regime. Iran, Iraq and Hizbullah each have their own (horribly mistaken) strategic reasons for opposing the revolution, but a fighter with no time for geostrategic analysis sees only a Shia alliance opposing his life and freedom. By their words and actions, Iran and its clients have confirmed the discourse of anti-Shia propagandists. Many Syrians who now chant threats against Hassan Nasrallah previously loved the man, and scorned those who muttered about his heresy or Iranian loyalties. Like racism, sectarian hatred is not something inherent in a society or in an individual’s heart. It is generated by propaganda and political reality. (Please someone tell this to Joshua Landis). So we have to worry about the Sunni backlash, but we also have to blame the propaganda and bad politics which catalysed the backlash.

Next, in the ears of many Syrians the phrase ‘Islamic government’ doesn’t signify ‘amputations’ or ‘women in burkas.’ Many Syrians hear the phrase as ‘just government’ or ‘clean government.’ Leftist and rightist Islamophobes made a fuss of the news that certain liberated areas of Syria have set up sharia courts, but this development isn’t necessarily as scary as it sounds. Family law was already run according to sharia in Asad’s Syria. In places where the state has collapsed, where corrupt officials have fled or been arrested, it is logical that local fighters and organisers would recruit respected clerics to practise a law which everyone understands. In rural Syria in particular sharia is more trusted than civil law, because the experience of civil law in Asad’s Syria has been an experience of grotesque corruption.

Then the regime went out of its way to kill or detain secularist or anti-sectarian activists. Secularist activists are in some ways the greatest threat to the regime, because their existence contradicts the regime’s sectarian propaganda. There are tens of thousands of disappeared, and amongst them many civil society organisers. We don’t know how many are still alive, but if and when these people leave prison their ideas will be reinjected into the revolutionary debate.

Finally, some units of the resistance that have recently grown beards and thrown a more Islamic twist on their videos are really only pretending. They are wearing Islamic clothing in the hope of attracting weapons and money from the Gulf. They are doing so out of necessity. This is what the regime’s violence has reduced the country to.

Is the increase in radical Islamism a problem? Of course it is. There is no reason to think that post-Asad Syria, once united and fed (for these will be the first tasks), will accept an undemocratic Islamism, but in the perhaps very long gap between here and there, radical Islamism poses a great threat. It makes it much more difficult to start building a civil state for all. It scares minority communities. It scares the West (which, anyway, is doing almost nothing to help). It means that at some point there will have to be a showdown between the majority of fighters who want a Syrian democracy and the small minority who want an emirate on the path to a global ‘caliphate’.

Should we refuse to support the resistance for fear of its Islamism? Absolutely not. The factors generating scary forms of Islamism are factors introduced by the criminal regime. The situation will continue to deteriorate until the regime is made inoperative.

 source Qunfuz here

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