The two-thousand eleven uprisings of the Arab Spring and the events preceding them mark a decline in the popularity of secularism in the Middle East. One of the largest causes is the association of deposed regimes with secularism in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia which are remembered for their greed and corruption. There is also a common weariness in the Arab culture for things that are seen as western influence. Historically countries like the United Kingdom and United States have manipulated the Middle East, largely for their own benefit.
First it is important to define secularism and explain why it is important. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines secularism as “the belief that religion should not play a role in government, education, or other public parts of society.” Specifically important here is the belief of political parties and their supporters that their government’s decisions should not be motivated by religious or spiritual beliefs. In practice it is not so cut and dry. A secular political party in the Middle East does not call for a total separation of church and state, but does advance policy which weakens religious influence.
So why care? Secularism in governments is important because the best policies are tailored and subjected to real world evidence, not immutable laws and systems of morality laid down in very different times. Corrupt officials can hide their ulterior motives and justify oppressive policies under appeals to their faith. It is difficult to argue that values derived from Islam are not partly responsible for the oppression of women, homosexuals, and heretics in the Middle East today. It is important because there should be an opposition to the idea that “Islam is the answer” held by many organizations in the Arab world. Strict adherence to any set of dogma despite the casualties is dangerous. Lastly, secularism is important because it protects the human right to all personal beliefs or lack thereof.
Historically, the prospects of secularism have been quite optimistic since the birth of the modern Arab countries in the nineteen-fifties. So what happened? As part of a pan-Arabist trend, the Baath party and Arab Socialist Union lead Egypt and Syria to join for a short time in a political union known as the United Arab Republic. However, it collapsed because it lacked an organizing political structure necessary to rule such different countries as Egypt and Syria. Afterwards, the Baath party split in two and Nasser died, leaving behind no party to continue his ideas.
The fact that many Arab governments at this time were secular and were actively persecuting the Islamists proved their undoing. The groups that wished to actively combine their politics with Islam were forced to build large grassroots movements with strong organization. The initial Egyptian Arab Spring uprising replaced Hosni Mubarak with Muslim Brotherhood affiliate Mohamed Morsi. When the revolutionaries went back to Tahrir Square to call for the fall of this regime, they encountered a better organized counter-protest by many who had once stood beside them. This was the power of the grassroots Islamist movements fostered by the previous years of persecution. Here the Arab Spring shows a rising up of non-secular movements.
Today secularism is largely seen as the influence of the west, and that influence is not very welcome. If it hasn’t been for British imperialism, a proxy war with Russia, terrorists, or weapons of mass destruction, it has been for oil and other natural resources. The association of secularism with autocracy and Western influence helps account for the anti-secular trend in the Middle East today. The influence of countries such as the US has fostered resentment, feeding the flame of non-secular politics.
The image of the great Western powers struggling to direct the Middle East conjures an image of the god Sisyphus, doomed to watch his boulder roll back down the mountain again and again. After decades of secularization many Arab countries have made quick reversals, thanks in large part to failed experiments, corrupt regimes, and resentment of the West. If anything has been learnt, it is that changing the socio-political aspects of such a complex land and culture is a delicate balancing act that will take much time and humility. There are many challenges for Arab secular parties ahead.