The Muslim World’s Embattled Secularists

Who will defend the Muslim who doubts his faith? Who speaks for the man or the woman who might believe in Allah, by his or her own lights, but does not wish to worship? We hear a great deal in the West about the need for freedom of religion in the Muslim world, usually meaning for observant Christians and Jews. But what about freedom of non-religion: the liberty of the individual to think, to reason, to speak out loud rejecting the dictates of public piety? Few voices are raised, if any, in his or her defense.

Today in Turkey that debate is still active and taking place, thank God, in a democratic context. But among Arabs, especially, it has been all but abandoned. The voices of skepticism and, indeed, of secularism are silenced by intimidation and isolation.

Perhaps this was inevitable. Not so long ago, in mid-20th century, secularists were the great “modernizers”: the leading intellectuals and artists, the ambitious military officers, the charismatic politicians and, yes, the dictators of the Arab world. They saw themselves and were widely seen, then, as the cosmopolitan voices of progress and, not least, of a proud and assertive nationalism.

Today Arab secularists are silent if not, in fact, silenced. The ideologies that once united many of them (Communism, Nasserism, Baathism) have been discredited by time and tyrants. The milder forms of intellectual liberalism – an openness to other cultures, faiths and ways of life; the questioning of opinions presented as absolute truths – find themselves branded as treason to some greater Muslim identity, or worse, as heresy.

What brought about the change? “We should not forget that secular Muslims had their chance, and they blew it,” says Radwan Abdallah, a political scientist at the University of Jordan. Indeed, the Age of Secularism is the stuff of nostalgia among the aged and infirm in much of the Arab world, as if it were gone with the wind. “Forty years ago, Egypt had the idea it would be part of Europe,” a cosmopolitan member of the government in Cairo lamented privately and ironically in the wake of 9/11. Under the secular dictatorship of Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s, religious parties like the Muslim Brotherhood faced brutal repression, to be sure, but in those days veils were out, miniskirts were in. “Then there was a turning point in our history,” said my Cairene friend. “The defeat of 1967.”

Nasser had threatened Israel one too many times, and Israel launched a devastating attack that in just six days blasted him out of the Sinai, drove Jordan out of Jerusalem and the West Bank, and forced Syria off the Golan Heights. “When people realized the size of the defeat and the depth of it, they tried to explain,” said the Egyptian official. “Fundamentalists came out and said, ‘We deserved this defeat because we moved away from God.’ And you couldn’t argue. You couldn’t say, ‘We just weren’t prepared for the war.’”

Secularism has been in decline in the Arab world ever since, as one dictatorial regime after another looked to Allah for an endorsement, alternately cracking down on Islamists then cutting deals with them. “There are those [dictators] who try to advance the Western idea of separating state and religion,” says Abdallah, “and then they find Islam is the best tool for legitimizing a regime.” Thus Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, tried to use the Muslim Brothers as tools to undermine his rivals on the secular left. “But the magic turned against the magician,” said my friend in Cairo, “and they killed him.” Sadat was murdered in 1981, in fact, by members of the same organization that eventually formed the core of Al Qaeda.

Saddam Hussein persecuted religious scholars throughout the first decade of his rule, slaughtering many of them, but then slapped the motto “Allahu Akbar,” God is Great, on his flag when he faced the Mother of All Battles against the United States in 1991. The government that replaced Saddam after the American invasion in 2003 is now dominated by openly sectarian religious parties backed by Washington, which seems to have decided it needs a little magic of its own in Iraq.

All this leaves my Western educated friends in the Arab metropolises of Cairo, Amman, Damascus, Beirut and Baghdad on the edge of despair. So, too, among the sophisticates of Tehran. They feel shut in by societies obsessed with narrow-minded discussions of Quranic texts, as if exegesis were the beginning and the end of experience and knowledge.

But, then, there’s Turkey. There, the army enforces the constitutional mandate for secularism handed down by Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish state, with a kind of fundamentalist zeal all its own. Only after many coups and close calls has a democratic polity developed. But today there’s a dynamic and productive, if not always comfortable, balance between Islamic and secular values. And the Turkish people know it.

In the run-up to last Sunday’s parliamentary elections, you’d have thought, reading the Western press, that a victory by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would be a triumph of fundamentalism because of its roots as an Islamic movement. Not so. The AKP won by a landslide. But the victory was for good governance. Under the AKP the country has enjoyed less corruption, a more stable economy and much better growth than would have seemed conceivable six years ago. The Turks, not surprisingly, voted for more of the same. And Erdoğan moved quickly to reassure his people and their military, once again, that he has no intention of rolling back the secularism enshrined in the constitution.

The key here, of course, is balance. The essence of enlightened modernity lies in creating societies open enough to embrace both secularism and religion, while shunning fundamentalism of any kind. Turkey is well along that path. The Arab world and Iran, sadly, still have a long way to go.

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