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The rise and fall of secularism in the Arab world.

Dr. Salem, associate professor of Political Studies at the American University of Beirut and the director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, is the author of Bitter Legacy: Ideology and Politics in the Arab World (Syracuse University Press, 1994). In 1994-95 he was a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, working on a book entitled Charting the Labyrinth: Contemporary Issues in the Arab Predicament. The author thanks Mr. Aref Hasan, graduate assistant in the Department of Political Studies at the American University of Beirut, for his assistance in tracking down some of the material cited in this essay and in discussing some of the issues involved.

Like so much else in the modern Arab world, the first seeds of modern secularist ideas can be traced to Napoleon's rude intrusion into Egypt in 1798. The shock of the invasion, coupled with the direct exposure of local elites to Western science and culture through interaction with the host of French scholars, surveyors and scientists that Napoleon brought with him, challenged the traditional status quo and spawned new currents of policy and thought. This is not to say that there were no secular elements in Arab culture prior to this time. Indeed, the mutazalite philosophers of the eleventh and twelfth centuries had developed rationalist and secularist views of society and nature based on Hellenic sources, while the main vehicle of Arab cultural expression, classical poetry, with its pre-Islamic roots, had continued to provide non-religious views of life throughout the Islamic period. However, the Napoleonic invasion and the responses to it marked a qualitative and distinctive shift.

The challenge of a modernizing state to traditional religious authority was launched first and foremost in Egypt, where Muhammad Ali surmised that the secret to strengthening his rule and his realm lay in expanding the traditionally circumscribed military and tax-extraction role of Ottoman viceroyship towards the construction of a state on the emerging European model. The model that Muhammad Ali quickly endeavored to put into practice involved an encroachment into the realms of education and the courts (previously the preserve of the religious classes), the transformation of the content and method of education away from the religious and memory-based toward the scientific and technical, and the encouragement of national patriotism as a basis of social cohesion and popular allegiance to the ruling authorities in place of religious cohesion and allegiance.

The encroachments into education, law and popular consciousness gave birth to growing segments of the population that identified themselves by national and state allegiances rather than religious, that adopted the objectives of nineteenth-century European civilizational progress, and that thought in recognizably secular scientific categories. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Ottoman government itself had embarked on a similar course of attempted modernization, characterized by the Tanzimat reforms (1839-78) and leading to similar encroachments into education, law and popular consciousness. Although several other factors (some of which will be discussed below) in turn came into play to shape the current condition of Arab secularism, it was these first state-sponsored steps toward erecting a European-style state that shattered the integrity of traditional Ottoman religious society and introduced the possibility -- as well as the foundations and protection -- for the emergence of non-religious outlooks, identities and organizations. It was this divergence in the projects of the religious and politico-military classes that created the framework for Arab secularism.

In terms of public consciousness and public opinion, the alternative space opened up by the challenge of the modernizing state to the religious establishment and outlook was at first gradually filled in the second half of the nineteenth century by an active group of authors and journalists working in Lebanon and Egypt. Among the Lebanese Christians, there was little attachment to the Islamic religious status quo ante, and they were ahead of most Muslims in terms of exposure to and understanding of the culture of the West by virtue of the Western Protestant and Catholic missionary centers and schools that had already been active among them. They were eager to propagate a non-religious outlook on society and politics in order to overcome their isolated and inferior status as Christians in a Muslim society in favor of the emergence of a modern secular state in which citizenship, based on national belonging, bestowed equality. The influence of these Lebanese philologists, encyclopedists, authors, educators and journalists such as Butrus al-Bustani, Faris al-Shidyaq, Nasif al-Yazigi, and others was great on the growing non-religious literate classes of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine.(1)

As the Ottoman authorities clamped down on press freedoms in Lebanon and Syria in the late nineteenth century, the locus of activity shifted decidedly to British-dominated Egypt, where a fairly liberal press and publishing industry picked up on the strands of secular modern European thought and carried them forcefully into the twentieth century. The work started in Egypt by Rifaa Rafii al-Tahtawi and such secular modernizers as Shibli Shumayyil, was continued in the first half of the twentieth century by such influential authors as Farah Antun, Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid and Taha Husayn. To these thinkers, the rationality, science, secularism and national patriotism of Europe were the keys to overcoming the weakness and problems of Egypt, and, while religion was to be preserved, its role was to be circumscribed to the realm of private choice and private life and, only partially, to instruction in morals.

Curiously, the tide of modernizing, quasi-secular thought was significantly bolstered by the rapid spread of masonic adherents and lodges in Egypt and the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries prior to World War I. The masonic movement brought many reformers and progressives together in a common belief in science, secularism, humanism and an abstract non-anthropomorphized God. In Egypt, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, Saad Zaghlul, Mustafa Kamil, Boutros Ghali and even Khedive Tawfiq were all linked to the movement at one point in their careers, whereas in Damascus and Beirut scores of politicians, intellectuals and civil servants associated themselves with the movement as the engine of enlightened progress in the face of religious obscurantism and clerical and political authoritarianism.(2) Interestingly, it was the further extension of British and French influence in the Middle East after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire that put a swift end to the masonic movement, as the opposition of the Western churches to the movement was already well-advanced.

The defeat and dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, the abolition of the caliphate by Mustafa Kamal in 1924, and the extension of French and British mandate influence in the Arab Middle East further dismantled the institutional framework of the religious state and opened wider opportunities for the growth of secular politics and outlooks.(3) Although the Arabist sentiment that emerged in the late Ottoman period in reaction to the pan-Turanism and Turkification programs of the Istanbul authorities under the Committee of Union and Progress was not particularly secularist and was led in revolt during World War I by the religious figure of Sharif Husayn of Mecca, its adherents were mainly of the modernizing military, bureaucratic and intellectual classes, and its post-World War I ideology turned decidedly secular.

The principal ideological transformation was wrought by Sati al-Husri, an Arab-Ottoman bureaucrat turned philosopher, writer, pamphleteer and educational reformer. Husri, drawing on mainly German nationalist thought, provided the philosophical and ideological framework for a redefinition of political society from one based on Islam and the umma, to one based on Arab nationalism. Husri argued that, throughout history, religion had proven an ineffective basis of political unity and that religious states, both Christian and Muslim, had rarely been or remained united. The stronger bonds were those of a common language and a common culture. These were the bonds that Arabs shared and that should form the basis of a united Arab political community.(4) The consecutive conflicts, first with the Turks, then with the French and the British, and after World War II with the Zionists, fed nationalist sentiments and gained a rapidly growing following for the Arab nationalist view. Although Husri's outlook was decidedly secular, he avoided a too-specific designation of the role of religion in Arab society for fear of alienating a still largely religious audience and often emphasized the central role of the Arabs in Islam in order to downplay the conflict between the Islamist and Arab nationalist points of view. Husri did preface his public pronouncements with the words, "In the Name of Arabism," and there is little doubt that his nationalist redefinition of Arab society was one of the principal watersheds in the development of secularism in the Arab world.

Michel Aflaq, the founder and main ideologue of the Baath party, followed in Husri's footsteps, reinforcing the secular nationalist basis of political community and adding notions of socialism and progressive revolution to the ideological structure of Arab nationalism. Aflaq was more explicit about secularism and the role of religion in society. He glorified lslam from a secular perspective as a magnificent seventh-century expression of the genius of the Arab nation, and emphasized that all Arabs, including non-Muslims, must cherish the cultural brilliance of Islam as part of their own national heritage and proof of the heights that Arabs could achieve.(5) In the twentieth century, however, although one could seek nationalist historical inspiration from Islam, the task of the Arab nation was to produce something new and other than Islam. Drawing on his own Christian categories, Aflaq readily accepted that Islam, like modern Christianity, could live on as a matter of private faith, worship and relationship to God. Its influence in politics and society, however, had to be fully superseded. Aflaq's thought had a wide influence through the rise to power of the Baath party in several Arab countries, especially Syria and Iraq. His thought also filtered into the Arab nationalist movement in Egypt led by Gamal Abdel Nasser and into the Palestinian nationalist movements (Fatah, PFLP, PDFLP and others), many of whose leaders had roots in the Baath party or the Arab Nationalist Movement. Arab nationalist regimes in Egypt, Syria and Iraq, and others in Algeria, Libya, Sudan and Yemen were, throughout most of the 1960s and 1970s, openly secularist in their policies and moved forcefully against religious leaders and institutions. Islamic opposition to many of these governments mounted sharply in the 1980s and 1990s causing a number of them to backtrack and reinstate some elements of religious practice and authority. The secularizing influence of the Arab nationalist movement, however, especially among the still-powerful military, bureaucratic, business and intellectual elites of the Arab Middle East, should not be underestimated.

Among other influential ideological movements of the modern Middle East are, of course, the regional nationalist movements and the Marxist. In both cases, the cause of secularism was even more pronounced than in the case of Arab nationalism, which to some degree could count on a certain consanguinity between Arab and Islamic history, given the former's central role in the development of the latter. In the cases of Syrian, Lebanese and Egyptian nationalism as well as in the case of Arab communists, religion was more explicitly an obstacle to overcome.

For Antoun Saadeh, the founder and ideologue of the Syrian Social Nationalist party (SSNP) -- a party founded in the 1930s that grew rapidly to claim the largest following among the intelligentsia of Lebanon and Syria -- religion and religious social organization, manifested in the fragmented confessional mosaic structures of what he regarded as greater Syrian society, were the main obstacles standing in the way of the unity and rejuvenation of the Syrian nation. He openly declared that his nationalist philosophy was `a new religion' and made it no secret that religious figures and institutions were among the main targets of his campaign.(6) Indeed, the SSNP has been the most outspoken and consistent of all Arab political movements in its commitment to thoroughgoing secularism. The influence of Saadeh's thought has been limited by his early death by execution in 1949 and the troubled fortune of the party since then. However, the wide audience he attracted, especially among young intellectuals and activists, during his decade and a half of activism has ensured that many elements of his outlook have lived on in the thought of his erstwhile followers.

In Lebanon, whose intellectual influence extended beyond its borders because of its centrality in the Arab press and Arab publishing business, most of the political formulations that emerged between the 1930s and 1980s were of a decidedly secular nature. The main reason for this was that, given the deeply fragmented nature of Lebanese society along religious lines, any non-secular political program would not find an audience beyond its own religious community and would openly threaten the multi-confessional stability of the country. Thus, the Lebanese nationalist thought that drew a mainly Christian audience, first with the liberal Phoenicianist Michel Chiha and then with the more militant Phalange party, as well as mainly Muslim opposition movements such as the mainly Druze Progressive Socialist party, and various Arab nationalist mainly Sunni movements, all professed a high degree of secularism. Moreover, with the outbreak of war in 1975, many Lebanese intellectuals saw immediate and radical secularism as the only way out of the cycle of confessional strife. Although the political system in Lebanon remains thoroughly confessional, and despite the challenge to secularism posed by Hezbollah in the 1980s and 1990s, religious politics per se remains a secondary political force in Lebanon.

In the Egyptian nationalist movement of the pre-1952 period, led by the Wafd party and informed by the writings of Ahmad Lutfi Sayyid, Taha Husayn and others, secularism also was a key ingredient.(7) A separation of religion from politics was seen as necessary to avoid Muslim-Christian (Coptic) tensions in Egypt and to foment a unifying nationalism, as well as in order to move closer to the European model of polity, economy and society that the Wafd and the social strata it represented held in high regard. The common national history, identity and heritage of all Egyptians, traced back to Pharaonic times, was emphasized, and the religious links with the Ottoman Turks and, after World War I, Arab coreligionists in the Mashriq countries were de-emphasized. Although Islam was rarely directly attacked, it was unseated from its position of central importance and relegated to a position of only relative importance as the latest stage in the course of Egypt's historical development from Pharaonic civilization through Greco-Roman civilization and the pre-seventh-century Christian period. Indeed, the Islamic period was, for them, now giving way to a new period linking Egypt closer once more (as in Greco-Roman times) to the civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean.

Of the influential and fairly secular ideological movements of the modern Arab period, Arab communists and other assorted Marxists played an important role. Communist parties first made their appearance in the Arab Middle East in the early 1920s, after the Bolshevik revolution, principally at the hands of minority intellectuals, many of them Jews or Armenians with links to Eastern Europe.(8) These parties made little headway at the time, but after World War II, with the rise of Soviet power and escalating hostility toward the United States, France and Britain (for their support of the establishment of Israel), along with factors related to increasingly explosive socioeconomic conditions, the communist parties, especially in Iraq, Syria and Egypt, grew to massive proportions drawing millions into their following.(9)

Although not as outspoken about it as the SSNP, most Arab communist parties were thoroughly secular in their outlook and program and blamed religious leaders, institutions and worldviews for many of the ills of Arab society. What is more, because of their identification with the Soviet Union and the world communist movement, they were openly identified by their opponents as secularists or, in some cases, atheists. They clashed openly with Islamist parties in Egypt and other countries, although their main political enemies turned out to be the Baath and Arab nationalist governments, which saw them as a threat to their authority and drove them underground. In the wake of heavy persecution from nationalist governments and within the context of Brezhnev's policy of appeasement toward the Arab nationalist regimes of the region, Arab communist parties were severely weakened as of the late 1960s. Their continued decline in the 1970s and 1980s was sealed by the collapse of Soviet communism in the late 1980s.

The communist parties themselves enjoyed massive influence between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s and then declined rapidly. The categories of Marxist thought that they introduced were not, however, so easily eclipsed. The class struggle, socialism, anti-imperialism and material progress were integrated into Arab nationalist thought and also lived on independently among Marxist-oriented leaders of the Palestinian resistance movement (e.g., Nayef Hawatmeh, Muhsin Ibrahim, George Habash) and independent pseudo-Marxist intellectuals (e.g., Samir Amin, Sadeq al-Azm, and others).(10) Even within the Islamist movements, a quasi-Marxist wing emphasizes socialism, anti-imperialism and the realities of class struggle. Communist and Marxist thought, therefore, which departs from a profoundly secular outlook, has had more of an influence in the Arab world than a quick current survey of political parties would suggest.

Throughout this historical analysis, of course, with the emphasis on principal political ideological currents of thought, I have not mentioned in any detail the secularizing influence of changes in the state educational curricula, law and the court systems, the adoption of the Western calendar, and the spread of Western-influenced mass media.(11) The transformation within the superstructure of Arab society from the religious to the secular is striking when one adopts the comparative perspective spanning two centuries, and it is from this perspective of rapid secularization that the appeal and potency of current Islamist movements come into sharper focus.

Indeed, the opinions of Arab secularizers were not without serious challengers. A direct and clearly antagonistic Islamic response, however, was somewhat slow in coming, and although an examination of this Islamic response is not within the scope of this paper, I will sketch out a brief outline below. In the first wave of Islamic reformism, with Afghani and Abduh, the main concern was to open up Islamic thought to some of the scientific and socio-political advances of Europe.(12) The task was not so much to fight the West outright as to examine its ways and adopt some of them selectively in order to achieve an Egyptian, Arab or Islamic revival that would on its own redress the dangerous imbalance vis-a-vis the West. In other words, the task was to open up Islam in order to bring in the better elements of European thought and culture. With the second wave of reformers, led in different ways and directions by Rashid Rida, Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, contemporary Islamic society was already considered swamped not only by European culture, thought and lifestyles, but also by European political and economic power.(13) For these reformers, the task was not to introduce elements of Europe into an excessively traditional culture, but to reinstate elements of religious and cultural authenticity in a society they perceived as scandalously Europeanized. For them, secularism comes increasingly to be identified as the root cause of contemporary religious, moral and social corruption, and they worked openly for its eradication and the reinstitution of an Islamic state and society. In conjunction with the Shiite Islamist trend that burst forth with Ayatollah Khomeini and the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, these Sunni and Shiite Islamist movements in most Arab countries consider themselves to be fighting a direct struggle against secularism and its advocates. These groups include al-Jama'a al-Islamiyya, al-Takfir wal-Hijra, al-Jihad al-Islami and less militantly al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin in Egypt; or the Islamic Salavation Front (FIS) in Algeria; the Islamic Front in Syria; Hezbollah, Islamic Amal, al-Jamaa al-Islamiyya, al-Tawhid and al-Ahbash in Lebanon; and others in Sudan, Tunisia and Iraq.

Current Causes of the Remission of Secularism

It is not to be understood from the extent of the current religious-traditionalist challenge to secularism that the latter has been extinguished. It is fairly accurate to say that the majority of the intelligentsia in the Arab world along with the majority of the military, bureaucratic and professional middle class that controls most of the levers of power in the Arab world still share a fairly secular worldview constructed around various nationalist formulations. It is the ideological effectiveness of this worldview as a tool for political mobilization that has been eclipsed by the religious-traditionalist worldview. The principal outlines of the current secular versus fundamentalist struggle are between a nationalist-secularist middle class in-group and various less privileged out-groups that are effectively using religious symbolism and slogans to mobilize a popular challenge to central state authority. Nevertheless, it is important to examine the causes of the decline of secularism as part of a mobilizing ideological force.

Prime among the causes for the decline of secularism in this sense is the exhaustion of the nationalist and Marxist ideological currents with which it was closely associated. Regional nationalist thought (e.g., Syrian, Egyptian, Lebanese) was quite effectively defeated by Arab nationalist thought in the late 1950s and 1960s; in its turn, however, Arab nationalist thought was crippled by the multiple blows of the 1967 defeat, the death of Nasser, the Iraqi-Syrian Baathist split, the 1973 war and the consequent Sinai II and Camp David accords, which took Egypt out of the Arab front.(14) For their part, Arab Marxist currents also ran into insurmountable obstacles. The official Arab communist parties, after reaching an apex in the 1950s, were heavily persecuted by the new Arab nationalist regimes and abandoned by Brezhnev's Soviet Union, which chose to strike deals directly with the anti-American Arab nationalist regimes rather than rely on increasingly precarious underground communist parties. The brief spate of sophisticated Marxist reinterpretations of the Arab predicament among a handful of intellectuals after the 1967 defeat (e.g., Sadeq al-Azm) and the turn to the Marxist left of a number of Palestinian activists (e.g., George Habash, Nayef Hawatmeh) could not paper over the reality of the serious decline of Marxist currents of thought.

A second reason for the decline is related to elements of class and class conflict. Periods of ideological effervescence are often associated with challenges of class out-groups to class in-groups; in such cases, ideologies are used as mobilizational battering rams to seize power. This was the case with the Arab nationalist ideologies of the petty bourgeois middle classes that successfully challenged and unseated upper-class merchant and landed political elites that had controlled politics in the Arab Middle East in the inter-war period. Once in power, the new middle classes no longer needed the mobilizing power of ideology and could rely instead on the direct levers and benefits of being in power. The secular nationalist worldview of this class, therefore, was no longer needed as a mobilizing political ideology and receded from the ideological arena. Today it is the lower middle class and other class out-groups that are effectively ideologizing the Islamic worldview to use it as a battering ram against the ensconced power of the secular nationalist middle class.

A third reason for the remission of secular thought is the supersession of the modernist debate. In the late nineteenth century, the main outlines of debate in the Arab-Muslim world, led by Afghani, and later Abduh and others, was how to develop the Muslim world to bring it more into line with some of the obvious successes of the Western modernist model. A large measure of secularism in education, the courts and politics had been an integral part of that adaptation. By the 1970s the main outlines of modernizing change in the state, the educational system and the courts had already been accomplished in many of the Arab countries. The main debate moved from the central developmental issues of modernity and modernization to second-level issues of identity, cultural authenticity and faith. The debate, in a sense, moved from restructuring the economy, the state and the social stratification system to reinjecting moral and cultural authenticity into the political and social system. After all, modern fundamentalists seek not to transform the modern state but only to "rechristen" it under religious and moral categories. In this sense, much of the task of secularism in restructuring modern society has been accomplished; what is in demand now is not a restructuring of society but an injection of meaning and value into the new social and political structure. This is something that religious ideology can achieve much more successfully than most secularist formulations.

A fourth reason for the remission of secular thought is related to the course of modernism mentioned above and relates to the supersession of modernism in the West and the rise of postmodernist viewpoints and discourses. During the final and triumphant stage of Western modernity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the West projected a fairly unified and self-confident vision of its civilizational project. For Arab-Muslim observers, the model was clear, apparently successful and convincingly promoted by Western intellectuals. After World War I, World War II, the collapse of imperialism, the rise of nuclear and environmental threats, the deterioration in moral and social order (e.g., drug abuse, decline of the family, crime), as well as the rise of various postmodernist analyses of Western politics, culture and social structure, the Western model became neither unified, clear and attractive, nor convincingly promoted by Western intellectuals. Given that the roots of secularist thought in the Arab world derived in almost all cases from Western roots, the eclipse of modernist thinking in the West left Arab secularist thinkers without living intellectual lifelines.

A fifth reason -- or set of reasons -- for the remission of secular thought has to do with a number of historically accidental developments among which are the following: (1) The oil-price boom in the 1970s brought vast amounts of wealth, and hence power, to Saudi Arabia and the religiously conservative Arab Gulf emirates. Especially after the engagement of Iraq in war with Iran, this decidedly shifted the balance of influence in the Arab Middle East away from the secular nationalist states such as Egypt and Syria toward the more conservative and religious Arab peninsula. (2) Also during the 1970s, the four main capitals of secular nationalist thought -- Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad and Beirut -- declined in intellectual influence. Cairo was sequestered from the Arab world in the wake of Sadat's independent peace overtures to Israel; Beirut tore itself to pieces in bitter internal warfare; and both Damascus and Baghdad were stifled under the increasingly heavy yoke of rival Baathist police states. (3) Meanwhile, Tehran, dormant since the constitutional revolution of 1905 and the Mossadegh revolution of 1953, exploded in a headline-grabbing shower of ideological and political revolution. The Iranian revolution of 1979, the only major revolution in the region since the Egyptian revolution of 1952, influenced Arab public opinion and attracted many adherents to political Islam. (4) The main Arab secular nationalist regimes also happened to be those most closely engaged in the struggle against Israel. While the conservative-religious Arab states (such as both Saudi Arabia in the east and Morocco in the West) charted a tolerant course toward Israel and developed close relations with the United States, the secular nationalist states -- Syria, Iraq, Libya and others -- maintained a defiant posture. With the steady decline of the Soviet Union over the 1980s and the rise in American and Israeli power, the secular nationalist states (except for Egypt, which made its peace early on) have been under increasing political and strategic pressure. This has helped tip the balance of influence in the Arab world away from the secularist states.

A sixth and final reason that should be considered in analyzing the shift away from secular thought in the Arab world is linked to the natural cyclical pattern of ideological development. As Mannheim, Rintala(15) and others have discussed, ideologies do not appear in a vacuum, but rather interact with one another in a crowded psychosocial environment. Not only do successive generations of the same society naturally tend toward opposite ideological viewpoints to express their mutually competitive and hostile relationship, but ideologies also often play out their natural life span of being able effectively to provide intellectual and political direction in the absence of real achievements. Ideologies, therefore, by their very nature as affective thought clusters naturally lose their ability to charm over time; in a society where the need for powerful ideological responses to pressing social, economic, political and cultural problems remains high, as one ideology declines, another ideology -- antithetical to the previous one -- emerges to fill the ideological gap. From these perspectives, therefore, the decline of secular thought and the rise of fundamentalist thought is part of the natural pattern of ideological oscillation, and should come as no real surprise. What it indicates, more interestingly, is that the current heyday of fundamentalist ideology will probably ran its course and be replaced by an antithetical generation brandishing an appropriately antithetical ideology.

The Future of Secularism

The challenge to secularism in the Arab world is not intellectual; the arguments of the fundamentalists are making little headway among the still generally secular intelligentsia. The course of social and scientific thinking in the Arab world has come too far for such a turning. The challenge, rather, is of a decidedly political nature. Political and social out-groups are using political Islam to pose the most serious challenge to Arab regimes since Arab nationalist revolutionaries toppled the upper-class regimes of Egypt, Syria, Iraq and other Arab countries in the wake of World War II and the loss of Palestine. To be sure, a political success of the fundamentalists will have immediate and serious consequences for the currently secular intelligentsia. The point, however, is that the real battle is being fought in the political, not the intellectual, arena. The key question to consider, therefore, is whether the secular nationalist regimes will survive the challenge or not.

The recent historical record shows that, except for the Sudanese state, which was largely destabilized by the civil war, fundamentalist out-groups have not been able to break the hold on power of secular nationalist regimes. Although serious challenges were, and in some cases continue to be, mounted in Egypt, Syria, Algeria and Iraq, the entrenched regimes have been able to successfully use the developed levers of state power to maintain their political systems. Indeed, the historical evidence tends toward the conclusion that, given the fundamentalists' record of political failure against entrenched regimes so far, and given the absence of any real indications that the fundamentalist movements are going to get considerably stronger or that the entrenched regimes are going to get considerably weaker, the regimes will most probably survive the challenge. The entrenched regimes, however, are far from stable and remain vulnerable to various political and economic uncertainties. Given the interwoven fabric of Arab politics and ideology, a particular course of events in one central Arab country, such as Egypt, Syria or Iraq, similar to the course of events in Iran that led to the collapse of the shah's regime, can in no way be ruled out and would have a ripple effect on neighboring Sunni Arab countries probably greater than the effect of the Islamic revolution in Shia Persian Iran.

Reflection on the future of secularism in the Arab world, however, would need to take into account several factors other than regime durability or fragility.

First, in terms of class and elite structure, the most significant struggle likely in the near future is not between the entrenched middle classes and the various lower-middle and lower classes, but rather between the middle classes themselves and the narrow military, party, royal or (in some cases) religious elites that monopolize the highest echelons of power in Arab states. It is this struggle that has been the decisive one throughout the developing world. Whereas in Asia and Latin America this struggle led to a liberalization of political and economic power and to some degree of democratization, in the Arab world, a standoff between the powerful middle classes and the authoritarian elites could lead to a paralysis of state power that fundamentalist out-groups -- not secular, liberal, middle-class elements -- could best take advantage of In other words, a falling out between the two in-groups of the Arab state could lead to the successful revolutionary penetration of power by the radicalized out-groups. It is just such intra-state cleavages that Theda Skocpol identifies as the critical element in revolutionary change; such polarization preceded the revolutions in France (1789), Russia (1917), China (1949), Egypt (1952) and Iran (1979).(16) As demands for power-sharing emanating from the professional and commercial middle classes in the Arab world increase, and as authoritarian regimes throughout the Arab world allow a wider margin of participation and democratization,(17) the process to observe is whether the mood of increased competitiveness among in-groups escalates into serious political confrontation and paralysis. In that case, the framework of increased democratization would lead not to increased secular liberalism, but to paralysis followed by a fundamentalist breakthrough. In this regard, the Algerian example is instructive. It underscores the point that as authoritarian Arab states move toward more power-sharing, the setting up of competitive political systems must be implemented very carefully and must be used as a vehicle for building more alliances for the state, not creating enemies. In the latter regard, the successful Jordanian example of liberalization without excessive polarization is instructive. To summarize, the key struggle to monitor is not the naked struggle between in-groups and out-groups, but the struggle among in-groups themselves. It is only if this struggle reaches a point of extreme polarization and causes state paralysis that out-groups -- currently mobilized under the fundamentalist banner -- will find their opportunity to move into power.

Second, the variable of intergenerational competition, mentioned above as one of the causes for the remission of secularism, may come again as a variable in swinging the pendulum of ideological fashion away from religious fundamentalism and back toward secularism. The current generation is using the semiotics of religious fundamentalism to define themselves in contradistinction to the secular, Arab nationalist, pseudo-leftist orientations of their parents' generation that hold sway in most Arab countries. They are using the discourse of religious radicalism as a weapon in the natural competition between entrenched and rising generations. As this generation ages, it is to be expected that their children will adopt an ideology opposed to their own, which this new generation, in turn, will use against them. The current generational obsession with religious fundamentalism is very likely to be succeeded by a non-religious -- or even anti-religious -- obsession in the next generation. The scientific problem is, however, that students of generational change, such as Mannheim and others, have shown that the time period of generational pendular swings varies widely according to social, political and cultural conditions and according to historical accident. So, while this element of social theory predicts generally that the current wave of Islamic fundamentalism among youth will be followed by a different and antithetical wave, it is not possible to specify when such a sea change will take place and whether present political regimes will be replaced by religious regimes in the meantime or not.

Third, among contemporary political events, the developments related to the Arab-Israeli peace process may have a significant effect on the future of secularism. Two distinct possibilities exist. On the one hand, the ending of the state of war and promotion of socio-economic development may help ease Arab political tensions and pull the rug from under radical revolutionary movements, such as the fundamentalist, and hence strengthen secular groups. On the other hand, the dismantling of the fifty-year-old Arab-Israeli struggle, fought under the banner of Arab nationalism, which shaped Arab consciousness and provided the ideological raison d'etre for many Arab regimes, may in the long run have a corrosive effect on the secular nationalist regimes that waged that struggle and the outlooks that fed it. As the peace process confirms the end of the struggle between the Arab nationalist states and the state of Israel, the struggle may gradually be re-expressed as an equally tenacious and perhaps more dangerous struggle, not between the Arabs and Israel (both parties being defined in secular nationalist terms), but between Muslims and Jews. The partial transformation of the struggle in this direction began in the late 1970s. It was declared openly by post-revolutionary Iran and waged by several growing anti-Israeli, anti-Jewish religious groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Jamaa al-Islamiyya and others.

In other words, if the Middle East conflict over land, power and resources -- which is not going to end with the peace process -- can no longer be expressed in secular nationalist terms, the danger is that it will be expressed in religious and confessional terms, and will provide the fuel for religiously and confessionally defined movements to push into political center stage. After all, religious identities are far older than national identities in the Middle East, and religious politics need not be based on a resurgence of religious values but could be based merely on a redefinition of political community on the basis of religious and confessional identity, as in the pre-World-War-I period, rather than on national identity. In such a political atmosphere, secularism having lost its political and ideological nationalist moorings would become increasingly embattled.

Fourth, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the redefinition of Europe is also showing signs of affecting Arab political culture. At the first level, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West is no longer providing alternative ideological formulations, and appears to many in the Arab public increasingly as a monolithic, dominant, Christian and aggressive entity. The events in Bosnia seemed to confirm fears that the veneer of ideology that characterized the Cold War years was only a mask hiding deeper religious identities, ambitions and prejudices. The labels of East and West are reverting to their pre-Bolshevik-Revolution connotations of Christian West and Muslim East. At the second level, this is being reinforced by a rise in right-wing politics in Europe. In Germany, France and Italy there has been a rapid rise of ultra-nationalist parties that promote open anti-Arab and anti-Islamic policies. Along with the escalation of nationalist, ethnic and religious tensions in Eastern Europe, this repoliticization of primordial identities and this rapidly rising pattern of incidents against Arabs and Muslims is already having its effect in helping mobilize support for Islamic movements. The fact that many Western strategists are projecting that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Islam is the main threat to the West, will, unfortunately, tend to create more distance between Western and Arab societies, weakening the secularists and strengthening the fundamentalists.

As is evidenced by the above discussion, which touches on only a handful of variables, the question of the future of secularism in the Arab world is very complex and can only be answered -- and then, only tentatively -- by a detailed and careful survey of myriad social, political and cultural factors, many of which are beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that, for most Arab intellectuals, the challenge to secularism is strong and threatening and requires a vigorous campaign in its defense. For the West, the prospect of the decline of secularism in the Arab world bodes ill for the future of the Mediterranean and Gulf regions and for the stability of an increasingly interdependent political and economic world order. A sober review of emerging European and American policy toward the Arab world is required.

(1) See Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798-1939 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 99-102; and Bassam Tibi, Arab Nationalism: A Critical Enquiry, edited and translated by Marion Farouk-Sluglett and Peter Sluglett (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981), p. 76.

(2) Aziz al-Azmeh, al-Ilmaniyya min mandhur akhar (Secularism from a Different Perspective) (Beirut: Markaz Dirasat al-Wihda al-Arabiyya, `992), p. 96.

(3) See Muhammad Arkoun, "al-Islam wal-Ilmaniyya" (Islam and Secularism), Al-Waqi, vol. I, no. 1, 1981, p. 16.

(4) See al-Husr, Ara wa ahadith fil-wataniyya wal-qawmiyya (Opinions and Conversations on Patriotism and Nationalism) (Baghdad: Muhammad Naji al-Khudari, 19440, pp. 27ff.

(5) See Michel Aflaq, Fi sabil al-Baath (Toward an Arab Renaissance) (Beirut: Dar al-Taliah, 1959), pp. 43, 46,54, 123.

(6) Antun Saadeh, al Muhadurat al-ashr (The Ten Lectures) (Beirut: Feqhali Press, 1959), p. 109.

(7) See Ahmad Lutfi-Sayyid, Taammulat fi al-falsafa wal-adab wal-ijtima (Reflections on Philosophy, Literature, Politics and Society) (Egypt, Dar al-Maarif, 1946): and Taha Husayn, Mustaqbal al-thaqafa fi misr (The Future of Culture in Egypt) (Cairo, 1938).

(8) On early Arab communism, see Hanna Batatu, The Old Social Classes and Revolutionary Movements of Iraq (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), pp. 367-372; A.G. Samarbarsh, Socialisme en Irak et en Syrie (Paris: Editions Anthropos, 1978), pp. 106-109; Walter Laqueur, Communism and Nationalism in the Middle East (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961), pp, 31-36.

(9) See M.S. Agwani, Communism in the Arab East (New York: Asia Publishing House, 1969), pp. 177-190.

(10) See Walid Kazziha, Revolutionary Transformation in the Arab World: Habash and his Comrades, from Nationalism to Marxism (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1975), pp. 84-86; Tariq Ismael, The Arab Left (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1976), pp. 92-107; Malcolm Kerr, Islamic Reform: The Political and Legal Theories of Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1966), pp. 135ff; Sadeq Jalal al-Azm, Al-Naqd al-dhati baad al-hazima (Self-Criticism after the Defeat) and Naqd al-fikr al-dini (A Critique of Religious Thinking) (Beirut: Dar al-Talia, 1969); and Samir Amin, The Arab Nation (London: Zed Press, 1978).

(11) Azmeh, pp. 83ff.

(12) See Hourani, pp. 67ff; Elie Keddouri, Afghani and Abduh: An Essay on Religions Unbelief and Political Activism in Modern Islam (London: Frank Cass, 1966), pp. 18-24; Nikkie Keddie, An Islamic Response to Imperialism: The Political and Religious Writings of Sayyid Jamal al-Din al Afghani (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983), pp. 82-84; Kerr, pp. 39-40.

(13) See Rida's articles in al-Manar; Hasan al-Banna, Majmnat rasail al-imam al-shahid (The Collected Letter of the Martyred Iman) (Cairo: Dar al-Quran al-Karim, n.d.); and Qutb.

(14) See e.g., Fouad Ajami, The Arab Predicament (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 5-6.

(15) Karl Mannheim, "The Problem of Generations," in Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1952), pp. 276-3321; Marvin Rintala, "Political Generations," in David Sills, ed., The International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, vol. 7 (New York: Macmillan and The Free Press, 1968), pp. 92-95.

(16) Theda Skocpol, States and Social Revolutions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

(17) Saad Eddin Ibrahim, "Crises Elites and Democratization in the Arab World," The Middle East Journal, vol. 47, no. 2 (Spring), 1993, pp. 292-306.
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Author:Salem, Paul
Publication:Middle East Policy
Date:Mar 1, 1996
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