Conflicting Ideas of Secularism Cloud "Ideal" of Secular Democracy in Middle East, Panelists Say

March 2, 2006
Maksoud and Vergin
Clovis Maksoud, left, and Nur Vergin faced off on a panel discussing religion and democracy at the J.B. Moore Society symposium.

Middle East nations and Western societies often hold conflicting views of the meaning of secularism and what role it should play in society, scholars and activists revealed during a panel of the J.B. Moore Society symposium "Democracy in the Middle East," Feb. 24.

The discussion opened with a brief introduction by Ruhi Ramazani, a U.Va. politics professor who also served as moderator. Ramazani wondered whether the separation of church and state or religion and politics is "a universally accepted or acceptable concept." Although there is a rich literature on the transition of various types of government systems to democracy, the transition from a theocracy is an important variation rarely discussed, he noted.

Prof. Ramazani

Zainab Al-Sawaij, who serves as the executive director of the American Islamic Congress and is a human rights activist, argued that secularism was important for protecting civil rights.

Open elections exist neither in Turkey nor Iran, she noted; Iran's religious council determines who may run for office, and Turkey's military has significant control. Still, free elections are not her primary concern.

"The real issue is not democracy but civil rights-self-expression, gender equality, free civil society groups, freedom of religion, etc.," she said. "We need a free public space for expression of opinions and identity. The challenge in the Muslim world is securing individual rights."

Zainab Al-Sawaij
Zainab Al-Sawaij

Without such rights, elections "can be a problem, not a solution." According to Al-Sawaij, this has been demonstrated by the rise of extremism in Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, and Iran. On the other side, secularism is "a scary idea for many Muslims" because they associate it with a perceived Western desire to influence their society and threaten Islam.

Although a secular government has many clear advantages for a more open society, Al-Sawaij noted that it does not guarantee an open society, such as in the case of Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

"The reality is that we cannot leap overnight into secular republics," she said. "There is not an Ataturk who can transform the region by force today."

Because of the high passions surrounding secularism and religion in the region, an extremely influential power is needed to shift people's conceptions and challenge longstanding taboos. "Living under repression, many people have turned to religion as refuge for spiritual comforts," Al-Sawaij explained.

In previous centuries and even in recent decades, Middle Eastern societies were more secular, she said, but "now many of the Middle Eastern societies say that religion and politics are one thing." Even outwardly secular governments use religious messages because they realize religion "is close to people's hearts" and thus will attract positive attention.

Palestine, Iraq, and Egypt now have Islamic identities, "but we should insist that Shariah [Islamic law] not be the source of the legislation." The debate over whether Islamic law should be the source or a source of law continues in Iraq and other Middle Eastern nations. Al-Sawaij stressed that individual rights need to be balanced with an ability to uphold religious values.

"We have to work hard to build up the concept of individual rights, the idea that every person as an individual has the right to express themselves," Al-Sawaij said. "To do this we need to work on the grassroots level and collaborate with people inside the country and outside."

The international community has sent paradoxical and conflicting messages to Muslim nations, said panelist Clovis Maksoud, a professor of international relations and the director of the Center for the Global South at American University. He criticized the term "Middle East" as Eurocentric and misleading in its exclusion of the significant Muslim population in Africa, and he then progressed to a more general discussion of secularism.

"The term 'secularism' from the Arab perspective is not the separation of church from state or society because there is no church, and therefore the term 'secularism' does not technically apply as a contradiction in terms," he explained.

Although Islam was the mobilizing and motivating factor in national liberation movements in most of Arab Africa against colonialist powers, in the Asian and Gulf countries the first national movements were against the Ottoman Empire. According to Maksoud, in 1908 the political hierarchy in the region became Turkish domination over Arabs, and "we to a very large extent articulated what is called a secular narrative." This Arab secularism "is not in conflict with Islam," and also is not the same as the concept of secularism in the Western and Christian world.

"Secularism in the Arab nationalist narrative is that religion, pronouncedly Islam, constitutes for all the Arabs-Muslims and Christians-a determinant component of their national identity," he said. "Being Muslim in this context is part of the personal citizenship. Therefore there is no separation between the Arab citizen and his state."

In contrast to Western conceptions of secularism, Arab secularism is "separation of the state from the political point of reference of religious institutions," he said. "Therefore, the polarization that has taken place or the fragmentation between secularism, Islam, and parochialism at this moment is the consequence of the political defeat that has been caused since 1948 but culminated in 1967, and as the result also of the so-called realistic approach and pragmatic approach that the late [Egyptian] president [Anwar] Saddat took when he made the peace treaty with Israel."

After this fateful decision by the Egyptian president, Egypt lost its place as a geopolitical power and became "suspended from the overall Arab and Muslim conscience," instead serving as a moderator between Israel and the Palestinians.

"Secularism as a result took a distorted connotation," Maksoud said.

Many people now associate secularism with military regimes, such as those in Turkey and Algeria, and "with levels of corruptions of governments and abandonment of what is called, in United Nations terminology, good governments." Maksoud pointed to problems in Turkey-where the army is needed to insure secularism and in which a large section of the Turkish population is frustrated by determining whether it is European, Arab or Asian-as another reason Muslims are suspicious of secular government.

Another problematic situation currently is emerging in Palestine, according to Maksoud, because the elections that initially were "welcomed as a sign of maturity of the Palestinian people" have resulted in a "cruel reception" from the United States and other Western countries after the Hamas victory. He said this double standard causes resentment and is counterproductive throughout the region. Western "neoconservative forces in the administration" also have complicated politics by encouraging the fragmentation of subgroups within countries such as Iraq. He also criticized the West for invading Iraq on false pretenses, for considering Liberia undemocratic despite its freedom, and for supporting Israel's actions.

"I think the paradox that is emerging and the confusion of understanding the complexity is partly a responsibility of the global community and especially the West and more particularly the United States," he said. "They have unleashed by their false rhetoric a level of complexities in the Arab and Islamic situation."

If these paradoxes are not resolved, the result may be chaos, such as that spurred by the recent publication of offensive cartoons in a Danish newspaper.

"So in order to avoid managing chaos, it is crucial that we banish our present complexity rationally," he concluded.

Prof. Onuf

Panelist Peter Onuf, a U.Va. history professor, focused on America's historical experience with secularism to illuminate the situation in the Middle East.

Onuf said the assumption that the American model of democracy and rule of law can be reduced to exportable universal principles "is based on a misunderstanding of American history itself.

"I think implicit in all discussions about democratizing the Middle East is the assumption that there is a normative model, and that it's simply a matter of some kind of education, whether it's by peaceful means or coercive education, if that isn't a contradiction in terms," he said. Americans believe that they "exemplify universal values."

The notion that Americans have unique access to enlightenment values is a providential conception of American history that is deeply rooted in Christianity, according to Onuf.

"What I'm going to suggest is that the argument that we often hear now from many Christians, that the United States is a Christian nation, is not as crazy as we are wont to believe," he said.

The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which guarantees a wall of separation between church and state, "was a wall against a national or federal establishment" and did not apply to state governments. Onuf said one of Jefferson's proudest accomplishments was writing the Bill for Religious Freedom, which disestablished the state church of Virginia. An established church existed in many states past the founding of the nation, and was not removed in Massachusetts until 1833.

"Jefferson had an idea that if one religion did not have the patronage and power of the state behind it, then there would be a kind of John Stuart Mill-ian free competition in the marketplace of ideas, and good ideas, good faiths, would drive out bad ideas and bad faiths," Onuf said. "Jefferson's idea was that in the fullness of time, all forms of mystical, mystified Christianity would give way to a republicanized and enlightened community of faith among Americans.

"Too often liberalism is taken to be this value-free, process-oriented rule of law thing that you lawyers love, and it has nothing to do with values," Onuf explained. "Well, if Jefferson is our oracle on religious freedom, Jefferson did believe in shared and universal values."

Onuf said he expects Jefferson would be "deeply conflicted about the world we live in now" because the American achievement of diversity, pluralism and multiculturalism "is hanging by a thread if you will," as there are people who wish to seize the nation and enforce their own particular faith and values upon it.

"I think he would just want to go back to his grave," Onuf said. "Certainly things have not worked out in the way he projected."

The panel ended with commentary from Nur Vergin, a political science professor in the Public Administration Department at Istanbul University, who focused her remarks on secularism in Turkey.

Despite three successive coups in the last thirty years, Turkey is one of the rare Islamic countries with free elections involving multiple parties and freedom of speech, Vergin said. And the existence of a Turkish secular democracy is supported by discussion of Turkey eventually joining the European Union.

"There is of course a general consensus that secular democracy and Islam are incompatible in nature," she said. "I'm afraid this consensus continues to exist in present days."

Although numerous social and economic issues contributed to Turkey's ability to achieve secular democracy, Vergin said she believes the primary factor is that after the fall of the Ottomans, Turkey "made secularism the foundation of the new republic." Secularism has been in the Turkish constitution since 1937 and cannot be changed through an amendment.

"So there's no doubt secularism may be considered as the pillar on which Turkey's entire political vision rests," she said. "But the pillar, as I put it, seems nowadays to be somewhat worn out."

Turkish secularism has two main groups of opponents, "who consider it as inadequate for democracy and/or with Islam.

"Liberals claim that secularism as conceived by the Kemalist republic is undemocratic, and in my opinion it is, and contrary to human rights and therefore should be revised," she said. "While Islamists, along with neofundamentalists, consider it an outrage to the Islamic faith."

In recent years these views have become louder and more pressing, which "engenders question marks for the future of secularism in Turkey." In the 2002 elections, the Justice and Development Party, which is Islamist, earned 65 percent of the seats in parliament, causing mistrust among staunch secularists.

The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has insisted his party supports conservative democracy. According to a book published about his and his party's positions, the party is sensitive to the Islamic faith of the population, but is not Islamic. It defines secularism as "neutrality toward all religions.

"The party denies commitments to Islamic references but insists nevertheless on the need to redesign the relations between religion and politics," Vergin paraphrased from the book.

Vergin summarized the party's views as, "let's first re-Islamize the society, and we'll see then that the state will be a proper Islamic state.

"The point of secularism is to create appropriate conditions for the citizens to live their religion according to their faith," she said.

There are tensions in the Turkish government, however. The undersecretary to the prime ministry gave a speech as early as 1995 in which he called for "all the principles of the republican state, secularism, republicanism and nationalism, to be replaced by a decentralized and more Islamic structure."

Since Christianity has successfully accepted the compromise of political secularism, "then why should not the same be possible in Islam?" she asked. "Is there an Islamic specificity that closes once and for all the door to secularism?"

Advocates of a holistic approach advance the view that because laws are of divine origin in their essence, they cannot be subject to debate. Vergin said this view has been embraced by groups ranging from the Taliban to the Muslim Brothers and now is also shared by the Turkish Islamists. And, although most Turkish citizens still are in favor of secularism, political Islamists and neofundamentalists are gaining ground and "are obviously no mere splinter groups." These groups oppose laws that limit religious teachings and forbid the external display of religious symbols, including the headscarf, in public spheres.

Vergin explained that in November the Grand Chamber of Strasbourg found it "was not only possible but necessary" for Turkey to keep these laws, "especially because of the political significance the symbol had taken on in Turkey in recent years." Because the decision is irrevocable, Vergin said she expected protests against the prohibition of the headscarf to decrease on the governmental level, but they have not. She said the prime minister, in "a most astonishing reaction on the part of the head of the government in a secular country," is indignant at the judgment because Islamic religious leaders were not consulted. Consequently, the judgment in favor of secularism can be viewed as aggravating unrest.

"What we have now in Turkey is on the one hand Islamists crying out that the Turkish tide of radical secularism amounts to de-religionization of the society and on the other hand we have the defenders of secularism who claim that the ongoing political process is equivalent to de-secularization of the society," Vergin concluded.

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