Is Arab secularism still alive?


It is difficult to discern a specifically Arab approach to secularism or even any mainstream defense of it. Most secularists in the Arab world are individuals, and are not formed into a particular school of thought.

The decline of secularism can be seen as a global phenomenon, more than an Arab one, because the Arab world has refused all secular aspects, whether in religion or customs. When Samuel Huntington talked about the "clash of civilizations", he gave priority to factors of culture and religion over secularist ones in reshaping relations among different nations. Today, secularism doesn’t sell in the marketplace. As American religious affairs columnist Terry Mattingly noted, "people hunger for spirituality, miracles and a sense of mystery…, but the core question remains: should believers defend eternal truths or follow their hearts?"

We can posit three main obstacles facing secularism in the Muslim world in general and the Arab world in particular. First is the historical background of secularism in the region. Many Muslims simply refuse secularism because it is seen as a western product, pure and simple.

Some Islamic thinkers maintain that Arab secularism represents a declaration of war on Islam, a religion that, perhaps unlike any other, shapes and influences the lives of its adherents. Islam is a religion whose values and principles are aimed at liberating mankind, establishing justice and equality, encouraging research and innovation and guaranteeing freedom of thought, expression and worship. Therefore, such intellectuals argue, secularism is entirely unnecessary in the Muslim world: Muslims can achieve progress and development without having to erect a wall between their religious values and their livelihoods.

Second is the dilemma of separation between religious traditions and aspects of modernity. The rise of "religionism", or fundamentalism, expresses that in some manner. Those who imagine themselves the "guardians of religion" purposely confuse modernization with westernization and Christianity. The revolution of the "new Islamists" or "Qa’edists", who spiritually belong to the ideological strain fronted by Osama Bin Laden, is evidence of the reality of conflict between traditionalism and modernization. Many of these don’t believe in the values of democracy, pluralism, civil liberties and human rights, the values contemporary Arab secularists claim to uphold but fail to respect. In contrast, Muhammed Abdu (1849-1905), the most famous Muslim reformist, believed that Islam’s relationship with the modern age was the most crucial issue confronting Islamic communities. In an attempt to reconcile Islamic ideas with western ones, he suggested that maslaha (interest) in Islamic thought corresponded to manfa’ah (utility) in western thought.

Salama Musa (1887-1958) called for the separation of the spheres of science and religion. He insisted that religion, due to the influence of religious institutions and clergy, had lost its progressive nature and become a burden. He tried to emphasize that Islam and Christianity have identical stands with regard to the freedom of thought and emancipation of the mind. He strongly believed that society cannot advance or progress unless the role of religion in the human conscience is restricted; progress, he said, is the new religion of humanity.

This secular aspect in Islam is not new. The Prophet Mohammad did not recommend a certain system of government or name a successor. The change in the Muslim system of government, from the caliphate to hereditary monarchy, is a sign that no particular political system is obligatory in Islam.

Third, the Arab-Israel conflict decreases enthusiasm for secularism in the Arab world. Some see secularism as a means to dilute Palestinian rights, because a secularist approach ignores the religious nature of the conflict. Despite the historical and political roots of the conflict, many people in the region still focus on the spiritual ones.

In addition, some Arab secularists argue that authoritarian regimes play a vital role in holding back secularism. Their argument relies on the mutually dependent relationships of such regimes with religious men, "Masha’kh", who defend despotism and prevent and block any secular idea, as is happening in Egypt and Saudi Arabia today. In the end, however, it will always be hard for secular ideas to spread in the region as long as fundamentalist ideas hold sway.