Ezzedine C. Fishere
Islamists and secularists of the Middle East have been fighting each other for
a century. Their conflict has achieved nothing but perpetuating authoritarian
rule. Yet, calling on them to unite and set aside their differences is naive at
best, for their differences are real and fundamental. Faking unity during the
Arab Spring backfired and left both sides more distrustful of each other.
Islamists and secularists need to do is not seek an impossible alliance but
rather build a framework for coexistence that allows them to break away from
their zero-sum relationship. This is a critical first step toward laying
foundations for democratic governance in the Middle East.
On the face
of it, the schism between Islamists and secularists seems too deep to be
bridged. They disagree on whether individual rights or “Islamic rules” prevail,
whether individuals are masters of their own lives or fall under custody of
Islamic authorities and whether all citizens are equal before the law. They
also disagree on how to deal with non-Muslims, in their midst and abroad. These
are disagreements over the foundations of society and state, as well as their
place in the world.
On top of
that, each side views the other as an aberration that needs redress.
view “political Islam” as a travesty of both politics and Islam. For them,
Islam is a religion — its scriptures allow differing interpretations and have
been shaped by the way societies developed. They believe conflating religion
and politics leads to unspeakable violence and ultimately flies in the face of
what both religion and politics are. The Islamic State represents the extreme
version of what this dangerous conflation can achieve.
attribute the rise of political Islam to ignorance, socioeconomic decay, the
failure of secular ideologies, foreign interference and accumulated historical
anger. They seek to tackle, and preferably eradicate, political Islam through a
concerted effort to improve education, fight poverty and improve governance.
They often blame authoritarian rulers for failing to carry out this
comprehensive reform program to its full extent, either because they are in
league with Islamists or benefit from their presence.
is: Secularists did rule, yet failed to eradicate Islamism. They tried it under
colonial rule and under nationalist heroes such as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in
Turkey and Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. They tried it under military dictators
lsuch as Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad, and under civilian modernizers
including Reza Pahlavi of Iran and Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia. None of it
worked. Sooner or later, Islamism popped up its head again and either took over
— violently, as in Iran in 1979, or gradually, as in Turkey in 2002 — or became
powerful enough to form major opposition blocs, as in Tunisia and Egypt today.
There is no reason to believe repeating the same programs would work now.
Islamism, fight it or not, is not a transient phenomenon.
other side, Islamists view secularism as an aberration. To them, secularists
are a product of Western cultural imperialism and patronage. As a result, Arab
and Muslim secularists remain alien in their countries and can sustain their
dominance only by force — mostly exercised through dictatorships supported by
Western states. Ultimately, Middle Eastern secularists are seen as hypocrites,
pretending to support democracy but unwilling to stand in free elections
because they could bring the Islamists to power.
is, in this view, a virus that infected Muslim societies. The jihadists are
willing to use force to remove it, while the moderate branch is more patient,
advocating a gradual re-Islamization of society until all those alien cultural
expressions “wither away.”
is that Islamists have tried both approaches and failed to eradicate
secularism, too. The jihadist method has failed and backfired — at least as
long as popular support is concerned. The gradual approach, adopted by the
Muslim Brotherhood and its franchised organizations, was more successful. But
nearly 100 years after its birth, Islamism is still struggling against
secularists. Even more troubling are the experiences of Islamists in power in
Iran and Sudan. Decades after they implemented Islamization programs covering
everything from women to books, secularism is still alive and kicking. Even
Saudi Arabia, which is founded on Wahhabi Islamism, is rife with demands for
Islamism nor secularism can be erased no matter how violent or comprehensive
the eradication program is. All this conflict achieves is continued suffering
and missed opportunities for good governance as authoritarianism become necessary
to keep the other side — or both sides — at bay.
and secularists need a pact that allows them to compete and survive when the
other side is in power. It is a difficult but not impossible task: World
history is rife with examples of societies that have traveled down this road.
The warring factions in Germany’s Thirty Years’ War, for instance, killed a
fifth of its population and destroyed its economy without achieving a
meaningful victory, and ultimately had to settle for coexistence.
Like in any
civil war, the biggest hurdle to coexistence between Islamists and secularists
in the Middle East is getting key players from both camps to recognize the
impossibility of victory and the need for unpopular compromises. Until they do,
conflict will continue and democracy will remain an elusive goal.
Headline: The Middle East’s warring factions need to find a way to coexist
Source: The Washington Post