By Khaled Diab
An outward appearance of Islamism disguises the increasingly secular reality of some Arab and Muslim societies.
In a series of recent articles, Brian Whitaker explored the role of Islam in Arab politics, the decline of secularism and what can be done to reinvigorate it. He describes how “the decline of Muslim secularism reflects the rise of Islamism and the more generalised religious revival that has swept across the Middle East since the 1960s”.
I agree with the basic outline of this analysis, but would hazard to say that secularism is far from dead. It continues to make gains, albeit disguised for modesty's sake under an Islamic veil or pious beard.
In fact, there has been a trend over the past century which has seen many Muslim societies go from thinly veiling their traditional Islamic character in modern western cultural clothes, to dressing up their internalised modernism and increasingly secular reality in a reassuring and personalised Islamic garb.
The Secular party (later known as al-Wafd or Delegation) Whitaker refers to in his article, which was established in the interwar years to guide the struggle for Egyptian independence, provides an interesting case in point. He observes that today no one “would be foolhardy enough to set up a political party with such a name or platform”.
Perhaps many Arab and Muslim secularists, on the back foot, do shy away from an overtly secular label nowadays. But, with the exception of the Muslim Brotherhood, pretty much all the main parties in Egypt – left, right and centrist – are secular in nature.
However, the original Wafd and Egypt's experiment with ‘liberal democracy', viewed from nearly a century on, represent a deceptive mirage of modernity and secularism. The Wafd, and most of the other parties, were aristocratic and elitist in nature and had little connection with common people, while the Egyptian parliament was more like a ‘salon democracy' because its power was massively curtailed by the British, on the one side, and the king, on the other.
In fact, most of the politicians of the time who enjoyed democratic or popular appeal were exiled by the British to places such as Malta or Ceylon, or were sidelined or removed through palace intrigues. Nevertheless, many Egyptians, inspired by the Europhile thinkers of the so-called Egyptian renaissance, continued to believe in the liberating possibilities of democracy and secularism. The failure of this toothless democratic experiment to empower the Egyptian people planted the seedsofa widespread cynicism: today, these abstractions are seen as little more than hollow words bandied about by imperial powers or self-serving political elites.
Despite these inauspicious beginnings, modern secularism was to see its star soar in the 1950s and 1960s before it began to fizzle out in the late 1970s. Egypt's revolutionary president Gamal Abdel Nasser did more than any other person both to give Arab secularism mass appeal and sow the seeds of its demise. His personal charisma, progressive ideas, unwavering belief in modernity and desire for social justice propelled socialism and secularism out of the wings of Egyptian and Arab politics and straight on to centre stage.
However, his and his successors' failure to hand over power to the people, their corruption, their failure to deliver on their promises and their ruthless persecution of the secular opposition empowered the Islamists and wonthem many converts, especially following the crushing defeat of 1967. In addition, despite being aggressively secular, the post-revolutionary Egyptian regime preferred to ignore or repress, rather than challenge, the ideas of the Islamic reactionary rearguard, which gave Islamists a powerful weapon.
Although the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups have, since the late 1970s, Islamised the political landscape, they have also been secularised by the die-hard socialists and liberals who refused to roll over. In addition, the secular ideas of the past few decades have put down deep roots in society that the Islamists are incapable of reversing.
The more progressive wing of the Brotherhood is gradually evolving into something akin to the Christian Democrat tradition in Europe: conservative and culturally Islamic, but increasingly pluralistic. A small sign of the changing times is that the Brotherhood not only takes the presence of women in the public arena more or less for granted, something it was once adamantly opposed to, it even fields some female candidates in parliamentary elections.
There are growing signs that the appeal of Islamism is on the wane, as Egyptians realise that the Muslim Brotherhood, beyond declaring that the Quran is their “constitution” and “Islam is the solution”, have no real political programme of their own. In addition, the ugly reality of the modern theocracies and their failure to revive the ‘golden age' of Islam are shattering many people's illusions about political Islam.
The struggle between ‘secularism' and ‘Islamism', which is almost as old as Islam itself, has been a long and bitter one, and has revolved around challenging the omnipotent temporal power of the caliph, sultan, king or president from the clashing vantage point of rationality and faith.
This conflict's modern vestige was personifed memorably by the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz in his Cairo trilogy as the standoff between two radical brothers, Ahmed (the communist) and Abdel-Moneim (the Muslim Brother), both of whom wind up in jail for opposing the tyranny of the status quo.
In my next piece, I will consider ways of advancing progressive secularism and overcoming the powerful “God veto” of religious conservatives.
This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 16 April 2009. Read the related discussion.