[This series of opinion articles on the relationship between secularism and authoritarianism is the outcome of a collaboration between SyriaUntold and openDemocracy’s NAWA].
It may sound preposterous to argue that the Lebanese political model remains, among Arab states, the most suited to achieving secularism. On one hand, sectarian quotas characterize Lebanese politics, and the weakness, dysfunction or absence of state institutions are subject to recurrent criticism. On the other hand, it is commonplace to reference a sphere of public liberties in Lebanon, which some perceive as verging on chaos, and others as lacking a corresponding legal framework.
What I am arguing here is that, the realization of these liberties correlates to the very weak state at which criticism is conventionally leveled; that is, they are not an achievement of a modern state as typically claimed by secularists.
Despite all its pitfalls, the Lebanese model serves to elucidate a simple concept relevant to our region. The absence of the state in Lebanon is tantamount to the absence of concentration of power. As is widely known, the Lebanese National Pact (1943) dissipates political power by distributing it across Lebanese communities. In doing so, it has practically resulted in dispelling the notions of the state and power altogether. This is contrary to the prevalent model throughout the region, wherein the concepts of state and power conflate, with the latter overly encroaching upon the former. The dissipation of the state appears here proportional to the concentration of power.
That said, the concentration of power inevitably comes at the expense of society, whether through stifling its political potential or dominating its social symbolic space -- which is often occupied by religion. In this sense, the nationalization of religion lies in its uprooting from the symbolic social space under the guise of legal codification. It also results in dispossessing the public of religion as common property, just like “nationalized” natural resources placed at the disposal of the ruling class.
Arab regimes claim to safeguard religion by controlling it; they may even claim to protect society from some dangerous interpretations of religion. They are “secular,” unlike the society which ought to be ‘disarmed’ of religion. These claims are typically revived once the regime is endangered.
Almost automatically, on the other hand, part of resistance to tyranny is to reclaim religion from that hegemony. Regrettably, this reclamation does not stem from an aspiration to return religion into public domain, but it is often an Islamist attempt to compete with said tyranny in nationalizing religion in their favor.
In the context to of an Islamist-secularist debate, whenever secularists fail to represent society at large and demand that the symbolic space of religion be returned to the public domain, they appear as mouthpieces of the state -- be it an existing state or an envisioned one.
Additionally, in such debates, secularists get it wrong when they waiver their share of the public symbolic space, allowing it to become exclusively the arena of Islamist contestation. It is necessary to clarify here that being partners in the symbolic space of religion is different from being religious. Such a partnership is not ritual and congregational; it is rather social and cultural practice that is already realized, and that has only been partly undermined over the last few decades due to the relentless efforts of competing rivals -- the regimes and contending Islamist groups.
Accordingly, there are two levels on which we can no longer conceptually differentiate between Arab tyrannies and Islamist groups: the level of power, which to both parties is defined as absolute centrality; and the level of the unsecular nationalization of religion. In the case of the regimes, this nationalization may take the form of secular tyranny that also involves social engineering, in addition to monopoly over religion and its proper interpretations.
A third level of comparison, as noted earlier, is the absence of the state. Indeed, eclipsing the nation-state in its contemporary conception is at the heart of tyranny; and it has always been replaced by the concept of “the [supra-national Arab-Islamic] Community” (Ummah), which is not defined in reality but rather in fantasy and utopia.
Such a dire deficit in the state culture explains many facets of the ongoing conflict. It is in large part a struggle for power, with the latter not being defined as state but rather as a prior negation thereof. Many debates are undergone on two contrasting conceptual grounds, with one party proceeding from the notion of an envisaged state and another from that of an existing or anticipated regime. Religion is thus by definition a means to power, just as the state is a rentier state in which the oligarchy controls all natural resources and dominates the means of production -- as meagre as they may be.
It is hardly an accident that tyrannical regimes had displayed hostile attitudes towards economic modernization, before they were forced to accept its bare minimum under the banners of market-oriented economy or state capitalism. The experiences of both models have led to absolute state monopoly.
The proliferation of capitalism in the liberal sense necessitates the demise of rentier state power. Modern production is inherently a departure from the traditional struggle over resources, including struggle over public symbolic spaces such as religion, towards competition over the production market and wealth creation, and consequently towards a new culture of conflict.
This shift implies new social questions pertaining to the equitable distribution of the produced wealth. In its contemporary conception, therefore, the state is a valve for the management of modern struggles, so as to ensure social balance and minimum social protection.
Additionally, capitalization at the macro level is the ability to produce and commercialize culture and art as an essential component of public symbolic space.
We often maintain a simplistic view of religious reform in the West and its association with secularism, without taking into account other considerations that were parallel to it. The shift in the status of religion, for example, both as a personal spiritual need and as a public symbolic space, takes place against a background of accumulation and capitalization of public cultural space; that is, the more culture and arts make progress toward satisfying spiritual needs, the more religion becomes part of a whole, and the more its faith aspect gets promoted at the expense of its monopoly and nationalization projects. In other words, the more communal religion becomes, the more personal it is rendered.
These preliminary observations should not be disregarded from propositions on secularism today, which continue to indulge in the current conflicts between absolutist monopolistic regimes and equally absolutist monopolistic Islamist groups. Lest this description of Islamists seem like a preconception, one is bound to point out the infighting between them over the variety of their interpretations of Islam. Obviously, their disputes are not grounded in any doctrinal disagreement, so much as they rather draw on the latter to conceal the monopolistic political project of each group.
Current inter-Islamist conflicts serve as a suitable gateway to further clarification of what nationalization and monopolization of religion entails, given that tyrannical regimes have so far perfectly played their role in illustrating absolutist monopoly.
However, post-Islamist ‘divestment’ requires careful attention to avoid the return of monopoly, as historical experiences have always shown bloody backlash. The legal modernization approach will not suffice, unless it is consolidated by a more comprehensive view of the very notion of the modern state, including its evolution and development.
A more comprehensive concept of secularism should explore a deeper understanding of secularism and democracy, because the correlation between the two can be traced back to a long process of juxtaposed developments at the level of capitalization and public societal competition; as well as the level of the state as an arbitrator that prevents monopoly from threatening social balances, not as yet another monopolistic power in rivalry with society and its often instinctive balances.
The model of Lebanon, as described above, is indicative of the importance of state weakness, which is possibly a necessary stage for other countries in the region after decades of absolutist domination in the name of the state.
This is not a pat on the back of the Lebanese experience, which remains threatened by Hezbollah’s militancy and has always been burdened by the political strife of sectarian leaders. It merely serves as a reflection on the distribution of power itself, and on the need to overcome all the manifestations of the culture of authoritarianism as a culture of monopoly par excellence.
Time has come to dispel delusions about the transcendent role of the state in society, which practically justifies for any power its confiscation of state and society. The dissipation of the central state and power may be an essential and necessary condition to prevent monopoly, and to prevent emerging democracies from regressing back into it.
When statehood goes hand in hand with economic and symbolic capitalization, secularism appears as a society-oriented project, not a state-centered one. It inherently implies the release of societal energy to be expressed as production and struggle. Without this, the state will remain a false metaphor for a monopolistic rentier project.
Claims about the state will never hold validity after all the atrocities and horrors perpetrated in its name. Rather, when the public hears the word “state,” their minds would immediately conceive of a forthcoming tyrannical regime.
The writer’s opinions do not necessarily reflect SyriaUntold’s views.
[Main image: A drawing depicting the dispute between “secular” regimes and Islamists (Comic4Syria/SyriaUntold)].