[This series of opinion articles on the relationship between secularism and authoritarianism is the outcome of a collaboration between SyriaUntold, openDemocracy’s NAWA and the Samir Kassir Foundation].
Throughout the 20th century, the Arab world has always found itself operating either within an Islamist or nationalist framework. Questions about whether there may be a third outlet or source of knowledge which Arab intellectuals have tapped into have risen, but rarely has the answer been positive. In general, all Arab ideologies have usually operated within the two aforementioned spheres.
Despite political conflict between the two - sometimes even bloody - the existence of one is inevitably linked to the other. In fact, the current state of Arab ruin, especially that in the Levant, is an extension of that dynamic. It can’t be denied that the fall of the nationalist ideology meant that Arabs reverted to the Islamist one. In fact, Islamists themselves have said so.
In any case, my comments aren’t related to that, but to the intentional false claims of Islamists that Arab nationalist dictatorship is linked to modern politics and, therefore, to secularism. Islamists continue to present themselves as the sole alternative to replace Arab political regimes that are complicit in spreading these false claims. (It is often concluded that Islamist ideology is a “biological alternative.” Why? Because we are Arabs, it is believed that we are instinctively born into an Islamic space!)
This Islamist false claim says that with the fall of Ben Ali’s regime, his adopted ideology of Jacobin laicism - which was the basis of his dictatorship - fell, with the understanding that it was based on modernity. Soon after, the regimes of other Arab states followed suit, apparently proving this claim right. In fact, it gave credibility to the “Islamist alternative” with the rise of political Islam in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as the growth of Islamist movements in Syria that took over the struggle against the tyranny of the Asad regime. All these were taken as indicators that Arab secular ideology has fallen after having been the cornerstone of dictatorships.
For the most part, these false claims were based on two axes: Firstly, a political one, that equates the tyranny of Arab political systems to western modernity; secondly, the axis that takes advantage of what the religious sphere offers, which meant accusing tyrannical Arab political systems of being based on atheist agendas and therefore against Islam, the assumed natural state of Arabs.
Undoubtedly, both axes are a product of a larger foundational cultural context, especially in terms of trying to delegitimize secularism by undermining its modern content and turning it into “just another ideology,” and regressing back to Islamic heritage as the cultural and historical path that establishes present and future Arab aspirations. This heritage is recreated a thousand times to serve the tyrant and the Islamists.
Furthermore, there is the equation of secularism with the west, which has a history of hostility against Islam. Unfortunately, Arab nationalist dictatorships have not gone against Islamists in this intellectual nonsense. On the contrary, they have always tried to prove they were more Islamic than the Islamists themselves.Gamal Abdel Nasser was a good example (so are his ‘successors’) with his firm nationalistic legacy and the cartoonish aspect of its modernity and secularism. To many, Abdel Nasser was a charismatic legend who bought into a socialist ideology that was hostile to Imperialism and Zionism. But the Egyptian leader was in fact born into a religious sphere and was later influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. The fact that he remained chained to this socialist ideology until his death did not sway him from the religious intellectual frameworks within which he was raised.
Furthermore, the Islamic cultural paradigm of his nationalistic ideology was not very different from that of his Islamist opponents, such as Sayyid Qutb. His rather fierce opposition to some Islamists, was nothing more than a temporary and military tyrannical ploy which he used to protect his dictatorship; the same was for his socialist ideology and his religious mentality.
The war between Abdel Nasser and the Muslim Brotherhood was in fact more of a cat-and-mouse game. Moroccan historian Abdallah Laroui once alluded to this, saying: “The regime of Abdel Nasser fought the Islamists as individuals, as political enemies and opponents. Perhaps with the exception of the last year of being in power, he never fought against the Islamist theory he was brought up to intellectually and politically.”
Even when the Nasserist movement afterwards tried to establish a coherent narrative, it was unable to escape -- on many occasions -- from the use of Islamic symbols to legitimize its ideology.
Libya’s Muammar al-Gaddhafi, the major proponent of dictatorship, was bolder than most Arab rulers when it came to presenting new “Islamic examples” that even the Ummayads didn’t dare to come up with. The goal of these wasn’t to twist the sacred religious heritage, but to give legitimacy to his dictatorship.
Other Arab dictators exceeded Abdel Nasser in his ‘supply’ of religiously connotated ‘services.’ For example, Hafez al-Assad worked on the “sunnification” of Syrian society to exonerate himself in front of Syrians and to cover up for the crimes of his ruling elite after the Hama massacre (1980). These efforts included throwing religious celebrations that aren’t necessarily called for in Islamic heritage, setting up al-Asad Qur’an recitation centers, building mosques, and re-cultivating a group of pro-regime religious leaders who could step in instead of the Muslim Brotherhood.
All this was to legitimize Asad’s rule, which Hafez insisted was not hostile to Islam in Syrian society, but it also consolidated a sectarianism that was already present. Undoubtedly, the result was the creation of a new generation of fundamentalists, or in other words, ‘a new Brotherhood’. As such, Asad’s attempts to regenerate religious fundamentalism after talk of “Asadist secularism” and “Asadist modernity” is not only comical but also painful, because it is the cornerstone of the false claims presented by the “Islamists of the Arab Spring."
This mental mechanism of tying secularism to Arab dictators is like trying to tie Islam to French Christians under the pretext of “the Arab Renaissance [Al-Nahda].” For example, the claims by some that Arab dictators are seculars or that they have adopted a version of secularism (such as French laicism as is the case of Ben Ali’s regime in Tunisia) is not far from what Egyptian jurist Muhammad Abduh said in his famous quote that he “went to the west and saw Islam [i.e., independent thinking], but no Muslims; I got back to the east and saw Muslims, but not Islam.” In either case, we are facing totalitarianism: In the same vein to France’s origins becoming Islamic, secularism now equates dictatorship. The aim of tying secularism to Arab dictators is simply to bring it down.
Consequently, to rid oneself of tyranny, it becomes important to fight secularist culture that brought about dictatorship. Following this logic, France is no longer the old city of "light" and renaissance whose people were originally non-Christian -- France’s origins will become “Islamic,” but its people are unfortunately non-Muslims. Such Arab intellectual exercises are akin to current Islamist intellectual endeavors, which are more systematic in order to make the best of today’s deadlock in the Arab world.
Sadly, secularism in the Arab world hasn’t had its fair share of study or criticism to be seen as a necessary and modern issue as opposed to a political decision that is forced by a dictator or passed via a number of legislations.
It’s frankly absurd to argue that the fall of a few Arab regimes and the taking over of Islamists and fundamentalists is akin to the fall of Jacobin laicism in its Kemalist version. Such a reasoning wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for what was brought about previously by nationalistic ideology and its contribution to the longstanding Arab ruin.
Lastly, we can’t forget that the current Islamist ideologies are the product of this ruin and they will only bring about more decay.
The writer's opinions do not necessarily reflect SyriaUntold's views.
[Main image: A drawing portraying 'the love&hate relationship' between Arab nationalist dictators and Islamists (Comic4Syria/SyriaUntold)].