Secularism in its western sense has always been a contentious issue in the Arab world ever since it was embraced, in various forms, by post-independence pan-Arab nationalist movements in the 1940s, ‘50s and ’60 of the last century.
Nasserite and Baathist ideologies were beset by a number of factors including geopolitical challenges; primarily the eruption of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the series of military defeats that Arab regimes suffered as a result.
The Cold War and the great West-East divide polarised the Arab region as well, with those allying themselves to the United States, choosing a toned down version of western capitalism while underlying a moderate or conservative form of religious jurisprudence.
The surge of Daesh across Iraq and Syria, coinciding with the Arab Spring protests, is ironic in itself. As young Arabs were calling for democracy, transparency and openness, Daesh was proposing the exact antithesis. This was definitely the bleakest period in modern Arab times
The pro-Moscow camp opted for single party republican rule based on socialist economic principles while distancing themselves from, and even clashing with, political Islam; namely the Muslim Brotherhood and other more extreme offshoots.
In some countries — Jordan is a stark example — a shaky alliance between the regime and Brotherhood took place during a period of political tumult as the Nasserite tide loomed in Jordan, Libya and Iraq in the 1950 and ‘60s. That alliance between conservative regimes and religious bodies preserved the short-term interests of both sides.
Signs of liberal values
In Jordan, Iraq and Morocco a diluted form of secularism was evolving; experiments in multiparty political systems and the birth of nascent civil society institutions. It is ironic that societies in the Levant and Egypt between the 1940s and the end of the 1970s exhibited vigorous signs of liberal values.
Still the debate over the role of religion in civil life and the meaning of western secularism was going on during that period. In pro-Soviet Arab countries a more secular way of life had taken roots although in the absence of any desire by the political-military ruling class to advance democratic ideals.
Even as the Palestinian national liberation movement was born in the 1960s, groups had splintered with the main force, Fatah.
Following the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 by the Soviet Union and with the support of the US and Saudi Arabia, the Mujahidin resistance movement, compiled of hard-line Islamists, signalled the transition from a more moderate form of political Islam to an openly militant one.
A fundamentalist society
The final outcome was the marriage between the ultra-conservative Taliban and the openly militant al-Qaida; both seeking to create a fully fundamentalist society.
Coinciding with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was the toppling of secular dictator the Shah of Iran and the birth of the Islamic Republic of Iran ruled by the clergy.
This also signalled the beginning of a rift between the Sunni and the Shia worlds as the Ayatollahs of Iran sought to export their revolution into neighbouring countries. This led to the 8-year bloody war between Iraq and Iran.
In Palestine the first Intifada of 1988 led to the birth of Hamas whose principles were based on those of Brotherhood. With Hezbollah emerging on the scene in 1985, following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the Middle East has seen a complete transformation.
The mere idea of proposing a debate about separation between state and religion had become so toxic that many of its proponents were either killed or sought exile abroad. A wave of religious revisionism took over once quasi-liberal societies as even the once open Levant and Egypt gave way to the rise of various forms of extreme religious dogma.
Geopolitical events; the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, gave a boost to religiously based militant offshoots that took it upon themselves to fight the new enemy. From Al Qaida we saw the gruesome rise of Daesh.
Surge of Daesh
The surge of Daesh across Iraq and Syria, coinciding with the Arab Spring protests, is ironic in itself. As young Arabs were calling for democracy, transparency and openness, Daesh was proposing the exact antithesis. This was definitely the bleakest period in modern Arab times.
The defeat of Daesh has not benefited those calling for secularism and an end to the abuse of religion for political purposes.
Revisionist movements lurk in the dark across the region. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan with his brazen use of religion to further his own grandiose ambitions in the region is yet another phase in the employment of political Islam, this time by the state apparatus as is evident in Libya, Syria and Iraq.
Iran’s nefarious backing of militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen is another case of state-sponsored perpetuation of narrow religious dogma. The two stark examples are yet another reason for the urgent need to revive the debate on secularism and the overdue transformation of Arab societies.
The debate over the origins, threats and future of religious militancy should have begun years ago. With Arab flanks being threatened now by Turkish illusions of reviving Ottoman era caliphate and Iranian ambitions across the heart of the region, moderate Arab leaders must join ranks and create the conditions for a new Arab awakening that aims at neutralising militant religious dogma from our societies.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.