Secularism in the Middle East

Talking about the hijab ban in France and plans to allow “painless” female circumcision (also known as female genital mutilation) in Italy, Letter from Gotham writes:

Can somebody please tell me what is the difference in principle between outlawing one religious custom and allowing another? I recognize that wearing a scarf does no harm to anyone. My point is, isn’t the secular society the ultimate authority?

She asks again.

I’m not clear on what he opposes. Is it this particular ruling [hijab ban], or the right of a secular government to ban certain religious practices? [… Should] nice, sanitary female genital mutilations […] be allowed? After all the parents want it. Or does a secular government have the right to interfere in the practice of religious customs?

I think she raises an important point. My opinion is that on the general concept, there are definitely times when the state can and should interfere into religious or cultural affairs. This should be restricted to practices which are barbaric or otherwise restrict the rights of individuals or groups, etc. It is always a good idea to consider whether a specific policy will work or not and what its side-effects will be.

Thinking about this issue, I came across an excellent post at Pedantry.

I’m an advocate of secular government, and I believe secular government can only be a success when religious people demand it as something in their own best interests.

This is very close to my own stance as well.

I think there are legitimate grounds to see in contemporary Islamic legal thought the possibility of a system of laws and governance that need not be excessively unjust or alienating and would certainly draw on more genuinely local traditions than copying European legal and political ideas directly. I think there may even be grounds to think that the development of such a code might be preferable in the real circumstances that prevail in the Middle East to imposing European legal standards.

I prefer to criticise (or praise, when the opportunity arises) modern Islamic politics on the basis of what it wishes to establish rather than because of its religious origins alone. Indeed, having claimed that it is wrong to deny people their religion when they undertake political acts, I can hardly condemn Islamic political ideology for being both political and Islamic. I think non-Muslims could take a far more progressive approach to Islamic politics by criticising it for what it actually proposes rather than for its lack of secularism. When Islamic political activists demand the promotion of social justice because Mohammed commanded it, the secular advocate of social justice should not start getting picky about whether social justice is desirable because it’s what God wants or for more secular reasons. When Islamic politicians demand a second rate status for women or non-Muslims because of something they claim their religion demands, rather than either debate Islamic theology or demand that Islamic politicians establish a secularism neither they nor their constituents believe in, we ought to go and hunt down Islamic political activists with contrary ideas so that we can support their alternatives.

Scott has hit on a very important point here. Most of the Muslim world is not secular. Most people there take their religion very seriously. Also, in most of these countries, the secular elite that have ruled over the years have not really being a smashing success.

There are Islamic political parties in a number of Muslim countries, for example the religious alliance MMA. But a number of secular parties also have some religious character. A secular culture like Europe is not likely in the Muslim world in the near future and we cannot force them to adopt secularism.

The Muslim states should be allowed to develop their own path to a tolerant, good political system. This system would be based on their local culture and religion to some extent.

This obviously does not mean that we allow the extremists like Taliban etc. to take over entire states. Instead we should judge actions rather than a take binary decision between secularism and Islamism. If a political leader advocates for the government to take care of the poor, a la the Alabama Governor, that is well and good. Mistreatment of minorities and women obviously is not.

You might say that the theory is fine but the real world is different and there are a lot of extremist Islamic parties. A counterexample is obviously the Turkish AKP. A number of political parties, both explicitly Islamic and generically Islamic, have been willing to be part of democratic systems. Their actions need to be watched, but there is no reason some of them shouldn’t evolve into liberal democratic parties.

The alternative is not attractive either. Secular dictators which flout the rights of their people can become huge liabilities. US support of such dictators will be seen by the people of those countries as inimical to their interests. Plus these dictators haven’t really done much good. I don’t think Algeria would have been worse under FIS than the military government and the civil war it has gone through in the last decade.

Author: Zack

Dad, gadget guy, bookworm, political animal, global nomad, cyclist, hiker, tennis player, photographer

14 thoughts on “Secularism in the Middle East”

  1. Interesting post, Zack, and by and large, I’m in agreement with you.

    One question I have for you (and I’m certain I don’t have the answer):

    When you write, This obviously does not mean that we allow the extremists like Taliban etc. to take over entire states, I wonder what you mean. First, who’s the we? The international community? The NATO alliance? The United States, if need be? Suppose another Taliban comes to power somewhere in the world (let’s say, for the sake of argument, in Bangladesh, a poor country with a significant Hindu minority and not a particularly good track record of local governance as it is). What do we do? Invade? Slap economic sanctions on an impoverished country?

    Suppose the Saudi royal family is toppled by a Taliban-like insurgency; what do we do then? Would it make any difference that one human rights abusing government was toppled by another, perhaps more brutal one? And would anyone believe an intervention was for high minded principle as opposed to blood for oil?

    Further, suppose you have a secular gang of killers like the Viet Cong, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, or, for that matter, Stalin’s thugs?

    What about the North Korea, with its forced famines and concentration camps?

    Obviously, I could go on, but I’ll spare us both.

    By and large I agree with you — I doubt that the first item of business in any Muslim democracy would be gay marriage or pop stars baring breasts on national television — but history isn’t necessarily progressive, and it’s not as if you grind up equal parts of the Federalist papers and fiqh you’ll magically end up with a decent civil society.

  2. Bill: I knew there were big holes in my argument. I probably should have said “This obviously does not mean that we support extremists like Taliban etc. who take over entire states.”

    I don’t have a satisfactory answer to your question. I think the response to a brutal regime would depend on the specific circumstances.

    I am a multilaterist, so the UN would be the first course of action. However, action could be taken by NATO or even by the US alone.

    Persuasion, sanctions, war, I don’t know. I am a pragmatist and so anything that is on the whole beneficial, with not much negative consequences, would be ok.

    I also understand that there are and will be massacres etc. where we (and by “we” I mean all us humans) won’t be able to do anything.

    How’s that for a muddled answer?

    history isn’t necessarily progressive, and it’s not as if you grind up equal parts of the Federalist papers and fiqh you’ll magically end up with a decent civil society.

    True. I would prefer good secular liberal democracy in Middle Eastern countries. However, apart from Turkey and Iran, I don’t think the conditions for that exist anywhere else. And I think it’ll actually be worse to try to impose such a system on these countries. There’ll definitely be failures in the Islamic democracy path as well. But it has a better long term outlook in my opinion.

  3. Bill – I’m basically with Zack on what constitutes international standards and the international community. Both are very vague and I would like to see them better codified, so long as the “international community” is defined in a much broader fashion than George W Bush, Tony Blair, and whatever lip-service they can scare up in the rest of the world.

    Part of what I think is important in any debate over the standards other governments are held to is that the judges really do need to be diverse, and that the nations making the judgments need to be put in the spotlight when they (as usual) are hypocritical in their rulings. Second, I think that the world would be better if instead of saying “secularism is one of the standards we hold the world to” they said something like “people should be free to belong to whatever religion they want and should not have their religious practices threatened unless they necessarily undermine public order.” That is what I find so loathsome about the French ban on the hijab. I don’t really have a big problem with a state that says “this is an Islamic state which draws on the traditions of Islamic law” if at the same time it says, “there shall be no discrimination in the courts, the public services, or in any business open to the public on the basis of religion, and no religious test shall be necessary to hold public office.” I have a small problem with it, but it’s the same problem I have with a state that says “this is an Enlightenment state and we draw on the traditions of European legalism.”

    I am against allowing female circumcision because I think that there is a difference between outlawing one religious custom verses outlawing another. The state – regardless of how it identifies itself – exists to protect its citizens liberties. (Actually, I’d use the term “capacity for self-development”, which isn’t the same thing.) Female circumcision directly damages a woman’s liberties, not just then but forever. Were it the adult choice of grown women, I might loosen my feelings about it.

    A hijab, in itself, does not. It is just a piece of cloth, not a body modification. There might be a parallel had the French state not just banned the hijab at school, but banned it altogether. Then, they would have to make the case the hijab is as necessarily damaging as female circumcision, which would have been apparently silly.

    But their decision, instead, was to ban it at school. Girls who are forced to wear it by their parents (who seem to be quite few in number) are not relieved of pressure to wear it, but will now lose whatever liberatory potential might have come from public schooling. At every turn, this debate has not been about what is best for young Muslim women, it has been about protecting secularism. I don’t think protecting secularism is a reason to ban female circumcision, I think protecting women is a good reason. I don’t think women will be protected by a ban on the hijab.

    That is what is different. Religious practices – just like other practices – are not all equal before the law and shouldn’t be. Banning a practice of any sort should flow from a genuine argument about the utility and effectiveness of the ban in bringing real benefits to people. It should not be about making statements and attacking symbolic targets. That is why a ban on flag burning in the US is a bad idea: it attacks only acts of flag burning that carry symbolic value and attacks them only for their symbolic content. This is in contrast to other acts of anti-patriotic protest, like bomb throwing, which is banned regardless of its symbolic content. The same logic differentiates female circumcision from wearing a hijab.

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  5. Zack,

    It’s a thorny issue. The concept of sovereignty in international law strikes me as a necessary evil, but an evil nonetheless.

    Had Hitler’s goals been merely to stop expanding after Munich and to eliminate the Jews in the larger Reich, would anyone have stopped him? What rights do regimes enjoy? International law, the U.N., and so on, seem to respect the rights not of the peoples of various countries, but of their governments. I think that’s the problem with the U.N. (as opposed to, say, a coalition of willing democracies) — why should a tyrant’s vote (and if you’re just talking about the Security Council’s permanent members, there’s China and perhaps Russia that are governed without popular consent) carry equal weight with that of a democracy?

    Scott,

    Of course, I find female circumcision to be a savage, barbaric custom; at the same time, I don’t care much for the enforced secularism of French society (which actually goes back to the revolution — Catholics were the first target). I find it interesting though that some people argue (I think Andrew Sullivan among them) that male circumcision is also a form of mutilation, and should be banned.

    Where does one draw the line?

  6. Scott: Agreed.

    Bill: It’s a thorny issue. The concept of sovereignty in international law strikes me as a necessary evil, but an evil nonetheless.

    I agree. The problem is to increase the good while keeping the chances of chaos low. For example, the US (or Canada) has a generally good record at least domestically. But letting it invade Congo, North Korea, Libya, Iran, Uzbekistan, etc. is not a good idea.

    National sovereignty is evil, but for now it is a necessary evil. We should flout it where required but only after considering all the pros and cons of that specific situation.

    Regarding UN, you are correct about the problem, but I am not sure there is any better solution. Reality is that there are lots of tyrant governments and we have to recognize the power they have.

    On the other hand, I did leave open the possibility of acting without the UN in my previous comment. Over the last decade, I have supported intervention in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, etc. I was against the war in Iraq but not because of national sovereignty nor because I didn’t consider Saddam to be a tyrant.

    Where does one draw the line?

    I am used to seeing too much grey. In fact, a friend of mine used to joke that my answer to most questions is “it depends.” I am not sure there is a bright line rule. We should consider individual liberties, the benefits and effectiveness of banning a practice, etc.

    About male circumcision, I haven’t seen any similar effects as female circumcision has. In fact, it’s a topic I was recently thinking of since we are expecting a baby. If it’s a boy, do I want him to be circumcised (like in Muslim tradition) or not. I’ll have to look up more detail about it.

  7. A nation with a secular government gains two distinct advantages. First, the government can protect citizens from coercive clerical rule, and second, the government can protect individuals from the potentially barbaric, normative behavior of a religious society (examples: stoning adulterers, genital mutilation, etc.). However, a purely secular government based upon purely secular traditions is deeply flawed. Without the moral and ethical foundations provided by religion, upon what would a government base its laws? Would civil rights be guaranteed in the United States if the founders did not believe that a Creator made them “unalienable”? A purely secular government would default to the “mainstream” values of the moment. Values would replace virtues as the underpinnings for laws. A system based solely upon values seems quite undesirable to me; the Nazis, for example, had scads of values (ex. “racial purity,” unquestioning obedience to the leader, etc.).

    Secularism is the indifference to or rejection of religion. As in the Franch case, it tends to lead to the oppression of publicly benign religous beliefs. A secular government is one separate from the internal governance offered by one’s morality. The former may beget the later, but the later may arrise without the former. I think it best for middle eastern nations to embrace secular governments that incorporate the moral principles of Islam. Such a government would eventually free itself from the clutches of clerics, separating church and state, and it prevent states from founding systems in the untested, often suspect “values” of the moment. This is, of course, the route that the United States took over two centuries ago…

  8. Zack:

    I would prefer good secular liberal democracy in Middle Eastern countries. However, apart from Turkey and Iran, I don’t think the conditions for that exist anywhere else. And I think it’ll actually be worse to try to impose such a system on these countries. There’ll definitely be failures in the Islamic democracy path as well. But it has a better long term outlook in my opinion.

    A lot of people have struck analogies about the similarities between Christian Democracy and Islamic Democracy, with the former political ideology developing out of the confrontation of organized religion with the secular state and becoming a compromise ideology.

    One problem with this analogy is that in the Middle East, you’ve already had this confrontation—a political Islam developed in Egypt, for instance, out of the confrontation between fundamentalists and the Nasserist state. Another problem lies in, I suppose, the existence of clear religious structures which aren’t compromised by state control.

    The preconditions for an Islamic Democratic party exist in Turkey, given the legacies of Ataturkism, though within the framework of a secular European-style state. Arguably, they might survive in Iran, assuming that the religious powers allow some movement towards greater democracy and prevent a coming revolution quite possible to produce a regime as anti-clerical as the French Third Republic. Perhaps Tunisia? Perhaps even Iraq or Algeria, though those two are rather much more outside chances. (There’s been state-religion confrontation, but I’m skeptical if it’s of the right types, the conflict being rather too violent and repressive.)

    Elsewhere, though, I agree that it’s problematic. It would be nice if, as Captain Arrrgh suggests, Middle Eastern countries were able to use Islamic values to give legitimacy to new pluralistic political and social arrangements. I’m skeptical, though, that the capacity to articulate these underpinnings really does exist. Attempts could very well get sidetracked like any number of other ideological ventures. Moreover, it’s open to question whether or not Turkey or Iran will be able to make these evolutions—Turkey arguably is simply evolving into a European-type polity with an Islamic Democratic party equivalent to Christian Democrats, and Iran can go in any number of directions many of these quite hostile to the Islamic democratic project.

    I’m not sure whether or not it might be better to just concentrate on a secular model of democracy which might be just as likely (or unlikely) to work in the absence of a necessary social infrastructure as an Islamic Democratic model.

    (Side note, since it’s been raised here: I’ve written on the subject of the hijab in France on my blog. Originally I was opposed to the ban in public schools—the suggestions in this article from the Guardian (particularly the apparently popular identification of non-hijab-wearing women as whores) made me considered. I admit that self-interest plays a considerable role. Scott, I’m skeptical that the hijab ban would be a deal-breaking for most parents—other factors intervene. And the arguments made for the ban did draw on statements of genuine benefit, whether accurate or not.)

  9. Randy: I’m not sure whether or not it might be better to just concentrate on a secular model of democracy which might be just as likely (or unlikely) to work in the absence of a necessary social infrastructure as an Islamic Democratic model.

    The problem there is lack of secularists. It’s not that there are no secular people in Muslim countries. There are, but they are mostly discredited because the post-colonial rulers were all secular and authoritarian. Also, with the spread of literacy, urbanization, population increase and globalization, a lot of people who are religious have become part of the national mainstream. See Gilles Kepel’s book.

    Right now, I don’t see any chance of a secular democracy anywhere except Iran and may be Malaysia. Turkey will always be a special case. All the other countries with “secular” governments in place will be authoritarian and may be totalitarian.

    I don’t see a great chance at Islamic democracy either in the short term but it is more likely to work in a democratic tradition.

    particularly the apparently popular identification of non-hijab-wearing women as whores

    The problem is I don’t see how a ban would help those women and girls it is supposed to be for.

  10. The problem there is lack of secularists. It’s not that there are no secular people in Muslim countries. There are, but they are mostly discredited because the post-colonial rulers were all secular and authoritarian.

    Frex, Nasser.

    Also, with the spread of literacy, urbanization, population increase and globalization, a lot of people who are religious have become part of the national mainstream. See Gilles Kepel’s book.

    I will. This sounds somewhat like Philip Jenkins’ argument regarding Third World Christianity, actually, particularly in Africa.

    Right now, I don’t see any chance of a secular democracy anywhere except Iran and may be Malaysia. Turkey will always be a special case.

    Given its laicism, yes. I’d also count Tunisia as a country somewhat similar to Turkey.

    All the other countries with “secular” governments in place will be authoritarian and may be totalitarian.

    Probably. Morocco is a conservative monarchy, Algeria’s a military regime in conflict with the loathsome GIA, Libya’s passing towards the end of the Qadaffi era, Egypt’s just generally repressive in a post-Nasserist way, et cetera. All of these regimes don’t really have claim to any dynamic secular ideology competitive with political Islam in any of its variants. One possibility for this, I suspect, is of an aggressively anti-clerical Iran, following a breakdown of the Islamic Republic

    I don’t see a great chance at Islamic democracy either in the short term but it is more likely to work in a democratic tradition.

    Something rooted in local traditions would work, yes, but articulating a connection that would work will be problematic. Christian Democracy in Europe seems to have emerged as a compromise, between religious hierarchies wanting to keep their power and a secular state expanding its role in society. I don’t think that equivalent movements are likely to develop in the Middle East, mainly because there aren’t any clear hierarchies to contest power.

    And on the hijab, I’ve written too much on the subject already. Henry Farrell wrote a good point on Crooked Timber, suggesting that legislating against a pervasive social custom can give people who don’t want to follow it a legitimate excuse not to. He raised the specific example of anti-duelling legislation in early 19th century Britain and North America, letting men who had to be concerned with honour refuse a duel at minimal risk to their reputation, since they could claim state reprisals.

  11. Randy: Something rooted in local traditions would work, yes, but articulating a connection that would work will be problematic.

    I think Pakistan could have done well in this regard if it had continued in a future in which either the Afghan war with the Soviets did not happen or if it did it did not change Pakistani Islamic politics completely.

    legislating against a pervasive social custom can give people who don’t want to follow it a legitimate excuse not to.

    That’s definitely true. I am not sure how much of a factor it is in France.

    I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on the hijab ban. Overall, I think the cons of a hijab ban outweigh the pros.

  12. Secularism, Islamism

    It seems I wasn’t exactly clear in my post where I argued that there is lots of diversity among “Islamists.” Ideofact writes about some statements and ideas of al-Ghannouchi which do seem quite bad to me. My point in my…

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