Secularism is what the Arab world needs

The wave of anti-government protests sweeping through the Arab world, which has already toppled governments in Tunisia and Egypt, raises very serious questions about religion and politics in the Middle East, and reinforces the need for Arab secularism.

The most fascinating thing about the largest and most important of the protests, in Egypt and Tunisia, is that the animating spirit that brought millions of ordinary Arab citizens out into the streets was not religion or any version of religious politics, but nationalism and a broad-based social consciousness. The country-specific and broader Arab nationalist sentiments that brought such huge crowds together had long been considered dead, or at least moribund, by many observers. Had one predicted the outpouring of anti-government anger across the region six or eight months ago, most observers would have anticipated an Islamist ideological tinge to the revolts.

The governments, of course, have all tried to blame the uprisings on Islamist plots (as well as that old stand-by “foreign meddling”), but the symbolism and rhetoric behind the protest movements have disproved these allegations irrefutably. In Tunisia, one of the most powerful chants was “Tunis huwa al-hal” (Tunisia is the answer), a clear-cut retort to the Muslim Brotherhood slogan “Islam huwa al-hal” (Islam is the answer). In Egypt, a striking feature of the protests was not only its secular but also ecumenical character, with Muslims and Christians joining and protecting each other during prayer, and the devout mingling comfortably with the skeptical.

That Egyptians came together across these potential or presumed dividing lines was a clear recognition that in order for the society to be united, in this case against the presidency of Hosni Mubarak, it had no choice but to push religious identity into the background. In other words, the diversity of Egyptian society meant that the Islamist approach, ideology and symbolic repertoire would have been more of an obstacle to than a vehicle of success against the regime.

It’s true that the Muslim Brotherhood is the largest and best organized opposition party in Egypt, and that Islamists are the key opposition parties in most Arab states. It’s true that they participated, in some cases significantly, in the protest movements, and that they are no doubt counting on being primary beneficiaries of an opening up of Arab political space, especially through elections. The Egyptian Brotherhood, for example, was wise not to overplay its hand by thrusting itself and its ideology into the forefront of a movement for which it was not responsible and which gained its power by bringing a huge number of people together across religious and other divides.

The Islamist message is, by definition, divisive. By staying in the background its adherents have implicitly recognized that it has deep limitations when the entire society needs to be mobilized – in this case for purposes of overthrowing the government. That means the same limitations apply any time an Arab society needs to be successfully mobilized, although this obvious point will probably remain largely unarticulated. So while Islamists may be looking forward to trying to exploit new Arab political openness, they must have noted with dismay that it was not their ideology but a secular and ecumenical nationalism that animated the most important of the Arab revolts.

The Bahraini case also demonstrates the dangers of Arab sectarianism and the need to move quickly toward a secular order in which the state is neutral on matters of religion, and religious constituencies are treated equally by the government. In the kingdom, a ruling Sunni minority royal family and elite are facing what they, probably correctly, perceive as the latest round of efforts by the Shia majority to confront its marginalization and disenfranchisement.

In Egypt, the secular and ecumenical nature of the protests was a major factor in its size, power and success, whereas in Bahrain sectarian divisions are at the heart of the instability of the government and the anger of the disempowered majority.

All societies are heterogeneous, and therefore only a secular approach involving government neutrality on religious matters can have any chance of producing fairness and equality. Most Arab societies are strikingly heterogeneous – in many cases a mosaic of sectarian, cultural, ethnic and other diversity. Only secular governance can genuinely express the legitimate rights of a majority while successfully protecting the rights of minorities and individual citizens.

Even though they have not been at the forefront of the most important Arab protest movements, Islamists are no doubt waiting on the sidelines, hoping and preparing to benefit from new political space. But the new Arab order, especially since it is being born in such a strikingly secular and ecumenical spirit – and if it is to have any hope of providing democracy, good governance, equity and human rights – cannot be defined by religious politics. As the Iranian experience so bitterly shows, such a definition would only set the stage for more oppression, division and civil conflict down the road.