Spring has come early this year to the Arab world. A change of climate has awakened West Asia from the stupor of singular leaderships. A new dawn of democracy and freedom is sprouting from Morocco to Oman. Or so we are told.
Weather forecasting is a tricky business. Future projections can be inaccurate. Fortune telling in West Asia is no less illusory than a mirage in the Arabian desert.
Democratic pluralism is never a foregone conclusion. Challenges to the old order can’t guarantee linear outcomes. Although Hosni Mubarak is gone in Egypt, the state apparatus he built has certainly not. Yemeni and Libyan tribalism will not disappear with regime change. Sunni-Shia sectarianism will remain a defining feature of Bahrain, Iraq and Lebanon. Religious minorities will fret about governance by Islamist parties, moderate or otherwise. Factionalism will continue tearing Palestinian unity apart.
Free and fair elections alone won’t erase the steep divisions in Arab societies. Indeed, they will probably exacerbate them. Shorn of feelings of national solidarity, narrow sectional interests may dictate voting patterns. A crucial piece of the puzzle is missing. Without it, the Arab countries will have the edifice of democracy but not genuine representative institutions.
That crucial piece is secularism, a principle which girds most vibrant democracies; the belief that the State should exist separately from religion or religious beliefs. That governments shouldn’t privilege one religion over another nor derive policy from a particular religious source. They should be effectively blind to someone’s religious persuasion.
Secularism is a misunderstood concept in much of West Asia. Arabs confuse secularism with atheism, understanding it to mean freedom from religion rather than freedom of religion. More damaging is secularism’s association with the past regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, both known for their containment of Islamist movements.
Egypt is debating the role of religion in society, as it considers a new constitution. Article 2 of the current constitution, introduced in 1980, defines Islam as the state religion. While Coptic Christians demand its abrogation, the overwhelming Muslim opinion support its retention.
The sectarian-rooted democracy of Lebanon and Iraq reserves the highest offices for representatives from certain religious communities. They have achieved a fragile social peace at the expense of nationhood. In the words of Kahlil Gibran: “Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation.”
Pew Research Center provides ample evidence of the benefits of separation of religion and state. It showed in a 2009 survey that liberal secular democracies exhibited the least government restrictions and public hostility to minority religions. Arab countries, (as well as?) Iran and Turkey demonstrated the diametric opposite. Secularism protected minority beliefs; integration of religion and government is a harbinger of civil strife.
This study also revealed that many types of secular democracies preserved religious diversity. Take France. It traditionally opposes any state religion or overt displays of religious symbols. Yet, religious minorities are allowed to flourish. Or England. Even though the Church of England is the established church, a wide array of faiths enjoy near unlimited freedom. There is no single model of democratic secularism provided tolerance is respected.
Flexible or not, nurturing secularism in the Arab world is a tall order. Like democracy, it is a process, not an event. Secular democracy requires a transformation of cultures and mentalities. This will not be easy even in the best of times. Yet, it is the only ideal that can prevent the onset of a severe Arab winter.
(Fadi Hakura is is an associate fellow with the British think tank Chatham House. The views expressed by the author are personal. This is part of the Religion and Public Space series, in collaboration with the UN Alliance of Civilisations and its Global Experts project.)