The Arab Wars of Religion

by Shlomo Ben Ami Shlomo Ben Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister who now serves as Vice President of the Toledo International Centre for Peace, is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy. 05.08.2013

MADRID – Throughout the Arab world, a struggle between two major historical forces, religion and secularism, is now unfolding. It is the type of battle between Caesar and God that took Europe centuries to resolve. The future of the Arab Middle East will be decided in the fight between Syria’s Sunni insurgents, supported throughout the region by the Saudi Wahhabis – the patrons of religious fundamentalism – and its secular Baath regime; between the fundamentalist Hamas and the secular PLO in Palestine; and between Egypt’s young secular opposition, forged in the protests of Tahrir Square, and the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Salafists.

So far, the Arab revolts have vindicated the assumption that, given the structure of most Arab societies, toppling secular autocracies inevitably means opening the door to Islamic democracies. We saw that dynamic play out in Algeria in the early 1990’s, with the Islamic Salvation Front’s first-round victory in a parliamentary election (which prompted the cancellation of the second round); with Hamas’s electoral victory in Palestine in 2006; and, most recently, with the Muslim Brotherhood’s democratic rise to power in Egypt.

In both Algeria and Egypt, secular forces were incapable of stemming political Islam’s rise, which could be cut short only by a military takeover. The Algerian military coup eventually ushered in a bloody civil war that is estimated to have taken more than 200,000 lives. 

The consequences of the Egyptian coup have still to unfold. The secular opposition’s accession to power on the back of a tank might feed the Islamists’ rage for years to come. The Muslim Brotherhood’s loss of trust in the democratic process would be bad news for Egypt and a boost to Al Qaeda and other jihadists who believe that power can be obtained only through blood and terror.

The concept of separation of church and state is alien to Islam – former Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini once famously declared that “Islam is politics or it is nothing” – and Islamists have still to prove that they are amenable to democratic governance. Indeed, Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s deposed president, has only himself to blame for his political demise. His sectarian, authoritarian behavior polarized his country to such a degree that even the army’s chief, General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, known for his Islamist sympathies, withdrew his support from the man who had appointed him. 

Likewise, the revival of the Shia-Sunni civil war in Iraq largely reflects the sectarian rule of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Nor has Hamas’s rise to power in Gaza ushered in inclusive, democratic governance. After having failed to reverse Hamas’s electoral victory by military means, the PLO agreed with its Islamist rivals on a plan for national reconciliation; but this pact remains a dead letter.

As for Syria, the revolt against one of the most secular autocracies in the Arab world has degenerated into a fight to the death between Sunnis and Shia that is spilling over to other countries in the region. A Sunni jihad has now been launched against the Baath regime and its Shia allies, Iran and Hezbollah. Neighboring Lebanon, with its fierce Sunni-Shia divide, is already being directly affected. 

The struggle between religion and state in the Maghreb is less violent, but potentially explosive nonetheless. Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, is now caught between secularists and religious fundamentalists. The Islamist Ennahda party leads the government, but it faces a serious challenge from the ultra-conservative Salafists of Hizb Ut-Tahrir.

In Morocco, King Mohammed VI did not conceal his support for the Egyptian coup, but the Islamist Justice and Development Party, which leads his government, denounced it. Indeed, Istiqlal, a secular center-right party, left the government in the wake of the Egyptian coup, accusing the JDP, under Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane, of trying to “Egyptianize” Morocco by monopolizing power, as Morsi did in Egypt. 

Even in Turkey, a non-Arab Muslim country with strong aspirations to reconcile Islam with democracy, the agreement between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamist government and the urban middle class to limit official encroachment on secular lifestyles is unraveling. Erdoğan now promises to “reconstruct Turkey” in his own authoritarian and religious image.

The Arabs’ march to freedom is bound to be a long and tortuous process – perhaps the main geopolitical test of the twenty-first century. Yet the battle between secularism and religion in the Arab world does not have to last centuries, as it did in Europe, if only because contemporary generations can benefit from the long process of social and scientific progress that enabled the West to pave the way to modern democracy. But adapting this Western legacy for the contemporary Arab world, while recovering Arabs’ own medieval heritage of tolerance and scientific excellence, will be difficult. 

One hopes that Egypt’s defeated Islamists will move from the politics of vengeance to a soul-searching process that leads to the recognition that democracy is not a zero-sum game in which the winner takes all. The Leninist “democratic centralism” to which Morsi seemed to have subscribed, if maintained, will be a standing provocation to the new generations and their allies in the old state apparatus to rise up, even at the price of civil war.


Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013.

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