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Books | The Peculiarities of the Secular

by GARETH SMYTH in Beirut

17 Nov 2011 21:29Comments
cr_mega_25_headscarves.jpgIs the Middle East becoming more 'secular'? Is Islam an obstacle to secularization? Yes, and no, answers professor Sami Zubaida in a new collection of his most important work.

[ review ] "Secularism" in the Middle East is seen by some as a mark of honor and by others as an ideological Western import. The term "secular" is applied to parties, groups, and leaders as diverse as Ayad Allawi's Iraqi National Accord, Tunisian feminists, Lebanon's Amal, the Syrian Baath party and the Syrian Social Nationalists, the Turkish and Egyptian military, Egypt's new Wafd, greens, and communists.

Charles Taylor, the Canadian philosopher, distinguished three kinds of secularism in The Secular Age, published in 2007. The first sense is concentrated on the state, existing where religion is a "private matter" and public spaces "allegedly emptied of God, or of any reference to ultimate reality."

This, Taylor noted, was "compatible with the vast majority of people still believing in God, and practising their religion vigorously." But in a second sense, used perhaps more widely, "secularity consists in the falling off of religious belief and practice, in people turning away from God."

Taylor, never a philosopher to swim in shallow waters, isolated a third sense "closely related to the second, and not without connection to the first...[in which] the shift to secularism...consists, among other things, of a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others."

The three senses are quite different. While the United States, for example, may be secularized in the first and third aspects, its high levels of church attendance means it is not in the second sense. And the first sense, concerning public space, may be uncorrelated with the other two, which Taylor suggested might be the case in India.

So what is the case in the Middle East? It is commonly argued, or simply assumed, that a society where the vast majority of the population are practicing Muslims cannot be secular in its public spaces because Islam prescribes behavior for all aspects of life and requires that law derive from the sharia.

Such a view, popularized both by modern Islamists -- Salafis and the rulers of Iran among them -- and by the likes of Bernard Lewis, has long been challenged by Sami Zubaida, professor of sociology at the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University. Beyond Islam, recently published by Tauris, brings together many of Zubaida's essays going back to 1995 in which he has argued that Middle Eastern societies have long undergone a process of secularization triggered by their incorporation into the global capitalist economy.

For Zubaida, this was evidenced in shrinking of the religious sphere in the late-nineteenth century Ottoman Empire. And within both the Ottoman Empire and Qajar Iran, the struggle for a constitution epitomized the struggle for political representation and equality before the law. This, Zubaida writes, marked the birth of political divisions that have persisted ever since:

"Islam was then ideologized and politicized in forms that recur in modern politics: the conservatives, resorting to populism as well as the support of authoritarian rulers; modern reformers reading liberalism into Islam; and, emerging in the early decades of the twentieth century, radical populists such as the Muslim Brothers. At the same time, much of cultural, intellectual and political life was secularized, favoring the emergence and dominance of secular ideologies and political movements."

Zubaida here seems to be using "secular" in the third, and perhaps the second of Charles Taylor's three senses, although his references to constitutional reform hint at a level of support among at least some reformers for a public sphere in which the role of religion was curtailed.

The main concern in Beyond Islam is to reject the common rendition of Islam as an all-inclusive concept where all social features become Islamic. Zubaida wishes not just to debunk "Islamic architecture" and "Islamic banking" but to challenge "the very idea of a homogeneous 'Muslim society.'" For, he writes, "there are many Muslim societies...their range of variation is comprehensible in terms of the normal practice of social and political analysis, like any other range of societies."

This is surely right. In an introduction penned for Beyond Islam, Zubaida criticizes those who have explained "modernity" in these societies as "a writing-out of some historical or cultural essence of Islam as a religion or 'civilization.'" Unfortunately, such a flawed explanation has proved "a powerful ideological motif both for ethno-religious nationalism in the region and for certain approaches in Western writing that present Islam and the region as totally other."

The oldest piece in Zubaida's Beyond Islam is his classic critique of the theory of Islamic society advanced by Ernest Gellner. In Gellner's work, Zubaida found not only an intellectual rigor but a sociological study based on field work in a Muslim country, Morocco, and he was clearly intrigued by Gellner's belief that Islam by its nature resisted secularization.

Zubaida's point-by-point refutation of Gellner's thesis cannot establish a general thesis about the relationship between "Islamic society" and secularization, but this is precisely his point. Different societies in which Islam is the main or almost only religion will vary in many ways -- including their power structures, economic systems, and levels of secularization (in all three senses used by Charles Taylor). Zubaida's call for greater attention to be paid to specifics is further borne out in that each of the essays in Beyond Islam covers such wide ground that each could become a book.

The role currently being played by "moderate" Islamic parties in the Arab Spring has surprised many, and this, Zubaida might argue, is largely a reflection of the widespread assumption over the incompatibility between Islam and secular, or quasi-secular, constitutional politics. It is germane to recall that in his The Society of Muslim Brothers, published in 1969, Richard Mitchell wrote: "Our feeling, for some time now shared by others, is that the essentially secular reform nationalism now in vogue in the Arab world will continue to operate to end the earlier appeal of this organization."

But another big surprise has been that the appeal of political Islam could often not be gauged by the strength of religious authorities, and consequently that their weakening has not always been a sign of secularization. In many countries, the Islamization of the public sphere was inspired by laymen such as Hassan al-Banna and Abul Ala al-Mawdudi.

In Iran, something of the impetus of the 1979 Revolution came from writings of Ali Shariati in which he downgraded the "black Shiism" of the clergy. More recently, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad comes from a devout family but not one that has produced clerics, making him an outsider to a political class where a network of marriages link influential families and explaining much of the hostility towards him in Qom.

Many would argue, against Zubaida, that the upsurge of Islamic movements in the 1970s -- after defeat by Israel in the 1967 war undermined the Arab nationalist project -- reflected the limited nature of secularization in Middle Eastern societies. Just as Zubaida has argued against Gellner's general theory of Islamic societies, so others have rejected Zubaida's general link between modernization and secularization.

Bassam Tibi, the Syrian-born politics professor, writes in his Islam Between Politics and Culture that the process lacked "structural roots since secularization in the sense of a structural process of functional differentiation of society had not yet taken place."

Indeed, for Tibi, secularism "was more or less simply an ideology based on normative claims set by Westernized intellectuals." In the Arab and Ottoman world, and in Iran, it was a common belief that Europe's superiority could be explained in part because it had moved away from religion and consequently that secularism was part of a model they needed to emulate. Ironically, then, "secularism" as a cause can become yet another example of the essentialism that Zubaida wishes to reject.

The dangers of generalization are further evidenced in The Shia of Lebanon, recently published in paperback, in which Rodger Shanahan surveys the historical development and social background of politics among Lebanese Shia as the traditional leaders of the zuama (clans) gradually gave way to political parties -- Arab nationalist, leftist, and then Amal and Hezbollah.

Shanahan notes that "the secular/sectarian divide in Lebanese party politics is quite problematic." In general, he argues, a successful political party in the Lebanese system must motivate its core support among a particular sect but also win at least some votes from other sects: more specifically Amal, which is committed in theory to abolishing Lebanon's sectarian system and is often described by westerners as "secular," has shown itself adept within Lebanon's sectarian political structure and particularly skilled in directing "the wasta gravy train" (a phrase Shanahan draws from the Beirut Daily Star).

Can a politics be "secular" if it is sectarian? Can a political system be secular if, as in Lebanon, one cannot be a citizen -- vote, marry, hold a passport -- unless one is a registered member of one of 18 religious sects, and where the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the house speaker a Shia?

In prompting such questions -- and in other societies the questions will be somewhat different -- Zubaida's rich collection serves up much food for thought.

* Sami Zubaida Beyond Islam: A New Understanding of the Middle East, IP Tauris, 2011

* Rodger Shanahan The Shia of Lebanon: Clans, Parties and Clerics, IP Tauris paperback edition, 2011

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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