The death of Arab secularism is the story of a country that no longer exists and a world almost impossible to imagine.The writer goes into a brief history of how the demise of the Ottoman Empire, which was officially based on Islam, required a new way of thinking to unify the Arab world, and secularism in the form of Nasserism and Baathism was the high-water mark of that attempt with the formation of the United Arab Republic.
That world can be glimpsed in old newsreels from the Arab cities of the 1950s and 1960s. The cities of the post-war period - Cairo, Beirut and Damascus, Baghdad and Aden - look much the same as many developing countries of the time: American-built cars, European-style suits, a certain easy mingling of men and women.
The vision of the future the men and women in those over-saturated newsreels had, how they saw their modern world unfolding, cannot easily be understood.
But it can perhaps be surmised from a joke, told by Egypt's leader Gamal Abdel Nasser to an audience in the years after the Muslim Brotherhood was accused of attempting to assassinate him. Nasser described meeting with the Brotherhood's leader in 1953 in an attempt to reconcile the group with his leadership. (Nasser doesn't mention whom he met, but it was most likely Hassan Al Hudaybi, a judge who led the group for 20 years from 1951.)
"The first thing he asked me was to make the wearing of hijab mandatory in Egypt," says Nasser, "and to force every woman walking on the street to wear a hijab." The crowd laughs and Nasser hams it up for them, looking perplexed at such an outlandish request. "Let him wear it!" shouts an audience member, and the crowd erupts in laughter and applause.
But that's not the punchline. Nasser tells Al Hudaybi he knows the Brotherhood's leader has a daughter studying medicine, and his daughter doesn't wear the hijab. "Why haven't you made her wear the hijab?" he asks, before delivering a knockout blow: "If you cannot make one girl - who is your own daughter - wear the hijab," he says, "how do you expect me to make 10 million women wear the hijab, all by myself?" The crowd roars its approval.
Nasser's joke is instructive for the world view it implies. The middle and upper classes of 1950s Egypt considered it ridiculous that the wearing of the hijab could be enshrined in law. Most did not wear it; they considered the proper role of religion to be private, outside the realm of government and politics. Nasser himself explicitly declared the same thing.
Contrast that with today's Egypt, and indeed the wider Arab world, and it is clear how much has changed in just half a century....The days when the very notion of large numbers of women wearing the headscarf was unthinkable have passed into history. Nasser's punchline is now Egypt's reality.
He doesn't note the obvious influence of the Iranian revolution on the Islamic revival in the Arab world.
What is left unsaid is that the current Islamist revival is different from the Ottoman model; the Ottoman Empire used religion as a means to maintain unity but it was not driven by religion. Today's pan-Islamic movement, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, is far more extreme and far more dangerous. The Ottoman Empire was still political with the veneer of religion, the new Islamists use an extreme interpretation of Islam that they believe includes politics.
If religious rulings trump political decisions, then all of the rules of international politics go out the window when dealing with the new Islamism. For better or for worse, diplomacy is nearly meaningless to Islamists - it is only a means for them to gain power, not to co-exist. In the Islamist mindset, concessions can only be considered when the alternative is a war they know they cannot win.forc Only force would be respected.
Moreover, when religion defines politics, the extremist interpretations seem to have free reign - even though the Muslim Brotherhood won the Egyptian elections, there has been very little pushback from them on a religious basis on the Salafist attempts to move Egypt even further to extremist Islamism.There are no "moderate" imams who command the respect of the extremists, and the extremists have a monopoly on accusations of blasphemy against their enemies.
People who think that it can be business as usual with the new Islamic states emerging in the Arab world are fooling themselves. And the fatal error from the West is to conflate Islam as a personal religion and Islamism as a political movement. The former, while problematic, is ultimately benign, while the latter is truly evil and must not be coddled by the free world.
(h/t John G)