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It’s not all about Islam: misreading secular politics in the Middle East

Date:07 May 2015
Author:Religion Factor
A soldier from the RAF Regiment on patrol near Basrah Air Base, Iraq. Photo: Harland Quarrington, MOD. Licensed under the Open Government Licence v1.0
A soldier from the RAF Regiment on patrol near Basrah Air Base, Iraq. Photo: Harland Quarrington, MOD. Licensed under the Open Government Licence v1.0

Western policymakers once understood the dynamics of secular politics in the Middle East, but this knowledge has been subsumed under a fixation on Islam’s supposed threat to western security interests, writes today´s guest contributor  Dr Stacey Gutkowski .

Much western, particularly French, media coverage of the January attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices and the kosher supermarket in Paris fell prey to an old orientalist trope of the ‘War on Terror’: that Western secular culture is innately peaceful, rational and tolerant, while Islam is distinctly ambiguous on these matters.

In some of this coverage, the incident was reduced to an attack on secular freedom. This not only failed to capture the complexity of the events. It also failed to reflect accurately the tangled histories of secular ideas, political settlements, and ways of living in the west and the Arab Middle East, shaped by centuries of interaction, including empire and migration.

The so-called ‘War on Terror’ was an important chapter in these tangled histories. War is always a social and cultural encounter between sides. One of the by-products of this terrible chapter was the re-assertion of orientalist binaries. Another, less appreciated by-product was increased western policy and media attention to the terms of western secularism.

This is not to say in any way that the US and Europe have a monopoly on all things secular. It is merely to point out that the salience of Islam to the ‘War on Terror’ had the knock-on effect of drawing western attention to its own secular political ‘truths’, and the Christian cultural provenance of these. This spawned in the west both reaffirmation of the terms of western secularism(s) and some self-critique.

This process of self-reflection did not quite translate into better understanding of the dynamics of secularism as a political project in the Middle East, and the complexities and contradictions of lived secularity there. Western policymakers have improved their understanding of political Islamism since 2001. But their understanding of other dynamics in the region—including secularisation and de-secularisation processes and their political impact—has not received much attention.

Instead, a rather uncritical presumption that seemingly ‘secular’, westernised actors are somehow more pragmatic and trustworthy partners for the west has prevailed. This is too simple. To ignore this complexity is to misread the idioms through which many aspects of Arab political and social life are animated and contested, as well as the ways in which political authority is organised.

More recently, with the rise of Islamic State, mainstream western media outlets have begun to report on Arab critics of religious authority over politics and social life. Most famously, the case of Raif Badawi—sentenced to ten years in prison, 600 lashes and a fine for his critique of the marriage of Wahhabism and Saudi authoritarianism—drew popular western condemnation.

Not all of these Arab critiques come in an overtly secular political idiom, but some do, calling for separation of religion and state, increased rights for women and LGBT individuals, and a ban on apostasy laws. Like many Islamist groups, these secular critics also frame their calls within the language of political reform and democratisation.

Still, where once western policymakers better understood the dynamics of secular politics in the Middle East, this knowledge has been lost, subsumed under a fixation on Islam’s supposed threat to western security interests. In what follows, I call for renewed attention to these dynamics.

Secular politics in the Arab Middle East: a historical snapshot

The label ‘secular’ is highly problematic, in theory and practice. Actors in the Arab Middle East are more inclined to use terms such as leftist, liberal, Ba’athist, communist, socialist and Marxist to describe their orientation, with a critique of Islam’s influence implied in the term.

In the west, the designation ‘agnostic’, ‘atheist’ or ‘indifferent’ tends to mean someone’s personal belief rather than their politics. In the Arab world there is a public, political and performative aspect to these labels. Also, a person may simultaneously declare a religious affiliation (Sunni, Christian, etc.) to mark out their political identity in a national context.

As in the west, religious practice and discourse run along a spectrum in the Arab world. Individuals situate themselves somewhere along the spectrum but engage in practices and language that are a mix of ‘religious’ and ‘secular’. There is no binary between the two. Western ways of living secularly and secular political settlements are heavily conditioned by their continuities with Christianity. The same is true of the Arab Muslim context.

In the second half of the 19th century, intellectuals in Lebanon and Egypt began to articulate secular political and social ideas. These were inspired by, but not reducible to, contemporary European currents of thought. Intellectuals came into contact with these ideas through imperial occupation but also through their own study and travels to the west. The growth of Arab secular outlooks received a boost after World War I, with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, abolition of the caliphate, and extension of the British and French mandates in the Levant.

The originators of both Arab nationalism and Ba’athism during this period saw important continuities between Islam as heritage and the new, modernising direction in which they hoped to move the region. They recognised that Islamic practice would likely continue to be important to Arab populations. To a certain extent, secular political and social ideas were, and continue to be, held by the elite and middle class that emerged later in the twentieth century.

The secular forces of Arab nationalism, communism and Ba’athism vied with more traditional, monarchical forces after the end of the Second World War. During this period of the Cold War, US policymakers saw secular political parties and regimes in Egypt, Iraq and Syria as well as Iran as reinforcing their susceptibility to Soviet influence. In short, secular actors were seen as a threat.

However, with the rise of political Islamism—in response to the failure of Arab nationalism, the Arab defeat in the 1967 war, the Iranian revolution, and the end of communist parties as a credible political force in the region—the content of secular political idioms no longer interested western policymakers. The PLO and Hafez al-Assad’s Syria continued to pose a threat to Israel, but the region was unlikely to fall under Soviet influence.

By the end of the Cold war, the two remaining Ba’athist regimes in Syria and Iraq were seen as dangerous solely because of threats they posed to Israel, Kuwait and regional stability. By 1993, secular Fatah (though not the PFLP) set aside violent resistance and began to engage with the Israeli government under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority and the Oslo Accords. Indeed, the ascendance of Bashar al-Assad in 2000 inspired some western optimism that he might steer that secular Ba’athist regime in a more reformist, less antagonistic direction, which would lead to further stability in the region.

The post-9/11 paradox

A new chapter in this tangled history began in 2001. As has been widely discussed, the salience of Islam within Al Qaeda’s political idiom prompted western policymakers to crudely associate the followers of a world religion with security threats. In the middle of the twentieth century, secular Arab actors were sometimes perceived as ideologically suspect and a threat to western and Israeli interests. Now, it was Arab Islamist actors who were viewed with a suspicion previously reserved for the post-revolutionary Iranian regime.

I argued in my 2013 book,  Secular War: Myths of Religion, Politics and Violence , that a secular security habitus   led the British—and potentially other western militaries and policy-makers—to misread Islamic idioms, symbols and social structures as both more and less dangerous than they actually were. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu defines habitus as ‘a set of dispositions which incline agents to act and react in certain ways’, not all of which are fully conscious.

The contemporary British secular habitus is a mixture of liberal democratic political tradition, Christian heritage, post-imperial multiculturalism, and casual indifference towards religion. This social and political context shaped British policy, which then had a knock-on effect on the populations of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Muslims in the UK.

Secular habits of understanding the world made it difficult for western security services to come to grips with nuances within Muslim populations, to understand what was truly threatening and what was just unfamiliar. Despite ruling Muslim majority areas during centuries of empire, European governments had limited recent, in-depth experience. The US government was even more in the dark.

As Islamist groups turned their attention towards the Middle East during the 1990s, their salience to western security priorities trailed behind the so-called ‘new wars’ in the Balkans and Africa and containing Saddam Hussein. Despite Al Qaeda attacks during the 1990s, western security experts were caught off guard in 2001. Bourdieu has suggested that hysteresis—or lag in the habitus—occurs when “the environment [it] actually encounter[s] is too different from the one to which [it is] objectively adjusted”. It took western policymakers the better part of the decade to catch up.

While by no means the main driver, these habits helped to facilitate the imposition of security services into the lives of Muslims around the world, including during the devastating occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, global politics is full of contradictions, and the picture is not entirely negative. Western habits of secular state neutrality made possible political support for the participation of Islamists in Afghan- and Iraqi-led democratisation processes. They also made possible financial support for further development of Muslim civil society in Europe.

The secular security habitus produced paradoxical effects. For example, while on the one hand secular hysteresis contributed to British misreading of the threat posed by Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jaish al-Mehdi militia in 2003-4 (key instigators of the 2006-7 civil war), British habits of political liberalism also led them to work with Islamist politicians to facilitate representative democracy in Iraq. While the intention may have been to secure western interests, actors were able to capitalise on these opportunities and achieve some autonomy. Still, this somewhat ambiguous openness to Islamism should not be over-interpreted. Hamas and Hezbollah remained proscribed terrorist organisations in western eyes.

The myth of ‘Islamic moderation’

This brings us back to the point about tangled histories. One of the many ironies of the post-9/11 decade is that the western secular security habitus led policymakers to focus on Islam. Paradoxically, western policymakers did not pay very much attention to Arab secular critiques of Islamist politics or ways of living with less Islamic influence during the decade after 9/11. And with the occupation of Iraq, Arab secular critics saw Western governments as the enemy, not an ally.

In the middle of the post-9/11 decade, western policymakers focused on the potential of Arab politics articulated in a western-friendly Islamic idiom to bring the containment of security threats against the West. Western policymakers, influenced by a secular security habitus, created a range of policies, programmes and campaigns which have depend on the notion that ‘moderate’ religion can be harnessed to promote alignment with western policy objectives and contain threats against western targets. This is the logic that has influenced western aid democratisation programmes and counter-terrorism policies, among others. While it figures more prominently in US foreign policy, the EU has started to follow suit.

In reality, moderation is always a social construct, contextually dependent, with no real content. There are no inherent features—even non-violence—to which one can look and say ‘this is moderate’. But western policymakers and security experts continue to be wedded to the myth that there are features of moderation in the Middle East that are consistent, identifiable, uncontested, and that this will help them identify allies. One need only look to attempts to arm Syrian ‘moderates’.

At the same time, Arab actors also seek to capitalise on the political and economic opportunities that have opened up by portraying themselves as ‘moderate’. Certainly the picture is far from straightforward. Civil society actors in the west and the Middle East capitalised on opportunities to manoeuvre themselves into positions of international and domestic influence  vis-á-vis  other groups, or to genuinely develop their community’s political and social capacity, often from a position of structural disadvantage.

This has allowed smaller, quieter voices in civil society to exercise normative persuasion over more powerful states. However, regimes in Muslim-majority states in the Gulf and the Levant have also portrayed themselves as ‘moderate’ to successfully deflect western pressure to institute political reform or recognise human rights.

The rise of the Islamic State and the re-emergence of jihadism at the top of western security agendas have provided, and will likely only continue to provide, more structural opportunities for self-styled Arab and ‘Muslim moderates’.

It is unclear that western states can avoid relying on these alliances when Arab states hold the key to containing what the west sees as multiple overlapping security threats: state breakdown in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, the return of Islamic State fighters to the west, and the maintenance of a potential nuclear deal with Iran. The ability of the Islamic State to seduce supporters suggests that western and Arab efforts to counter its narratives with ‘moderate Islam’ will likely only receive a boost from these regional developments.

Post-Arab Spring: secular security habitus 2.0?

By contrast, the Arab Spring forced western policymakers to pay more attention to Arab secular politics when secular political parties began to assert themselves. A less appreciated and understood knock-on effect of the western secular security habitus was the impulse among western policymakers to trust revolutionary actors they saw as ‘secular’.

Some of these actors, such as Nidaa Tounes in Tunisia and SCAF in Egypt, articulate their politics in a secular idiom, pitting their social and legal agendas directly against the Islamist positions of their competitors. Others, such as Stronger Jordan which calls for equality between men and women, do not frame their calls for less conservative religious influence on the state so explicitly.

But it has become accepted wisdom among western governments and security think tanks that actors that look ‘secular’ are likely to be trustworthy western allies, that a certain rationality, pragmatism and consistency guides their actions and that they are immune to ideology. They can be trusted to curb jihadist threats against the west. The March museum attack in Tunis under the eyes of the ruling secular party suggests that these two things are not related.

These two western security myths—of ‘religious moderation’ and ‘secular moderation’—have inhibited the west from condemning authoritarian brutality. The US and Europe tentatively supported the Muslim Brotherhood government which ruled in Egypt between 2012 and 2013. However, their condemnation of the coup that brought General Sisi to power, and of subsequent violence against the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition forces, was muted.

While western states were loathe to repeat the occupation of Iraq on Syrian soil, in 2011-2013 they also feared that unseating Bashar al-Assad would bring Islamist forces to power—either the Muslim Brotherhood or more radical groups—which would threaten regional stability. While recognising Assad as an egregious violator of human rights, western states figured a (more) secular regime was the lesser of two evils.

This preference extends beyond the Arab states. Erdogan has escaped too much western condemnation for his increasing authoritarianism, and not only because Turkey is a key NATO ally on the Syrian and Iraqi borders. Lingering western enthusiasm for Turkish  laiklik  (secularism) as an antidote to Islamist extremism, so heavily touted by Erdogan in 2011-12, also plays a role.

Western states have long upheld anti-democratic regimes in the region because it suits their interests. This is nothing new. However the secular security habitus, which emerged in western security policymaking after 9/11 and continues to animate it, has provided an additional, underpinning logic to these alliances.

These alliances may be pragmatic, but that is not their only feature. In some ways, they are a continuation of past trends. Since the emergence of political Islamism as a credible force in the 1970s, western policymakers have trusted some (not all) secular dictators to stem threats to western interests—Sadat, Mubarak, Bourguiba, Ben Ali, Bouteflika, and in the 1980s Saddam Hussein—even while they cooperated with traditional monarchs. Obviously alliances with authoritarian regimes are built on more than a loose sense of secular affinity, but global politics is irrational and ‘seeming like me’ makes political trust that little bit easier.

With the emergence in some states of secular, pro-democratic political actors on the left, the west has had a variety of potential allies to choose since 2011. However, particularly in North Africa, it has chosen to support regimes it knows rather than destabilise them through support for the opposition.

The one notable exception is in Syria, where the training of so-called ‘moderates’, secular and Islamist, has come too little too late. Hope for these leftist forces looks likely to come from the Tunisian model of self-assertion, rather than through direct western sponsorship. While real political power for these groups is seemingly still far off, a lack of western interference in their political development is to be warmly welcomed.

Islamic State and the western secular security habitus

For nearly three and a half years, from late 2010, to mid-2014, jihadism was temporarily eclipsed as the primary western security animus. With the exception of the Amenas gas plant attack in Algeria in January 2013—in which western hostages were taken and killed—jihadist militancy, spearheaded by Al Qaeda, Boko Haram and Al Shabab, has been confined predominantly to non-western targets.

Even the 2012 emergence of Al Nusra front as a key player in the Syrian civil war was overshadowed in western security thinking by a reluctance to take on the Syrian air force and get involved in yet another regional civil war. Western governments resisted military action against Islamic State for nearly a year, finally compelled not by the horrors suffered by people in the region but by the spectacle of the beheading of western hostages, the flow of young western Muslims to Syria, and plots against European targets.

Western policy and media discourse on Islamic State echoes many of the tropes levelled at Al Qaeda after 9/11. Some echoes can also be seen among western analysts who over-interpret the role of sectarianism in Iranian-GCC regional proxy conflicts in Syria and Yemen. However, whether a Western secular security habitus will have any appreciable impact on a response to Islamic State remains to be seen.

Policy recommendations

In light of ongoing security instability in the Middle East posed by both Islamic State and authoritarian regimes, I have three policy recommendations for the governments of NATO states:

1. Develop new analytical tools to better understand the evolution of secular politics in the Middle East, beyond the old categories of leftist politics, liberalism or nationalism.

2. Approach the performance of moderation, Islamic and otherwise, with a critical eye, interrogating how Middle Eastern states’ and non-state actors’ use labels to forge alliances, undermine competitors, and engage in power politics as usual. Do not presume that actors who articulate their politics in a more secular or western-friendly idiom are inherently progressive or democratically inclined.

3. Mainstream a check for distortive secular assumptions within the policy process.

Dr Stacey Gutkowski is a Lecturer in Conflict Studies at the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, King’s College London.

This paper follows on from a November 2014 workshop at Chatham House on Islam, Secularism and Security. It was originally published by OpenDemocracy on 25 April 2015 And is republished here under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence.


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