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On the road to Damascus

There is no escaping the reality that the road to a genuinely inclusive civic politics after the Arab Spring runs through the gates of a religiously-validated pluralism.

Amyn Sajoo
13 August 2012

Even after Islamist electoral successes in Tunisia and Egypt, a Gallup poll on the shari’a and gender after the Arab Spring will puzzle many observers. Strong majorities of both women and men in those countries as well as in Libya, Syria, and Yemen want the shari’a as a constitutional source of law; many favour it as the only source. But here is the stinger: men who regard themselves as “religious” are more willing to recognize women’s right to divorce than those who aren’t. Robust majorities in all the countries support equal rights for women. Bahrain with its Shi’a majority leads the pack, with 94% of women and 87% of men endorsing gender equality.  

The lesson is hard to digest for those who cling to stereotypes. Surely, they will insist, the road to equal citizenship — for women and ethno-religious minorities — must rest on a firmly secular constitutionalism. After all, wasn’t that the global map of political modernity? Isn’t liberalism and human rights about putting religion in a private zone?  

Indeed, virtually all of the Middle East became officially secular after European colonial rule. True, the Egyptian constitution was amended in 1980 to make reference to the shari’a as the principal source of law; in practice, the primacy of civil law in public life was not at issue. Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen had socialist governments much like Nasser’s Egypt, with little time for Islam. Tunisia — where the Islamists enjoyed their first electoral triumph of the Arab Spring— had the most secular political history in the region.

Women enjoyed explicit guarantees of equal status under those constitutions. So in many cases did minorities such as Coptic Christians and Jews. Women and minorities became part of the ideological profile of autocratic states that were otherwise clearly illiberal. The basis for rights these groups enjoyed had everything to do with political expediency and little to do with pluralist citizenship.

How easily we forget that in the west, civic liberalism was preceded by the Protestant Reformation. The liberalization of Christian theology and its daily interface with ordinary folk ushered in secular politics, not the other way round. Even in the late-20th century, crucial breakthroughs on civil rights came through Rev. Martin Luther King’s biblically-inspired ethos that reshaped secular politics. Today, shifts in church doctrine on gender, homosexuality and abortion still shape civic space.  

Conversely, the failure to liberalize religious traditions has put the brakes on civic culture in diverse societies. South Africa’s Dutch Reformed (Calvinist) Church played a key role in supplying the political theology of apartheid. Postcolonial India’s official liberalism collided with the hegemony of a cast system which claimed a Hindu theological basis; that is why Gandhi strove so hard to “recast” that theology. Secular liberal elites in Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and Indonesia clashed with the conservatism of Muslim groups that turned nationalism into a different sort of identity politics.

Not surprisingly, Libya’s newly-elected National Forces Alliance has explicitly disavowed the “secular” label, despite its liberal credentials. 

There is no escaping the reality that the road to a genuinely inclusive civic politics after the Arab Spring runs through the gates of a religiously-validated pluralism. The antidote to al-Qaeda and extreme Salafi political groups isn’t an escape from religion, which is hardly feasible or democratic. It’s a deeper appreciation of a Muslim heritage that belies the bigoted readings of the shari’a on which those groups base their tribal “honor codes.” That heritage is one where the arts, sciences, philosophy, and politics flourished when hard orthodoxy did not. Cairo was born in the 10th century synthesis of a Shi’a minority dynasty, the Fatimids, and a Sunni-Jewish-Christian populace; it fostered a world-class cosmopolitan empire that was a match for the Mughals in India and the Ottomans in Turkey.

Civil society groups as well as state institutions in the Middle East, and their friends in the West, will have to overcome the lazy assumption that tolerance and pluralism are strictly secular virtues. The civil war in Syria has much to do with folly of such thinking, which fails to explain why after half a century of official secularism, the minority Alawites (who are Shi’a) still dread their fate under a Sunni majority. Or why in Bahrain, where the Shi’a majority chafes under a Sunni monarchy, the sectarian narrative trumps that of common republican citizenship.

This desecularization isn’t just political. Globalization is for many a threat to traditional cultural identities and livelihoods. The Economist finds an exponential growth in “shari’a-compliant” goods —from halal foods to financial products like mortgages and company shares — both in the Middle East and among Muslims in Europe and North America. Headscarves are back on university campuses across the world, after fading into oblivion under waves of “modernization.”

A liberal Islam is not about a mirror image of the western map of modernity —or about the “moderation” of Islamist parties to fit that image. It will take more than gamesmanship or public relations for the uprisings to become revolutions. The prize here is nothing short of the retrieval of pluralist values that are foundational and were nurtured in often deeply convivial Muslim relations with the world’s other great traditions — a quest in which we all have a stake.

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