While much of the blame for the waning of Arab secularism is due to Arab secular forces, opportunities are emerging for a secular renaissance, writes Amr Hamzawy*
We continue to persist in interpreting the failure of liberal and leftist parties in recent Arab elections as due to either the process of Islamicisation that most of our societies have undergone since the 1970s, and which has established wide popular bases for religious currents while marginalising secular forces, or to the weakness of the political message put forth by secularists and the frailty of their partisan organisations in light of oppressive measures taken by ruling regimes amid a general lack of pluralism. Yet the fact is that such interpretations, no matter how sound, mistakenly reduce a complex social reality that must be explained in detail in order to determine the parameters of a possible future role for secularists in the development of Arab politics.
To start with, and acknowledging the universalism of the religious inclinations in our world, the term "Islamicisation" does not describe more than one aspect of the transformation taking place in Arab societies at the current time. Other aspects are related to phenomena such as the domination of Western lifestyles in urban areas, the spread of consumerism and epidemic poverty, corruption, and social marginalisation on an unprecedented scale. In theory, these phenomena carry with them advantages: the issues they raise provide opportunity for liberal and leftist political movements to develop popular support based either on liberal defence of personal and civil freedoms in opposition to the logic of religious denial, or through strengthening the left on the basis of social justice and protection of the marginalised.
It is strange that nothing of the sort has taken place in Arab societies, and, on the contrary, Islamist trends have reformulated the issue of justice to become foremost a religious concern. They have gradually developed their discourse to embrace issues of freedom, thus pulling the carpet out from under the feet of secularists. The issue, then, is related not to a total lack of consent within the social order for the establishment of effective secular forces, but rather the inability of those forces to exploit the strategic opportunities available and their failure to formulate a political discourse that draws in wide sectors of the populace.
Placing full responsibility for this shortcoming on government oppression misses the mark, however. There is no debating that oppressive measures employed by authoritarian regimes that at times have ruled in the name of secular ideologies have made liberal and leftist parties lose their balance and greatly diminished the sheen of secular thought. There is also no doubt that the collapse of Arab societies' middle classes have deprived liberals from fully entrenching themselves on the social map, just as the ruling regime's control of workers' and professional syndicates has prevented the left from deepening its presence. Yet it is also true that Islamist currents, contrary to many Arab secularists who have been driven to embrace prevailing regimes, have outsmarted harsh government oppression by resorting to society and exploiting the room available for independent activity, whether in preaching or charity work, to mobilise social bases in their support. These bases have carried their political message to both countryside and cities, as shown by recent experiences in legislative and municipal elections in a number of Arab societies.
As for the secularists, they tucked into their shells and chose either minimal alliances with authoritarian regimes, in order to preserve their presence in political life, or retreat to a civil arena -- particularly among the new generations of Arab liberals and leftists from the 1980s -- separating the state and its institutions from citizens. They formed human rights organisations and thought forums that were, despite adopting a cross-section of highly important issues, such as human rights, gender equality, and spreading cultures of democracy and participation, characterised by elitism that prevented them from gaining popular support. This forced upon them the identity of closed groups with specialised discourses, incomprehensible beyond their bounds. The matter, then, is one of rushing to please ruling regimes and fearing opposing them on the one hand, and forsaking politics and focusing on civil society on the other, constituting the two strategic choices Arab secular powers chose over recent decades, together causing the effective exit of these powers from a political game that has come to be monopolised by ruling regimes and Islamist currents.
On this basis, the bulk of responsibility for the failure of liberal and leftist parties falls on themselves. Opportunities for changing their current weak status are found in critically reviewing the choices offered to them by the Arab political scene. I believe that there are three primary entry points that, when dealt with seriously and with the assumption that no radical changes will take place in authoritarian ruling regimes, would allow secularists to regain their vitality within coming years.
The first entry point is to break out of the cocoon of civil society to form new political parties and movements that adopt issues of freedom (liberals) and justice (the left) and to frame them in the context of openly reformist discourse that focuses on the values of citizenship and human rights. The struggle of Arab secularism here is with ruling regimes that refuse to concede their authoritarian dominance over their societies' capacities and resources. It is also with Islamist currents that, despite some of them truly opening up to the notion of democracy, continue to place restrictions on personal and civil freedoms and whose programs incite legitimate doubt concerning their positions on non-Muslim minorities and women's rights.
Yet the symbolism of this struggle does not mean in this context rejection of the governmental or Islamic "Other". Rather, it implies contesting and pressuring them with the goal of guiding their orientations and prodding them towards policies that are more open to guarantees of freedom and justice. The actual power of liberals and leftists will not be able, in coming years, to compete with these two Arab political forces. Their obvious weakness makes them subject to the oppression of regimes and the mockery of Islamists. All that is desired is to increase variety and vitality on the political map and for secularists to begin addressing popular bases with the goal of gradually drawing them in. The experience of the Egyptian movement Kifaya and other new protest movements in Arab societies present a guiding model that, despite all the difficulties of working in an authoritarian political environment and a societal framework of generally religious tendencies, predicts a relative increase in the ability of secularists to mobilise a certain degree of popular support by going out into the streets and reviving memories of engaged political activity.
The second entry point is related to the positive outcomes of participating in legislative and municipal elections, even in cases where competitiveness and transparency are lacking. Elections under authoritarian regimes grant opposition parties and movements that enter into them a dynamic that enlivens their presence and role among citizens and prods them to reconsider their political message, programs and character in light of their public acceptance. Arab secularist powers are in great need of that.
Finally, current political dynamics in a number of Arab societies, such as Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Kuwait and Bahrain, grant a golden opportunity to secularists to form new types of alliances with reformists in ruling regimes and moderate Islamist currents in the hope of developing a national consensus on the notion of democracy. And although the provisions of Arab secularism are scarce when compared to the dominance of ruling regimes and the popularity of Islamists, if talk of freedom and justice is fully adhered to, secularists will gain a high degree of moral credibility that the other parties lack due to the regimes' authoritarian practices and legacy of popular suspicion of the rulers' intention, as well as the Islamists' history of violence and a contemporary discourse still full of vagueness and restrictions.
* The writer is an Egyptian researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, DC.