Secularists & Islamists – The Promise & the Dread

This is the paper that I have prepared during my second stint as a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution (October 2005-March 2006). It, too, was too whimsical for publication as a Brookings policy paper. So, here it is. 

Secularists & Islamists – The Promise & the Dread


Is dialogue between secular and Islamist groups possible? Can a modus vivendi truly be reached between Islamist and secularist forces in the Arab World? Can Islamist politics take on a “moderate” cast that is truly compatible with democratic politics and liberal values such as pluralism and toleration? Are Moderate Islamists leading the way for Arab reform, as some are arguing? And should, therefore, US and European policymakers shift their support from liberal voices in the Arab World to encouraging the rise of moderate Islamism, however one defines it at this stage?

The emergence of alliances of sorts between Islamist and secular groups in countries such as Egypt and Syria, coupled with the recent shift in emphasis in the ongoing discourse over the future of the Arab World in certain circles in the United States and Europe seem to suggest that such a seemingly unlikely dialogue is indeed quite possible and that working arrangements between Islamists and secularists, at least at this early phase of the transitional processes in the Arab World, can indeed be established, perhaps, paving the way for a more direct dialogue between the US and other western policymakers and representatives of Islamist currents and groups.

Moreover, the American experiences in Iraq, which necessitated constant involvement with Islamist forces and leaders, both Sunni and Shia, seem to have eased the fears of some American analysts, observers and policymakers over the possibility of establishing a “successful” working relationship with Islamists. The very rhetoric of democratization in increasingly conservative and heavily Islamized societies, and the very necessity of attempting to shake-off the current state of stalemate plaguing most Arab countries, seem bound to emphasize the dominance of Islamist forces in the current political ferment in the Arab world,. This, in turn, seems to strengthen the arguments of those Western analysts arguing for engagement with Islamists.  The electoral victories that Islamists groups have achieved in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and the PalestinianTerritories come as a fair testament in this regard.

So it seems that a trend of sorts is emerging on the scene.

But, and while this trend, that is the rise of the Islamist forces and the ensuing dialogue, no matter how tentative at this early stage, between Islamists and secularists, was to be expected considering the current push for reform and democratization in the region, one should not read too much into really. For most of the alliances and arrangements that have been worked out so far (e.g. the informal cooperation between the Muslims Brotherhood and the Kefaya Movement in Egypt, and the public endorsement by the Syrian Branch of the Muslim Brotherhood of the Damascus Declaration in Syria) seem to be more tactical than strategic in nature, and could, as such, prove to be quite ephemeral. Indeed, they could easily dissolve long before they bear any of the desired fruits.

In other words, there is no proof of a real ideological, if not, in fact, theological, shift in the thinking of any of the Islamist parties involved, a fact that should give pause to those liberal and secular activists currently working to forge alliances with them. All declarations and initiatives launched by Islamist movements have consistently been self-contradictory on many key points of concern to democratic activists and secular thinkers. Most troubling, perhaps, is the persistent contradiction evident between the Islamists’ affirmation of a continued commitment to Sharia law, on the one hand, and their insistence, on the other hand, that the basic human rights of all citizens will be respected.

Indeed, no serious attempt has so far been made to explain how certain rules of the Sharia can be harmonized with certain basic human rights, including such concepts as minority rights, gender equality and, more importantly perhaps, freedom of conscience – a notion that leaves the doors wide open for what Islamists would consider as apostasy and for expressing certain views that Islamists would consider blasphemous. Those Islamists who now wish to play the electoral game or who are indeed already playing it do not seem ready for accepting such a state of affairs, hence the continued denunciation by the religious establishment in most Arab countries of liberal and secular authors, artists and intellectuals, a development that, at best, meets with silence on part of most Islamist groups representing themselves as moderates. More often though, these “moderates” tend to condone and even participate in such attacks.

This throws much doubt on the real intentions and predispositions of these groups. Dialogue with them might indeed be a necessity now, due to certain political and demographic realities, but unless certain key issues are addressed and resolved, that is, before these groups reach power, or before they establish themselves firmly in power, no existing arrangement is likely to prove enduring on the longer run, regardless of the rhetoric of democratic pluralism that might be involved at this time.

The continuing erosion of the popular support and sympathy for the traditional secular ideologies in the various societies involved – ideologies represented mostly by the nationalist and leftist forces rather than liberal figures per se – is another indication as to why this dialogue needs to take place now, and while secular forces seem to still have some cards left in their hands, including: a) appeasing the fears of certain segments in the society vis-à-vis the rising power of the Islamists, most notably members of religious and ethnic minorities and b) playing an intermediary role with “reform-minded” elements in the ruling regimes on the one hand, and representatives of the international community, mostly notably the Unites States and the European Union, on the other.

Therefore, and no matter how necessary it is to isolate the tyrannical ruling regimes in the Arab World and build broad-based coalition movements in opposition to their corrupt practices, the issue of reaching clear and comprehensive agreements between Islamists and secularists is clearly a must at this stage.

If there is a sincere desire on both sides to reach lasting arrangements and if there is a sincere conviction in the democratic process and norms themselves as the final arbiter of differences as well as a clear understanding that respect for basic human rights means that one needs to find ways to accommodate those who have quite a different outlook on life than those in power, or those representing the majority, however it is defined (and these are big assumptions indeed), then there is nothing to justify postponing discussions over detailed arrangements between Islamists and secularists.

Also, and since the role of external powers in the region cannot be ignored, these powers have to decide, for their part, not only whether working with Islamists is indeed possible or desirable, but also whether such dialogue is necessarily conducive to a shift in their moral and material support from liberal and secular actors to Islamist ones.[1]

Is dialogue really necessary? 

Yet, and before we turn our attention to the things that Islamists and Secularists need to talk about, it might be helpful to elaborate first on whether such a dialogue is indeed necessary, not to mention possible. Indeed, why should Islamists and Secularists talk to each other? What does each side stand to benefit from the other?

The answer is simple. Both sides are being hurt by the current political stasis in their countries. Both are being sidelined and have little or no chance of influencing the political decision-making process. Both have been and continue to be the victims of serious crackdowns by the authorities. Both are quickly losing grounds to extremist forces which, albeit Islamist in nature, tend to be quite dismissive of the more moderate groups and their moderate ideologies. And both have protested their maltreatment on the basis of repeated appeals to internationally-recognized human rights standards and norms. This, in principle at least, seems to imply an actual acceptance of these ideals, which represents a major step for both sides.

Moreover, working independently from each other, both sides have limited and insufficient grassroots appeal. Yes, even the Islamists.

For, the rise of extremist forces notwithstanding, and regardless of the fact that organized Islamic movements can indeed claim more followers than most organized secular movements or parties, and of the fact the outward signs of piety, such the headscarf for women and the long white robe for men, are becoming increasingly more visible in Muslim societies, secularist currents continue, nonetheless, to exert the greater influence on the social, cultural and intellectual life in the their countries (as evidenced by the rise of pop culture, and, more importantly, the enduring reverence which certain secular intellectual figures and works continue to receive from younger audiences, such Adonis, Mahmoud Darweesh and Naguib Mahfouz and the intellectual output stemming from their generation), while their role in the economic life of their countries continues to be the dominant one. Numbers and general impressions, therefore, do not tell the entire story here, at least when they are only partially analyzed.

Moreover, the desires and tastes of the average citizen in the region, however we choose to define him/her, seem much more complicated than to give a clear victory for one side over the other. A careful study of the actual lifestyles of Muslim peoples in even the most conservative countries in the region, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Sudan clearly denotes that, despite all the official rhetoric and the usual parroting thereof on the more popular level, the peoples of the region are not really as anti-Western, anti-secular and, hence, anti-Modern as outside observers are often tempted to believe.

For, in the final analysis, we really have to differentiate between the specific phenomenon of anti-Americanism and the more general anti-western trend. After all, leftist and nationalist intellectuals, activists and politicians are a pretty secular and westernized bunch (albeit to varying degrees), who often claim that they have no problem dealing with Europe, but they are quite anti-American, and damn proud of it too.  

In truth then, the peoples of the region crave modernity and its material and cultural benefits, no less forcefully than their counterparts in western states and societies. Indeed, modernity has already irrevocable changed their lives, and they know it.

As such, the notable rise of extremist forces and traditional modes of piety in the region comes more as a reflection of certain political and socioeconomic realities stemming, in large part, from the forced and continuously mismanaged – due to the corruption, incompetence and the authoritarian tendencies of the regimes involved and their cliquish nature – transition from closed and protected economies to market economies. Thus and so, the rise of popular piety should not be taken as some sort of a referendum on the readiness and the willingness of local societies to assimilate secular western values, or to vote for secular politicians and parties.

Even in states where the official ruling ideology is Islam, the continuing, growing or returning (as in the case of Iran) extremist influences on the political and social scene seem to reflect ongoing turf-wars and continuing rearrangements of parochial interests within the middle and upper ranks of the ruling regime, rather than continued commitment to the official ideology. True believers exist, of course, but so do material interests, and their real influence can be much larger in most circles than any ideology. It has long become clear, for instance, that the ongoing power struggle in the Sudan, currently being played in Darfur more so in South Sudan, between the various parties and groups, has always been a conflict over control of resources rather than any form of true ideological belonging.

The same kind of dynamism exists on the street-level as well, but over there hopes and expectations for a share in the material wealth tend to replace the real thing. That is, people tend to form their alliances and turfs and engage in turf-wars, but they do so in expectation of obtaining some material benefit, rather than as an actual attempt at preserving or enlarging the actual benefits that they actually have. For, in most cases, they have none. The ability of the ruling regimes to manipulate these expectations is often the source of their staying power. Actual popular approval of the official ideology or of the practices of the ruling cliques is not what is involved here.

In Syria, the rise of Bashar al-Assad was accepted popularly in the hope that this would translate into serious economic reforms that would lead to improving the living conditions of the citizenry. Indeed, and despite the inability of Mr. Assad to deliver on these expectations, his rhetoric has always tended to play on just such expectations to shore up his regime and dismiss popular attention from his incompetence. Even now, and as his regime is coming under much international pressures, and internal strains, Mr. Assad’s main strategy for dealing with this, that is, in addition to falling back on the usual battle-tested anti-Zionist and anti-American rhetoric, includes a desperate attempt at catering to the popular expectations of economic reforms, even at a time when prices of basic commodities are being steadily increased as part of the forced liberalization policy prescribed but his economic advisors. Living conditions rather than ideology are quickly emerging as the main instrument for garnering support or voicing disaffection, a fact recently highlighted as well by the electoral victory that Hamas has achieved in the PalestinianTerritories.

On the other hand, the prevalence of certain lingering social prejudices in most parts of the region, such as male-chauvinism and homophobia, is not in itself as a sign of rejection of modernity per se or of a growing Islamist tendency, but come more as an indication of how difficult it is for people to change their basic attitudes vis-à-vis these issues since they tend to have a certain historical and psychological depth. It is for this reason that secularists have often betrayed the same tendencies, their rhetoric notwithstanding. When it comes to many social issues, in practice, most secularists’ secularism has traditionally tended to be skin-deep.

Even in the West these attitudes took centuries before they began to be seriously challenged on the popular and legal levels. As such, it is not the persistence of these “pre-modern” prejudices and streaks that is remarkable these days, on the contrary, what is remarkable here is the presence of strong indigenous currents that overtly disdain and seek to change these attitudes.

Indeed, the hearts of most peoples in the region might belong to some atavistic Islam-based vision, simply because it has an aura of authenticity to it, but their minds as well as their basic needs, appetites and desires are clearly on the side of modernity, for all its problems and challenges. People yearn for both, not necessarily some kind of combination of both, but some way, some mental device that will allow them to accept both, without feeling so much guilt.

But, and except for Turkey, no regional power has been able to effectively combine the appeal of both tradition and authenticity, on the one hand, and novelty and viability, if not virility, on the other. Of course, even the Turkish model suffers some serious defects, as much of its secularism tends to be state-imposed rather than popularly embraced. Moreover, the Turkish system represents a unique case, born out of a unique set of historical circumstances that cannot be imitated or imported elsewhere in the region.

For their part, and in popular imagination, the secularists and their various ideologies seem to be held mainly responsible for the failure of existing regimes to deliver on certain popular expectations with regard to providing for a dignified and secure subsistence in this world. Thus, the promise of progress and development, not to mention victory (especially with regard to the Arab-Israeli Conflict), for long championed by the secularists, especially the secular nationalists, seems to have been betrayed somehow. Still, and if can consider unveiled women as some kind of an indicator to a certain secular tendency, then, it should be obvious that the society has not yet made up its mind to reject all secular interpretations. The demographic explosion in the region seems to provide fodder for both currents.

For all these reasons, neither the Islamists nor the secularists seem to have what it takes to posit an effective alternative to the current ruling regimes in popular imagination, since each one of them, at this stage, seems to have access, or to have reconciled itself, to only one part of the puzzle. Meanwhile, the ruling regimes themselves seem to be faltering in part due to their inability to provide the above elixir that combines both the appeal of tradition and authenticity and that of novelty and modernity.

Both the more nationalist regimes, such as the Egyptian, the Syrian and the Algerian, and the more Islamist models such as the Saudi, the Sudanese and the Iranian regimes have proven incapable of producing the kind of achievement that can help appease popular consciousness in this regard and provide some form of remedy to this ongoing identity crisis.

The failure of the Saudi model in particular, with its emphasis on material wellbeing, comes as a clear testament to the existential and psychological aspect of this, revealing that it is not a purely socioeconomic issue.

So, since the current regimes have clearly failed to deliver the needed elixir, and since they seem to be increasingly incapable of that on account of their transformation, if not even transmogrification into vampire regimes that can only feed off the resources of existing states and the labor of their peoples rather than provide actual viable models for governance, the solution to the crisis seems to lie in the ability of existing opposition currents, Islamist and secularist alike, with their contacts and links to the larger civil society out there and the international community, to provide the missing and much-needed vision – a vision that allows for some harmonization to take place between the desire for continuity and authenticity, on the one hand, and the thirst for novelty and modernity, and hence for viability and virility, on the other hand.

This is indeed why the dialogue between secularists and Islamists is necessary. But does that mean that it is possible?

Is dialogue really possible? 

Seeing what the two sides have had to say about each other throughout the preceding decades and what they, in effect, continue to say about each other to this day, and considering the dismissive attitude of most Islamists vis-à-vis the benefits of westernization and modernity and the equally dismissive attitude of most secularists of any potential benefits of tradition and traditional piety, the answer must be no, a resounding no.

But then, what do we make of all these meetings currently taking place across the region between Islamist and secularist figures? And how do we assess the importance of such declarations as the recent Damascus Declaration[2], for instance, which, though authored by the secular opposition went on to immediately win an endorsement from the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, as it intentionally included clauses designed to appeal to the country’s Islamist currents?

Yet, there is a need here to differentiate between developments that seem to be purely tactical in nature, and those that clearly reflect a strategic choice coupled with an ideological shift or an evolution in an erstwhile position adopted by a certain group vis-à-vis certain key issues.

Indeed, we can fairly assert that most arrangements seem so far to be more tactical than strategic in nature. For let’s bear in mind here that this entire trend is actually unfolding within the context of growing US pressures and interventionism in the region following the September 11 terrorist attacks. Indeed, the new charters of both the Egyptian and the Syrian Brotherhoods were adopted in 2002, at least one year after the attacks. Sensing that the attacks and the ensuing drive for democratization in the region have, in a sense, shifted the momentum in their favor, it became more necessary than ever before for these groups to work hard to improve their image both for internal and external consumption, in the hope of facilitating their acceptance into the political process, one which they know they can eventually dominate, considering their strong popular support (if not for the specific group involved, then at least for the Islamist current in all its varieties).

For their part, the secularists, who too began to agitate more forcefully against their ruling regimes within the context of growing US interventionism in the region, seem to have realized that talking to moderate Islamists is perhaps their only way to make sure that the Islamist domination of the political process is not absolute and that the region will witness some mini reenactments of the Iranian revolution, regardless of the potential variations involved.

As such, for both sides the decision to engage in some form of a dialogue or cooperation seems to reflect a necessary tactic, rather than an actual strategic shift in their particular position vis-à-vis the other.

A closer look at the recent evolution in the thinking of the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood could serve to illustrate this point. Indeed, and as can be clearly inferred from their National Charter issued in 2002[3] and their Political Vision for Syria issued in 2004,[4] the Syrian Brotherhood seems to have relinquished its quest to establish an Islamic State in Syria. But as major as this development might seem at first, in truth, the Charter and the Vision, not to mention the statements made by current leader of the Muslims Brotherhood, Sadreddin Bayanouni,[5] are full of enough contradictions to easily nullify the effect of the above stands. The stress on Arab and Islamic identity throughout the two documents clearly contradicts declared commitment to the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, this despite the fact that the Brotherhood did later issue a statement that addressed the Kurdish Question more specifically and generously, and that there were clauses in the two documents pledging respect for the basic rights of religious and confessional minorities, especially the Christians and the Alawites. But then, the clause on education comes to promise a further stress on the Arab and Islamic identity of the state. This is not a trivial matter in any way.

Moreover, considering the consumption of alcohol as a criminal activity is problematic as well for both the secularists and members of the religious minorities, even if the consumption of alcohol was allowed for religious purposes. For such a stand clearly impinges on individual privacy issues. Indeed, concern for privacy rights does not seem to constitute a major concern for Islamists, who, like many other missionaries (including secular extremists), still have major problems creating clear delineations in their philosophy between public and private spheres.

Focus on such practical details and arrangements, then, serves to undermine the sweeping generalities in the various statements issued by Islamist groups and ends up telling a whole different story about their intentions, leaving much room for continued suspicion between the two sides. Indeed, many secular movements in Syria refused to subscribe to the Damascus Declaration on account of their continued suspicion vis-à-vis Islamic currents.

Recent statements by Mr. Bayanouni did not help matters, as he tended to be as self-contradictory as his organization’s documents were. Mr. Bayanouni appears as quite the enlightened individual when he says that his “organization is not going to be an alternative to this regime,” and that the “alternative will be a broad-based national government to which the Muslim Brotherhood will contribute, as does any other political force.” But then, he notes that “Requiring women to wear the veil, segregating education or banning alcohol ‘are not a priority at this point.’” This is not a very reassuring remark for secularists. Nor is the promise of seeking only the gradual introduction of the Sharia.[6]

Such reservations, in fact, are tell-all signs of insincerity or an inherent inability or unwillingness to commit clearly to the concept of civic rights.

This is a continuing saga for the Islamists, one that does not bode well for the future.

Indeed, back in 1981, a group of Islamic scholars met in the Qatari capital of Doha and signed on to what was referred to as the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights, a document that became notorious for inserting references to the Sharia throughout its text. Wherever the Sharia was mentioned (or as it was referred to in the document, the Law) an exception to the general rule was made and a restriction on basic civic rights was imposed.

In fact, the authors of the Islamic Declaration could not even bring themselves to take a clear stand against slavery of all things, simply because the Qur’an and Sharia merely regulate slavery and fail to illegalize it. For this reason, the Islamic Declaration merely says that “slavery and forced labour are abhorred,” but it does not say that they are illegal or should be made illegal. The articles discussing family law and the “rights of married women” are very instructive in this regard a well.[7]

For its part, the Egyptian Brotherhood still unambiguously clings to a Sharia platform, as the movement leader, Mohammed Mahdi Akef, continuously asserts in his various statements.[8] This position and the Brotherhood’s large though expected gains in the last parliamentary elections must be making a lot of Egyptian secularists quite apprehensive, and could push many of them to side with the regime as representing the lesser of all evils, something the regime is banking on.  The same can be said regarding the situation in Syria as well as many other Arab countries.

Still, the secular authors of the Damascus Declaration have made a leap of faith by acknowledging, in a practical manner, the necessity of dialoguing with the Islamists, in an attempt to present a more credible challenge to the regime, one that can appeal to a larger cross-section of the Syrian population. This is the essence of this Declaration’s importance, and this is why it well merits the international attention and sensation it seems to have generated. The alliance forged between Bayanouni and the renegade Syrian VP, Mr. Abduhaleem Khaddam, seems to come in this vein as well.

A mixture of raison d’état and real politick seems to be involved here, a tentative search for a new pragmatic arrangement that can help the country go through the throes of a new birth, of a certain necessary peaceful transitional phase, while maintaining the stability and integrity of the country. This is why a salvific tone prevailed all through the text of the Damascus Declaration and the various statements issued by Mr. Khaddam in the aftermath of each meeting between himself and his growing list of allies in the external opposition. As such, “Saving the Motherland” has become the current catchphrase for both regime and opposition and has become the umbrella slogan under which the current dialogue between secularists and Islamists groups seems to be taking place.

This situation, however, is not unique to Syria and despite country-to-country variations with regard to the degree of pragmatism revealed by secularist and Islamist groups, the above slogan will likely be the basis for any dialogue between secularists and Islamists across the region, as disillusionment with the status quo and the ability of the ruling regimes to break it (if not disillusionment with the ruling regimes themselves in some cases), seems to be rapidly spreading.

Still, “Saving the Motherland” offers no practical guidelines or principles on the basis of which the dialogue between Islamists and secularists can indeed take place. So, can we assess the success of failure of such a dialogue?

Principles of Dialogue:

Now that certain barriers seem to have been broken, the two sides of the dialogue really have to consider moving beyond tactical moves, no matter how sophisticated they occasionally seem to be. For, in order for them to work more effectively as opposition movements and develop a new conceptual and organizational vision for their countries and their societies that they can offer to their peoples, a vision that combines both authenticity and novelty, and continuity and modernity. The more progress made on this front by Islamists and secularists groups, the more visible, credible and effective their coalitions will become.

But in order for such a vision to be developed, certain ambiguities and contradictions need to be cleared. Frankly, a certain intellectual revolution is needed on both sides. In this the Islamists have much more work ahead of them, exactly because they seem to be the more powerful and dangerous side at this stage, and because their understanding of individual rights tend to be far more restrictive than the one espoused by their secularists counterparts, especially the liberals. Indeed, the Secular Moment seems to have long gone by, and, accordingly, a certain strategic shift seems to have taken place in the thinking of most secularists. Indeed, barring the opinions of some fanatical figures, who would still opt for such measures as the forced removal of women’s scarves and the closure of all religious schools etc., most secularists these days are much more interested in retaining their basic rights than trying to strip the Islamists of theirs. With this, Toleration emerges as the First Principle for the secular-Islamist dialogue.

But, the practical embodiment of this principle requires confronting all the devils and demons that lurk in the darks recesses of details. For, and as we have noted earlier, generals statements can hid within them much contradictions, which could effectively render them useless.

For instance, the idea of basic individual rights for the secularists have a much broader meaning than is the case for Islamists and unless Islamists are willing to adopt a new perspective on this matter, this could severely tests their commitment to the Principle of Toleration. As, for the secularists, individual rights mean, among other things, academic and intellectual freedom as well as privacy issues.

For in an age where liberal and secular intellectuals continue to be denounced as blasphemous and when books are banned and, occasionally, burned on account of their alleged blasphemous contents, this is not some small and marginal issue. This goes to the heart of the matter. What do secularists exactly fear whenever the Islamic boogeyman gets waved in their faces? It is exactly these kinds of Orwellian developments, where people give themselves the right to tell you what to think, eat and drink, and where they interfere in every aspect of your life, public and private.

Indeed, to the secularists, individual rights mean the freedom to do such taboo things as to consume alcohol and to allow for gender mixing in schools and at the workplace. Commitment to civil rights also means that putting greater emphasis on Islamic studies in public schools than already exists will not be acceptable, or, at least, the secularists will call for the creation of parallel state-sponsored civil schools.

In short, the insistence on civic rights calls, at the very least, for the preservation of the civic rights already gained without leaving any possibility for restricting them ever again in the future, while leaving the door open for further gains to be made in the future, especially with regard to personal status law, by working through the democratic process itself. For the democratic process for the secularists is not meant as a continuing unrestricted referendum on existing individual civil rights, as this will only pave the grounds for the tyranny of the majority at any given moment, especially considering the deep social prejudices that surround certain key issues related to gender and privacy rights.

There is an embedded space within the democratic process that is sacrosanct and cannot be challenged anymore: freedom of expression/conscience/religion/speech, freedom of assembly, the right to privacy, etc. can be limited only inasmuch as a strong legal argument can be made to show that in a specific instance, these freedoms seem to have clashed, leading to some individual or collective harm. But, in principle, Democracy would rather err on the side of the individual not the collective. Public mores need to be more accommodative of the individual right to be different. The Islamists needs to reconcile themselves with this reality somehow.

This might seem like a toll order for the Islamists at first, but in truth, this is not more than demanding the same rights that Islamists seek for themselves. Indeed, Reciprocity is the Second Principle that needs to be born in mind then during the proposed dialogue. When it comes to basic rights, Islamists should be willing to give as much as they are seeking to take. All citizens should be entitled to live in peace ad security and in accordance with their basic beliefs, and to raise their children accordingly. If that’s a toll order for anyone, then there is nothing to talk about.

Both Islamists and secularists need to live in harmony with the embedded diversity in their societies, a diversity that emanates in part from the long and complex history of the region, producing the diversity of ethnic and religious groups in the region, and in another part from the ongoing interaction with other societies and cultures, producing those nasty little westernized spoilers who even in countries that have been ruled by a strict Islamic codes for decades seem to proliferate somehow and despite all  attempts at cracking down. Give Saudi or Iranian women, or veiled women anywhere, the freedom to take off the scarves and veils and dress as they will assuring them that no harm will come to them, and a sizeable percentage will do so. It does not matter whether it will constitute the majority or not. So, what’s the point of insisting on enforced homogeneity, when no amount of compulsion can stop people from learning from each other and from developing their own individual beliefs?

The theological leap that Islamists need to make is to accept reciprocity, and hence diversity, as a fact of life. For their parts, the secularists too need to acknowledge that the persistent and tenacious social and psychological relevance of certain traditions in our contemporary lives comes as an equally natural, unavoidable and, above all, legitimate, expression of individuality. There are enough women in our midst who are freely opting for the headscarf and for an Islamist lifestyle with all its perceived restrictions, from our secular liberal point of view, to challenge all our basic assumptions on women’s rights. We cannot use our so-called backwardness to justify our desire to impose our views on other people in our society. And we cannot simply consider as backward every vestige of tradition that continues to show its relevance and viability for many people in our society. We, too, have to give as much as we seek to take. This is the price for political participation for one and all.

Still, one may ask whether it is practical to expect that Islamists, not to mention some secularists, could actually deliver on something that seems to run contrary to what they believe in and aspire to? But this is exactly part of the challenge. Both Islamists and Secularists have to learn the difference between having a vision and working for it, on the one hand, and seeing it fulfilled completely in the here-and-now on the other. The Islamic state, very much like the fully secular state, will have to remain perennially as a dream deferred, and one that can only be pursued through democratic means at that. Meanwhile, all we can have in the here-and-now is the democratic civic state where the rule of a very human law prevails and the basic individual rights for all and sundry are respected. Minimalism thus becomes the Third Principle of the Proposed Dialogue. Maximalist expectations will lead nowhere.

People can expect to have the right o preach what they believe in, but they cannot expect to have the right not to have their message rejected, or even vilified. People don’t have the right not have their feelings hurt. This is why blasphemy laws, for instance, are inherently flawed and need to be not simply reviewed but abolished all together. Indeed, Islamists have absolutely no ethical justification in their uproarious condemnations of works that appear blasphemous for them. People have the right to blaspheme. Islam itself was nothing more than a blasphemy at one point, and the Qur’an itself is not too shy about showing its disdain towards other peoples’ faiths, why should it be exempt, therefore, from other peoples’ disdain? And why should Islam be protected against blasphemy? Indeed, the Right of Blasphemy stems from each and every one of the principles highlighted above, and can be considered as the Fourth Principle for dialogue. 

Indeed, and while hate laws in western countries are usually enacted to protect believers from certain minority groups, in most Arab and Muslim countries, they should be enforced to protect the liberals and the heretics from the acts of hatred perpetrated by religious zealots.

Still, to accept the kind of arrangements that the secularist are advocating requires more than a simple stretch of the imagination on part of the Islamists, it requires a virtual theological revolution, buta much limited one that the one usually advocated these days under the guise of Reformation. For it is not up to the secularists to advise the Islamists on whether and/or how to reform their faith. Indeed, the principles advocated above do not call for the abrogation of the Sharia, they merely limit the application of the Sharia to the community of true believers. They do not coerce anyone to leave the faith, nor do they allow for the faith and its sacred code to be imposed on people who may not believe in them.

As such, documents and manifestos such as the 2004 Vision announced by the Syrian Brotherhood are not sufficient. Having some isolated scholar somewhere issue some reform documents is also insufficient. As difficult as it is to conceive of such a scenario at this stage, but, in truth, the proposed theological revolution outlined above need to be worked out in cooperation between the politically active secular and religious groups from different countries.

The mechanism that can be proposed here requires simply the conferring of a series of meetings between representatives from the different groups involved to work on a document that spells out specific points of agreements on the key issues highlighted above. Different Islamist and secularist groups will then have the right to ratify this document or not.

Very few groups will come out and endorse such a document at first, but in time, more meetings can be held to simply nudge groups in the right direction. The document will simply serve as a watershed for more tactical meetings and agreements, but the document will also serve to give a much needed sense of direction, and the outline of a new general vision around which programs and strategies specific for each country in the region can be designed in due course of time. For a country like Syria, today might be just be the right time. For Saudi Arabia, the process could take years. And so on. Different countries have different realities and different momentary needs and will, therefore, require different approaches.

Conclusion: the Role of External Powers

For this reason, external powers with interest in the region such, the United States and the European Union, and also Russia and China, are advised to work with each country individually and to make a decision on whether dialogue with Islamists is possible or not, depending on the nature of the Islamic movements or groups involved and the dynamics within it and within the country involved. There is no room for generalizations here, and no room for stiff a priori positions.

More importantly, though, western powers should keep in mind that dialogue with the Islamists, even if successful, should not come at the expense of their support for the liberal secular currents. For these currents are still the only vessels through which westerns secular knowledge and values can be passed on to Arab and Muslim countries and societies, and that, and for all their political and social pragmatism, Islamic movements are bound to continue to look down upon these values. For the time being, then, the secular liberal currents and figures are the only effective bridges existing between the two worlds.

More importantly, these currents are by the very nature the only fountain for creativity that exists in the region. Indeed, the great majority of influential poets, novelist, thinkers and artists that the region has produced over the past century or so, have consistently been secular. The few Islamic thinkers that the region did produce, mostly around the turn of the 20th Century, are now forgotten, and so are their works.

This simple truth should give us a reason to pause here. For it gives us a key indication that while it might be important to dialogue with the Islamists in the hope of establishing some sort of working relationship with them, looking at them as a key to reform and development in the region at this stage is nothing less than foolish. They have not yet proven equal to the task. While, and for all their failures, whatever positive development that has taken place in the region for the past few decades, have constantly come as the results of the efforts of the existing semi-secular and nationalist regimes in the heyday of their formative years, that is, before their dramatic and tragic descent into corruption and irrelevance.

Dialogue or not, the secular liberal forces remain the only hope for this region’s future. Whether Islamists will have a positive role to play in this regard remains to be seen, and this will depend in no small measure on their ability to reinvent themselves in the manner described above. Else, their potential contribution to this region will at best lead to the creation of Iran-like states, where people might be able to accumulate enough technical know-how to build a nuclear bomb, but they will not be able to produce a single great scientist, economist, poet or an author who would also be a true Islamist (a believer he might be, but an Islamist???).

Moreover, people should ear in mind in this regard that authenticity, the concept to which we have continuingly alluded, is not solely or even mainly derived from tradition and continuity. Rather it is primarily derived from participation in the creative processes that are shaping the world around us. When the peoples of the region feel that they have an actual share in the achievements taking place all around them and changing their lives, that is, when more and more regional figures end up taking part in scientific, cultural and intellectual achievements all around the world, and when some of these achievements end up taking part through institutions based in the region and supported and maintained by regional players, authenticity and modernity become well-nigh synonymous.[9]

Since such creative acts require free thinkers, the real harbingers of authenticity and modernity in the region are the liberal secular currents. Giving up on them is equivalent to giving up on hope, undermining their work is an act of sabotage, undercutting their support is undercutting every viable reform effort in the region.

Whether by accident or design, the Broader Middle East and North Africa Region seems heading for another formative period in its modern historical evolution, one full of both: dread and promise. The ability of Islamists and secularists to talk to each other at this juncture and to reach mutual constructive agreements, and the role of the international community in supporting the right parties on either side, will play a major role in determining the outcome. There is little room for error.

Abyssus abyssum invocatHell calls hell; one misstep leads to another.


[1] Let’s just note here that the Islamists under consideration throughout the study are those who can be defined, or to be more exact, those who tend to define themselves as “moderates” through their insistence on their of the concept of citizens rights and democratic principles. Meanwhile, we should also avoid conflating the two terms: secularists and liberals. For most Arab secularists tend to be at once leftist and nationalist in orientation. Indeed, for them, liberal social values and liberal economics are not notions that are necessarily acceptable to them, if at all. Their secularism tends to be more political in nature, that is, it comes more as a rejection of the marriage of Sharia and politics than Sharia and society. Theirs is hardly a clear endorsement, at least, in practice, of liberal democratic values, at least as explained by Francis Fukuyama in his seminal work: “The End of History and the Last Man.”  Many feminists, human rights activists and members of minority groups, both ethnic and religious, would find quite a few problems in this kind of secularism. But it is exactly this limited perception of secularists that might facilitate dialogue between these secularists and Islamists, and this is exactly why liberal secularists need to do their best not to be sidelined in the process.

[5] Read a profile of Bayanouni and a sample of his views in “Inside and Outside Syria, a Debate to Decide the Future” By Anthony Shadid, Washington Post Foreign Service,
Wednesday, November 9, 2005; A25.

[6] Ibid.

[7] An English copy of the Declaration can be found at:

[9] This is why dabbling in nuclear power seems to have such a popular nationalist allure and aura to it in places like Iran and Pakistan.