Secularism Is Out; Islam Is In

Make no mistake. The “new” Middle East will be far more “Islamic” than it has been recently. The new regimes of the region will take many different forms. Egypt may yet become a functioning democracy “supervised” by the military. Tunisia may be a business/military elite dominated state. Libya and Yemen may take still different forms with tribal leaders the real power behind the titular ruler. But whatever forms they take, Islam will be ascendant.

More Islam in public life. Less mixing of the sexes and more women in Islamic dress. Less individualism and more communalism. Less secular education and more religious instruction. Less liberal arts and more memorization of the Quran. Less attachment to the West and more to Turkey and Iran. More attachment to the cause of the Palestinians and more hostility to the United States and Israel.

That’s for starters. But the more challenging question is whether the “new” Islam will take the forms that exist in Turkey or those that exist in Iran or Saudi Arabia.

One exemplar for what we might expect across the region is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Prime Minister of Turkey. He was an Islamic activist even as a young man and was eventually elected Mayor of Istanbul. He was celebrated for reducing its debts, improving its infrastructure, all the while clamping down on corruption. But he was sentenced to jail for reciting, in public, a poem found in Turkish schoolbooks. One of the lines of the poem was “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers….”

He then founded the Justice and Development Party and was elected Prime Minister in 2003 and reelected in 2007. Since taking office he has been both a reformer and a threat to Ataturk’s vision of a secular Turkish republic.

He has made statements such as “One cannot be both secular and Muslim. One has to choose either. If they are found together in the same milieu, they would repel each other like magnets with matching poles.” Secularists were appalled. He has also said, “Democracy is like a tram, it’s a means to the end and we will get off when we arrive at our station.” That threatened the military that sees itself as responsible for preserving Turkish democracy.

Mrs. Erdogan still cannot attend official state functions, which require women to doff the Islamic headscarf. But she refuses to be seen in public without it.


Erdogan has been limited in his apparent goal of moving the country more rapidly in an Islamic direction. The armed forces and millions of Turkish citizens are committed to a secular republic.

Or, instead of the Turkish model, we might expect more Islamic forms that mirror Saudi Arabia and Iran. Iran has all the conventional means of Islamic expression listed above. But in addition, Iran lays claim to being the world leader against “imperialism” and to being the only divinely inspired government in the world. Saudi Arabia is deeply involved in global missionary work for its brand of the most conservative form of Islam.

Four patterns of Islam in Arab States

In most Arab states, the rulers have been far more oriented to secularism than their subjects. This was explicitly the case in Syria and Iraq, both, at least in name ruled by separate branches of the Baath Party. The Baath was founded by a Greek Orthodox Christian and a Sunni Muslim and was rigorously secular.

Implicitly it has been the case in another set of Arab countries – Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen. Their Muslim rulers carefully controlled Muslim expression for fear of its power. Egypt first banned the Muslim Brotherhood in 1961. The Tunisian Islamic Front was established in 1986 with the explicit goal of creating an Islamic state. Its leaders have either been in jail or exile. The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group was established in 1995 by jihadists returning from fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Its explicit goal was to overthrow Gadhafi, branded “anti-Islamic,” and replace his rule with an Islamic State. Identified as a unit of al Qaeda, it was stamped out in Libya but its leaders fled to exile. In Yemen, President Saleh threw in his lot with the West to receive U.S. military assistance, meant to fight “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.” The money went to reward his supporters and coopt his enemies. Remember, the USS Cole was bombed in Aden harbor in 2000, killing 17 American sailors while the American born radical cleric, Anwar Al Awlaki lives in Yemen – the only U.S. citizen ever ordered assassinated by a President of the U.S.

The third pattern is made up of the states run by monarchs who claim religious legitimacy. King Mohammed VI of Morocco is known as “Commander of the Faithful” and claims descent from the Prophet Muhammad through his daughter, Fatima, and her husband Ali.

In Jordan, King Abdullah is known as the 43rd generation direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad and is a member of the Hashemite Dynasty that claims descent from Hashem, the great grandfather of the Prophet Muhammad.   

Those Islamic roots lend prestige and legitimacy to the monarchs.

The fourth pattern can be found in Saudi Arabia and non-Arab Iran, states that already are religious states. In his recent attempt to win more domestic support, King Abdullah, officially “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” made it illegal to criticize senior clerics and lavishly spread funds to his country’s religious forces — 500 million Saudi Riyals to renovate mosques; 200 million for the Qur’an Memorization Association; hundreds of million for the religious police. And, of course, in Iran the Islamic clerics lay claim to being the only Shiite state on earth.

What this all means is that at least 5 of the turmoil-swept states will see new levels of Islamic expression – Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Islam has already returned to Iraq – with a vengeance. It will be further strengthened in Iran and Saudi Arabia. The problematic issue is the form that Islamic expression will take.