Why the Middle East Never Went Secular

Feb 12, 2016

Photo credit: Miguel Montaner

By Geopolitics Made Super

The great struggles in the Middle East are tinged with religion: Sunni supremacists in the Islamic State, Shi’a supremacists in Tehran, Arabs and Jews waging war on one another over the old mandate of Palestine, to name just a few.

And yet, not so long ago, many Middle Eastern states were using the language of socialism, nationalism, and even communism – ‘isms’ that brook little competition from religion.  Inconsistent, yes, but also truth of a wider trend: once upon a time, many Arab states were actively switching their social glue from Islam to modern ideologies.

Consider the national anthem of the United Arab Emirates, whose notes were penned in 1971 and whose lyrics were written in 1996.  Full of socialist and nationalist language, the anthem extols work, Arabism, and the Emirati homeland.  The Egyptian Constitution of 1971 cried out for Arab unity, while Qaddafi’s Green Book was an odd hodgepodge of nationalism and socialism.  The Palestinian Liberation Organization’s founding charter of 1964 doesn’t even mention Islam.

Algeria practiced Algerian socialism until the 1990s; the largest party today in Tunisia, Nida Tunis, draws heavily from secularism and socialism.  Officially Arab socialist states included Mubarak’s Egypt, Saddam’s Iraq, and Assad’s Syria.  Even after a communist coup in 1971, Sudan continued to pursue socialism.

Once the United States fretted it was losing the Arab world to communism; now, hardly anyone even mutters the world “socialism.”  The Middle East has taken a trajectory that seemed to aim for ideological parity with Europe to one that has gone almost entirely the opposite.

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7 comments on “Why the Middle East Never Went Secular

  • A fascinating article, which serves to remind us of how convoluted and difficult to grasp Middle Eastern affairs are.

    But I think that to say: The great struggles in the Middle East are tinged with religion, is somewhat of an understatement.

    “Tinged” ? That’s like saying that 30-40% burns are scalds.

    I submit that there have been religious wars in that part of the world almost continuously for the last two thousand years; and historically speaking the European powers exploited the fact.

    If claims are made on grounds of superstition, which for that very reason cannot be verified, and the ulterior motives of which, whether conscious or otherwise, are to impose the will of one community on another, war is inevitable.

    Mind you, there are no grounds for complacency, because although there are no longer any Preist Holes being created in the Britain, we haven’t yet quite shaken off the bleak legacy of blind faith.

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  • Algeria practiced Algerian socialism until the 1990s; the largest party today in Tunisia, Nida Tunis, draws heavily from secularism and socialism. Officially Arab socialist states included Mubarak’s Egypt, Saddam’s Iraq, and Assad’s Syria. Even after a communist coup in 1971, Sudan continued to pursue socialism.

    Once the United States fretted it was losing the Arab world to communism; . . . . .

    Campaigns to undermine secular states became more intense, while attempts to replace them with puppet states failed abysmally, leaving the field open to the fanatics who had been used earlier by colonial powers!

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  • Power is achieved by those most desirous of having it regardless of their number: Puritans in mid 17c. England, Jacobins in 18c. France, Bolsheviks in 19c. Russia, Fundamentalist Shia in 20c. Iran….

    The dangerous thing about these fanatics is they know that even when they lose, they win. Secularist Bolsheviks “knew” that failure in 1917 would only mean that the next “crisis of capitalism” would soon present another opportunity, one which might be taken.
    With religiously bigoted revolutionaries, well they are the “Righteous, so even if they fail to oppressively force their narrow doctrines on a wider populace, well WTH, They will achieve eternal reward regardless.

    My (optimistic) view of the religiously fuel strife in the Islamic world is that it may not be “the last act of a desperate man”, but it begins to look like it may be the penultimate or more pessimistically the pre-penultimate.

    My (pessimistic) view is that it matters little in any case because our species and many others are on the verge of catastrophe. It is 65 million years since the last mass extinction and many of our fellow humans; by their greed and selfish disdain, are doing their best to assist those regular cycles of disaster that intermittently overtake the planet

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  • From the article above:

    Political Islam cannot deliver the same results as nation-state based capitalism: Iran’s foundering and Saudi’s stagnation makes that clear. But it will take time for the Arab street to accept that. Another full generation will go by before political Islam is consigned to the dust bin.

    While socialism helped Algerians recover from free fall poverty after their revolution with France and the subsequent brain-drain they experienced, the government was too sluggish in their recovery program and stagnation had set in when I lived there in the eighties. The Algerian Presidents (dictators) of that era and their entourages were more interested in lining their own pockets with the profits of their natural gas resources. The fact that billions of dinars went astray is and was not lost on the people who should have benefited from them. Algerians have suffered housing shortages, food shortages, a medical system from the dark ages and a primitive, cruel education system for decades. This is how to grind an incipient middle class down into the dirt.

    With everything that was happening in Iran, Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere, as the article outlines, Algeria was ripe for the Muslim Brotherhood to permeate like a creeping virus. In the early eighties Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco were all basically secular and moderate. By the end of the eighties the signs of religious fundamentalism were in full view – just based on clothing. The nineties were full on civil war with atrocities that are gruesome.

    I remember a discussion in the eighties with some women who were trying to understand what was happening as the Brotherhood made their strategy clear. These women said that they couldn’t resist the charity to the poor that was provided by the Brotherhood but they were uncomfortable with the payback that they were expected to comply with. Hejabs were given to women for “free” in those days with strong encouragement to wear them. My own Algerian mother-in-law remarked that young women who married fundamentalists ended up unhappy in their marriages and resisted these marriages for her own granddaughters. On reflection, I think these women knew that they were making a deal with the devil but when there are hungry children to feed and whole extended families living in small apartments due to housing shortage and a high unemployment rate, they just knew they couldn’t count on the corrupt government to improve their lives and offer a better life to their children.

    Even now, the fundamentalists hold this enticement out to the public, that Islam is the answer to the corrupt dictators and their cronies who are stealing their national wealth and the better life that they deserve to have. Just a few years ago a Muslim fundamentalist said to me, “Don’t be afraid of an Islamic revolution in Algeria. It’s the only way we’ll get rid of the stifling corruption in that place.” This was met with answers from others in the room like, “Sure, because there’s no corruption in religious high places, right?” and “We’ve seen how the Brotherhood solves problems and we’d rather have our corrupt politicians than the murder and atrocities that the Brotherhood brought on us.”

    In the high drama of the Arab Spring, especially with Tunisia blowing up on the eastern border, people wondered if Algeria would be the next target. They did have some visible unrest there, but the buzz on the street was that after the horrific civil war they waged against the fundamentalist through the nineties and some years after that, they just don’t have the collective energy to go through it again. They just want to live and raise their families the best they can.

    They haven’t purged the country of the Islamist threat. In fact, we see the overall level of religiosity increasing. Mosques are springing up on every block and Islamic camps for teen guys are recruiting heavily. None of the difficulties of life are being addressed by the corrupt government and so the picture for the future is bleak.

    Just my own speculation here, but I won’t be surprised to see the Islamists make another play for the country in the future. They have only hunkered down like a virus in remission, just waiting for the immune system to be compromised to the extent that they can surge forward and multiply to maximum effect. If the government had any foresight they would be boosting their feeble immune system by providing massive progressive programs for their people and using their powers of propaganda to sell the glories of secularism, but no, because selfish corruption is blind to what is obvious to the outsiders.

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  • Humans have a genetic component that gives us the ability us conform, and in addition we are a learning species. Combine those attributes with the ability to be able to plan for the future and fear of death (what comes after death?), we are very vulnerable to some charismatic bearded older man who is a “control freak” wanting to control the lives and behavior of others. This makes people vulnerable to rhetoric about some delusionary heaven after death. This is true especially if people are forced to conform by means of the threat of death and torture, and if people are ignorant (lack of education).

    Can you imagine to response of some charismatic and narcissistic leader to someone who asked “Where is the evidence?” To question authority is blasphemous. He would become white knuckled, wrinkled browed, sweaty palmed, and red faced when his very ego is challenged. People would rather conform and accept his absurdities (or commit atrocities) rather than question his overblown authority about everything.

    So it goes in the Middle East. It is out of control. The most effective way to combat such authoritarianism is education for all (NOT indoctrination), and to continue to advance secularism.

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  • Meanwhile the religious who have attained positions of political power, exercise their mental confusion on any matters related to sex or relationships, to intrude on the lives of others:
    Valentine’s Day has been officially banned in the city of Peshawar, in Pakistan. The district council unanimously passed a resolution banning people from observing the annual celebration of love, denouncing the festival as un-Islamic.

    “The Valentine day has no place in our tradition and values,” reads the resolution, which also condemns the celebration of a “Western tradition” that is “against Islamic values”. The Peshawar local council described it as a “useless” day while other officials branded it as ‘vulgar and indecent’ as they moved to outlaw festivities.

    Earlier, Pakistan’s President Mamnoon Hussain denounced Valentine’s Day, claiming that it has no relevance to Pakistani culture. He told students that it was a Western tradition which conflicted with Muslim culture and should be avoided.

    While Valentine’s Day is popular in many cities in Pakistan, conservative religious groups have condemned the tradition as a festival of immorality deemed detrimental to traditional marriage, further declaring the day to be “shameless”. A conservative newspaper described it as a “festival of obscenity”.

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  • @Alan4discussion

    Feb 14, 2016 at 6:31 am

    Meanwhile the religious who have attained positions of political power, exercise their mental confusion on any matters related to sex or relationships, to intrude on the lives of others:

    More puritanical poison from mind control freaks who are ashamed of their own instinctual urges and insist that everyone else in their society share the same cognitive dissonance that they must grapple with every minute of every day.

    But seriously, if these control freaks think they can squash the effects of oxytocin they are only fooling themselves. Add to that the far reaching attraction of the American holiday marketing paradigm as the delightful carrot held out to the target audience and the big nasty stick of the haters will not win. All they could really hope for is to drive the behavior underground which will make it that much more exciting and hypocrisy will win the day. A losing strategy for everyone.

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