False spring

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 May, 2011, 12:00am


Spring has come early this year to the Arab world. Climate change has awakened the once comatose Middle East from the stupor of singular leaderships. A new dawn of democracy and freedom is sprouting from Morocco to Oman. Or so we are told.

Weather forecasting is a tricky business. Despite sophisticated models and satellite imagery, deciphering weather patterns is an inexact science. Fortune-telling for the Middle East is no less of a mirage in the heat of the Arabian desert.

Democratic pluralism is never a foregone conclusion. Challenges to the old order cannot guarantee linear outcomes. Although Egypt's Hosni Mubarak is of the past, the state apparatus he built is certainly not. Yemeni and Libyan tribalism will not disappear with regime change. Sunni-Shiite sectarianism will remain a defining feature of Bahrain, Iraq and Lebanon. Religious minorities will fret about governance by Islamist parties, moderate or otherwise. Factionalism will continue tearing Palestinian unity apart.

History teaches us that free and fair elections alone will not cure the steep divisions in Arab societies. Indeed, they will probably exacerbate them. Shorn of feelings of national solidarity, narrow sectional interests may dictate voting patterns. A crucial piece of the puzzle is missing. Without it, the Arab countries will have the edifice of democracy but not genuine representative institutions.

That crucial missing piece is secularism, a principle which girds most vibrant democracies; the belief that the state should exist separately from religion or religious beliefs. Governments should not privilege one religion over another, or derive policy from a particular religious source.

Secularism is a misunderstood concept in much of the Middle East, a legacy of the cold war. Arabs confuse secularism with atheism, understanding it to mean freedom from religion rather than freedom of religion. More damaging is secularism's association with the past regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, both known for their containment of Islamist movements. However, those very regimes mobilised religious fervour through state propaganda and lavish budgets to maintain favour with electorates.

The Pew Research Centre, a respected international pollster, provides ample evidence for the benefits to separation of religion and state. It showed in a 2009 survey that liberal secular democracies exhibited the least government restrictions and public hostility to minority religions. The Arab countries, Iran and Turkey demonstrated the diametric opposite. Secularism protected minority beliefs; the integration of religion and government is a harbinger of civil strife. The study also revealed that secularism is flexible enough to accommodate different national circumstances.

Flexible or not, nurturing secularism in the Arab world is a tall order. Like democracy, it is a process, not an event. Secular democracy requires a transformation of cultures and mentalities. This will not be easy. Yet, it is the only ideal that can prevent the onset of a severe Arab winter.

Fadi Hakura is an associate fellow at Chatham House. This article is part of a series, 'Religion, Politics & the Public Space', in collaboration with the UN Alliance of Civilisations and its Global Experts project (www.theglobalexperts.org). The views expressed are the author's own