The Islamist-secular battle is under way

Three great battles over political power have been unleashed across the Arab world and will persist for many years, until a new political order stabilizes in every country. One in particular is now reaching an important point that will reveal much about the current political character of Arab societies. The three battles are those between military and civilian authorities (democracy vs. autocracy), between Islamists and secularists (the authority of God vs. the citizenry), and between narrow ethnic/tribal/sectarian identity and a more inclusive national identity (tribe vs. state).

These contests will take years to play themselves out, because they comprise such complex factors as identity, allegiance, collective solidarity, access to state power and resources, and self-preservation. Some of them will endure for decades or more, as we have witnessed in the lively American context between fundamentalist Christians and more secular politicians vying for presidential power, over two centuries after the American independence years first defined religion-state ties.

In the Arab context, we are at an important station in the long road to the new, more participatory, democratic and accountable, national political governance systems. The issue at hand on this stop is about the balance between Islamists and secularists.

This is not a turning point, but simply a stop along the long road, a point at which some decisions will be made by society as a whole, and the march forward will continue, with other decisions to be made at other stops. Many in the region and abroad often jump to hasty conclusions that the various Arab revolutions and uprisings have been reversed and nullified because the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists have now taken over political systems in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, and are in the process of dominating the opposition movements in Syria. This is a premature rush to judgment.

I suspect it is more accurate to see the current political tug-of-war between Islamists and secularists as phase 3 of the ongoing transition whose first two phases were the overthrow of previous regimes and the establishment of transition-to-democracy mechanisms (transitional governments, parliamentary elections, referendums, constitutional commissions, presidential elections). These transitions will continue for some years before they stabilize into new systems that citizens accept as legitimate. They will pass through several phases of vitality and stagnation, consensus and contestation, peaceful and violent protest, and other dichotomies that define political life in any country in the world.

The historic thing about the Arab states experiencing these transitions is not that Islamists are dominating. Rather, it’s that politics are happening – that different ideological viewpoints are competing peacefully and publically to shape a new political order.

Two particular aspects of the Islamist-secular contests are especially noteworthy. The first is apparent across the region, as Islamist movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria commit themselves to constitutional governance that is pluralistic and anchored in the consent of the governed and the will of the majority, rather than defined by Shariah, or Islamic law.

The second is the battle inside the 100-member constituent assembly that has been named to write a new Egyptian Constitution. The panel is dominated by Islamists who took two-thirds of the seats in the recent parliamentary elections. This caused independents, leftists and secularists to quit the body this week, followed by the leading Sunni Islamist center of learning and religious authority Al-Azhar. The Christian Coptic Church is also considering leaving, because it feels that the body does not adequately represent all Egyptian society.

If Islamists are the only ideological group left in the constitutional assembly, it would not be able to credibly craft a Constitution that would be ratified by all Egyptian citizens. Islamists argue that the makeup of the assembly should reflect the ideological spectrum defined by the elections. Those who have quit the body say that there is a major difference between immediate sentiments that drive people to vote heavily for Islamists, and long-term principles of state and society that must shape a Constitution.

The battle in Egypt over this issue is the most dramatic example of how Islamists and secularists are now locked in a political contest that will shape both the narrow nature of the Constitution and the much broader character of the political decision-making process. Islamists who are very popular and powerful are now being publically challenged by other important forces in society, which will lead to a new ideological equilibrium in due course.

In the months and years ahead across the Middle East, this Islamist-secular dichotomy might coincide with the other two overarching contests under way – those between the military and civilians and between state identity and sectarian-tribal identity.

In most countries around the world, these three contests tend to sort themselves out over decades or even centuries, while in the Arab world today the three are being waged simultaneously within months of the start of sovereign reconfigurations. The Islamist-secular dichotomy is the most dramatic for the moment, but in the long run the most important one to watch is the battle between military and civilian control over the state and government.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 31, 2012, on page 7.




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