Is the Arab World ‘Ready for Secularism’?

Published August 21st, 2017 - 03:21 GMT
A debate on secularism is raging in the Arab world after the hashtag “the people are ready for secularism” was launched (Wikimedia Commons)
A debate on secularism is raging in the Arab world after the hashtag “the people are ready for secularism” was launched (Wikimedia Commons)

A debate on secularism is raging in the Arab world after the hashtag “the people are ready for secularism” was launched.

Given the influence wielded by religion in the Middle East it is not surprising that the tag proved highly controversial, receiving a staggering 98,000 tweets, according to BBC Arabic.

In Saudi Arabia, a country whose legal system is based on a strict interpretation of Islamic law and where “officially” 100 percent of the population is Muslim, opposition was inevitably considerable.

@fayez_alshmmari tweeted: "Secularism is, in short, the separation of religion from life, or the separation of religion from the state, therefore secularism is a satanic thought." 

@feto201 wrote: "Secularism is to remove your morality, your instinct and your humanity and sit bare in front of your desires and personal interests, like a beast that is."

Saudis even launched a counter-hashtag claiming that “the people reject the filth and denigration of secularism”.

@Muhannad__1992 commented on Twitter: "Our country was founded, built and has lived on the law of God and our honor is only in God... Do not fear for Saudi Arabia as long as its leader is Salman, the end."

@ALHRBE1418 added: "Unfortunately, those who support secularism all have foreign accounts, and you support them by responding to them and making their hashtags trend. I strongly say the people reject the filth and denigration of secularism."

Indeed, while there were a number of positive responses to the trend from Saudis, many of them appeared to be living abroad.

@AboTamim45: "Secularists want freedom of thought and conscience to apply equally to all – believers and non-believers alike." 

Ultraconservative Saudi Arabia is still pretty far from being ready for secularism, then.

The debate is perhaps far more prescient, however, in a number of other MENA countries.

Tunisia, for instance, underwent decades of forced secularization under Ben Ali and Bourguiba before him, making it the most secular country in the region. Even after Islamist party Ennahdha took power, the constitution developed in 2014 included articles guaranteeing “freedom of conscience and belief” and “the free exercise of religious practices”.

In spite of this, last week the country’s president Beji Caed Essibsi provoked considerable debate between religious conservatives and secularists after he suggested that women should be able to inherit equally.

On Thursday Islamic scholars slammed the proposal, indicating that it violated Islamic law.

“The issue of inheritance is clearly laid out in the Quran, particularly in Surah Al-Nisaa [Chapter 6, ‘Women’], in a way that doesn’t require effort to understand, as the text doesn’t allow for more than one interpretation,” Noureddine al-Khadmi, a former minister of religious affairs, said.

Interestingly, after Saudi Arabia it was Libya who had the most Tweeps debating whether the “people are ready for secularism”.

One Libyan, @HabilKhaled, wrote “secularism does not mean the separation of religion from the state as they propagate among ordinary people but rather it is the separation of religion from politics. Religion is virtue and politics is filth.”

Currently in a state of political chaos, and with armed Islamist groups controlling parts of the country, it is very unclear whether the future of Libya holds any place for secularism.

While Islam may hold considerable sway in the governance of most Arab nations, many of those countries include citizens belonging to religious minorities, as well as non-religious or atheist individuals.

In an annual report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union, all but one of the 13 countries identified as punishing apostasy by the death penalty were majority-Muslim countries. A recent Saudi law on terrorism classified “calling for atheist thought” as a terrorist offence.

In spite of this, a 2012 poll by WIN/Gallup International found that 5 per cent of Saudis are “convinced atheists”. The figure was 4 per cent for Palestinians and 2 per cent for Lebanese.

In this context, then, the debate around secularism in the Arab world can be expected to keep rearing its head in years and decades to come.

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