Is secularism possible in the Arab region given the numerous influential factions that have a religious face?
by Hussam Kanaan — UT-Austin
April 03, 2009 – 00:12
The video clip I chose takes a religious and cultural approach to conflict in the Arab region. I prefer using the label “Arab region” because it does not adopt the Orientalist label of Middle East. The guest of the show is Ibtihal Khatib who is a sociologist at a university in Kuwait and explains why the public adoption of religion and its institutionalization are harmful to society. She provides an excellent explanation of secularism—that it’s about the separation of religion (in this case, Islam) and the state/government. In that case, the state would have no legal authority to advance any religion over another and civil society be able to accept and encourage a public sphere that does not espouse any religion or faction over another.
As she rightly states, the Arab region does not accept or tolerate secularism, because of the huge stigma associated with it. This stigma is the result of the complex historical, political, and cultural relations between the West (Britain and now the U.S.) and the Arab region. The speaker criticized Hizbullah’s usage of religion as a public image and tool in Lebanon; in spite of the faction’s success in mobilizing the Lebanese people, she seems to say that democracy and political stability cannot happen if religion remains publicized. All religions and ideologies are entitled to equal representation in a secular society and a representative public sphere cannot exist with religion playing a gate-keeper role. So, in the context of Hizbullah and conflict, the speaker in the clip asserts that institutionalized religion is detrimental to a democracy and equal representation. In a secular society and government (which obviously assume many forms), Christians, Muslims, Jews, Confucionists, Daoists, atheists, and infidels participate in a public sphere equally and religion would not “weed out” any voices. Of course, there are exceptions such as in times of crisis and war where the state would need to set the public and national agenda by espousing a faction or an ideology (as in Hezbullah’s case or Hamas in former Palestine), thereby marginalizing opposing or threatening voices. Within the context of the Arab region, Saudi Arabia espouses the Wahhabi ideology (which is an extremely conservative and orthodox interpretation of Islam, often bordering on ignorant decrees), Iran supports a similarly conservative form of Islam, and Egypt has the Muslim Brotherhood. What all these and other cases share is a public religion and it leads to conflict and oppression.