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Secularism in the Middle East

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Secularism in the Middle East refers to the ideology of promoting the secular as opposed to the religion. It is often used to describe the separation of civil/government matters from religious theocracy. The quest for Secularism has inspired many Muslim scholars; however, it has acquired negative connotations in some Middle Eastern countries and is often criticized by conflating it with anti-religion and colonial intervention.


The Arabic word for secularism has different connotations. It is often translated as ‘almaniyya which is derived from the word alam(world) or 'ilmanniyya from the word ilm (science). Some writers suggest another Arabic term ‘alamaniyya to avoid the confusion while others prefer ‘dunyawiyya (worldly) in contrast to dini (religious).[1]


Many of the early supporters of Secularist principles in Middle Eastern countries were Baathist and non-Muslim Arabs, seeking a solution to a multi-confessional population and an ongoing drive to modernism.[2]

The most controversial work is that of Ali abd al-Raziq, an Islamic Scholar and Shari’a judge who caused a sensation with his work "Islam and the Foundations of Governance" (Al-Islam Wa Usul Al-Hukm) in 1925. For the first time in Muslim history, he argued there was nothing in the texts that made it obligatory that Muslims had to have the Caliphate form of religious government and that they can choose a system that suits them. This publication caused a fierce debate especially as he recommended that religion can be separated from government and politics. He was later removed from his position. Rosenthall commented on him saying:

"we meet for the first time a consistent, unequivocal theoretical assertion of the purely and exclusively religious character of Islam".[3]

The term ‘almaniyya acquired a bad connotation in the Muslim world after the establishment of a secular political system in Turkey in 1924 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.[4]


Colonial influence

When colonial rule was established, the process of secularization began to expand into Muslim lands. Secularism thus came as the European colonialists dominated the region and supplanted rule with their own processes and procedures.

Modernisation was seen as a legacy of European colonialism perpetuated by western-oriented elites who imposed and fostered the twin processes of westernization and secularization.”

Colonial powers in many cases replaced indigenous political, social, economic, legal, and educational institutions. For instance, in many former colonised Middle East countries, the “Kuttab” or the “madrassas” (the Quranic schools) were moved to the western format. The French colonial government, changed the Education system into a secular model closely modeled their own in the protectorates of the Maghreb. The colonialists firmly believed that their secular system was more modern, efficient and more progressive than the incumbent practices. Naturally these changes had far reaching social consequences especially for women and laid the foundation of Arab Secularism by separating the clergy from government affairs, education and justice.[6]

In consequence, “perception of the public, political, and social domain through the prism of religion became marginal and was replaced by a new perception, a perception that was modern, temporal, ideological, ethical, evolutionary, and political. [7]. This provided a challenge to some governments which had no choice but to change in the face of overwhelming force. It is from this experience that secularism gained also its perceived foreign identity.

Communist influence

Given the decline of communism’s primary sponsor, the Soviet Union (1989), it is easy to underplay the impact that communism has had in the Middle East in recent history.

In 1918 the Soviet Union opened the Commissariat for Muslim Affairs, which actively opposed the colonial powers in the Middle East and their system of Mandates.[8] That is not to say that communist thought was not present in the Middle East prior to this point; however, this was mostly down to expand communists as opposed to organized political movements.

In the 1920s the formation of the first communist parties in the Middle East started playing a key role in the anti-colonial struggle and promoting their ethos regarding workers rights. During the Second World War they also played a role fighting against fascism and participating in the international peace movement.[9]

A key element of the Communism movement was the well organized network of parties in different countries that provided support to each other and enabled communist organizations to become an effective outlet against oppression.

Communism went on to become one of the key components of Arab Nationalism and was particularly prominent during the rule of Gamel Abdel Nasser in Egypt in which Egyptian communists stood aside.[10]. And even though communism was often a prominent supporter of Arab nationalism, the international relationships which allowed it to be such a potent force were also used by opposition regimes, and to some extent third parties during the Cold War. A good example of this is the Communist Party of Iraq which was oppressed by Saddam Hussein, Islamists for their secular policies and by the US during the Cold War period.[11]

Secularist movements


Secularism in Turkey was both dramatic and far reaching as it filled the vacuum of the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. With the country getting down Mustafa Kemal Atatürk led a political and cultural revolution. “Official Turkish modernity took shape basically through a negation of the Islamic Ottoman system and the adoption of a west-oriented mode of modernization, but a la turca.”[12]

In 1924 Atatürk’s Revolution brought Islamic authority under the full and absolute control of the secular state. The institutionalization of secularism involved bringing all religious activity under the direct control of the secular state.

  • The abolition of the Caliphate.
  • Religious lodges and Sufi orders were banned.
  • A secular civil code was adopted to replace the previous codes based on Islamic law (shari’a) outlawing all forms of polygamy, annulled religious marriages, granted equal rights to men and women, in matters of inheritance, marriage and divorce.
  • The religious court system and institutions of religious education were abolished.
  • The use of religion for political purposes was banned.
  • The article that defined the Turkish state as Islamic was removed from the constitution, and the alphabet was changed from Arabic to Roman.
  • A portion of religious activity was moved to the Turkish language, including the Adhan (call to prayer) which lasted till 1950.


Throughout the twentieth century the secular Turkish nationalism was continually challenged by Islamists, Kurdish people and Marxist movements. And, although most Turkish citizens still are in favor of secularism, political Islamists and neo-fundamentalists are gaining ground since the mid eighties, such as the Refah Party. These groups oppose laws that limit religious teachings and forbid the external display of religious symbols, including the headscarf in public spheres.[14]

Despite military coups in the last thirty years (1960, 1971, 1980), the existence of a Turkish secular democracy (Turkey is one of the rare Islamic countries with free elections involving multiple parties and freedom of speech) is supported by discussion of Turkey joining the European Union.[15].


Following the military coup of 21 February 1921, Reza Khan had established himself as the dominant political personality in the country. Fearing that their influence might be diminished, the clergy of Iran proposed their support and persuaded him to assume the role of the Shah.[16]

1925-1941: The Reza Shah began to make some dramatic changes to Iranian society with the specific intention of modernization and removing power from the clergy. He changed religious schools to public education, built Iran’s first university and banned the hijab in public. Nevertheless, the regime was somewhat undemocratic with the removal of Majles power (the first parliament in 1906) and the clampdown on free speech.[17]

1951-1953: During the early 1950’s the Prime Minister Dr Mossadeq was again forming a pro secularization government with a socialist agenda with the specific aim of reducing the power held by the clergy. However his plans for nationalization the oil industry were a step too far for Britain. So with the help of the CIA they supported a coup which replaced the government with Mohammad Reza Shah.[18]

1962-1963: Using the mandate of modernization, the Shah introduced dramatic changes what was called the White Revolution. During this time a number of changes were made to put Iran on the path to become a successful secularist capitalist country:

  • Workers rights
  • Land reform based on international standards
  • Women’s suffrage
  • Further actions to reduce the power of the clergy.

1963-1973: the changes seemed to be paying off with Iran experiencing rapid economic growth however the sheer pace of change alienated many political opponents of the Shah and any dissent was crushed by the secret police. Despite the new infrastructural and economic improvements the opposition rallied untied behind Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and by the end of the 1970’s the Shah was overthrown in an Islamic Revolution (1979).[18]

Nowadays, there is currently no secularism movement in Iran; however, if there ever was they were considered heretics and apostates by the ruling clerical class and thus not tolerated.


Under the leadership of Habib Bourguiba (1956-1987), Tunisia’s post independence government pursued a program of secularization and modernization.[19]

Bourguiba, who has Been one of the most avowedly secularist political strategies in the Arab world, modified laws regarding habous (religious endowments), reformed education, and unified the legal system so that all Tunisians, regardless of religion, were subject to the state courts. He restricted the influence of the religious University of Ez-Zitouna and replaced it with a faculty of theology integrated into the University of Tunis, banned the headscarf for women, made members of the religious hierarchy state employees and ordered that the expenses for the upkeep of mosques and the salaries of preachers to be regulated.[20]

Moreover, his best known legal innovations was the ‘Code du Statut Personel’ (CSP) the laws governs issues related to the family: marriage, guardianship of children, inheritance and most importantly the abolishing of polygamy and making divorce subject to judicial review.[21]

Bourguiba clearly wanted to undercut the religious establishment’s ability to prevent his developmental program, and although he was careful to locate these changes within the framework of a modernist reading of Islam and presented them as the product of ijtihad (independent interpretation) and not a break with Islam, he became well known for his secularism. John Esposito notes that “For Bourguiba, Islam represented the past; the west was Tunisia’s only hope for a modern future[22]

Following increasing economic problems, Islamist movements came about in 1970 with the revival of religious teaching in Ez-Zitouna University and the influence which came from Arab religious leaders like Syrian and Egyptian brotherhoods[23]. In the Aftermath the struggle between Bourguiba and Islamists became uncontrolled and in order to repress the opposition the Islamist leaderships were exiled, arrested and interrogated.[24]


Secularism in Egypt has had a very important role to play in both the history of Egypt and that of the Middle East. Egypt’s first experience of Secularism started with the British Occupation (1882-1952), the atmosphere which allowed the protection of debate. In this environment pro-secularist intellectuals like Ya'qub Sarruf, Faris Nimr, Nicola Haddad whom sought political asylum from Ottoman Rule were able to publish their work. This debate had then became a burning issue with the work of Egyptian Shaykh Ali abd al-Raziq (1888-1966), “The most momentous document in the crucial intellectual and religious debate of modern Islamic history[25]

By 1919 Egypt had its first political secular entity called the Hizb 'Almani (Secular Party) this name was later changed to the Wafd party. It combined secular policies with a nationalist agenda and had the majority support in the following years against both the rule of the king and the British influence. The Wafd party supported the allies during World War II and then proceeded to win the 1952 parliamentary elections, following these elections the prime minister was overthrown by the King leading to riots. These riots precipitated a military coup after which all political parties were banned including the Wafd and the Muslim Brotherhood.[18]

The government of Gamel Abdel Nasser was secularist-nationalist in nature which at the time gathers a great deal of support both in Egypt and other Arab states.

Key elements of Nasserism[26]:

  • Secularist/Nationalist dictatorship: No religious or other political movements allowed to impact government.
  • Modernization.
  • Industrialization.
  • Concentration on Arab values rather than Muslim values.

Following the death of Nasser, President Sadat (1970-1981) continued economic liberalization and maintained the government’s secularist policy, even going as far as signing peace agreements with Israel which was a first for any Middle Eastern country. However, following further intensive clampdowns on political opposition, Sadat was assassinated and replaced by Hosni Mubarak who again faces the issue of keeping the Islamist support at bay whilst keeping his power base during increased pressure to be democratic.[27]

Nowadays, most proponents of secularism emphasize the link between secularism and ‘national unity’ between Coptic Christians and Muslims.


The process of secularization in Syria began under the French mandate in the 1920s and went on continuously under different governments since the independence. Syria has been governed by the Arab nationalist Baath Party since 1963. The Baath regime combined Arab Socialism with secular ideology and an authoritarian political system. The constitution guarantees religious freedom for every recognized religious communities, including many Christian denominations. All schools are government-run and non-sectarian, although there is mandatory religious instruction, provided in Islam and/or Christianity. Extremist forms of Islam are not tolerated by the government. The Syrian legal system is primarily based on civil law, and was heavily influenced by the period of French rule. It is also drawn in part from Egyptian law of Abdel Nasser, quite from the Ottoman Millet system and very little from Sharia. Syria has separate secular and religious courts. Civil and criminal cases are heard in secular courts, while the Sharia courts handle personal, family, and religious matters in cases between Muslims or between Muslims and non-Muslims.[28] Non-Muslim communities have their own religious courts using their own religious law.[29]


Lebanon is a parliamentary democracy within the overall framework of Confessionalism, a form of consociationalism in which the highest offices are proportionately reserved for representatives from certain religious communities.


Although members of the ruling Baath Party generally are ideologically committed to secularism, about 95 percent of Iraqis are Muslim and Islam is the officially recognized state religion.

Secular women

It was suggested that secular oriented women do not support sharia as the main source of legislation, rather they refer to civil law and the resolution of human rights conventions, as adopted by the United Nations, as frames for reference for their struggle. Azza Karam (1998:13), for example, describes secular feminists as follows: “Secular feminists firmly believe in grounding their discourse outside the realm of any religion, whether Muslim or Christian, and placing it, instead within the international human rights discourse. They do not ‘waste their time’ attempting to harmonize religious discourses with the concept and declarations pertinent to human rights. To them religion is respected as a private matter for each individual, but it is totally rejected as a basis from which to formulate any agenda on women’s emancipation. By so doing, they avoid being caught up in interminable debates on the position of women with religion.”[30]

However variations exist concerning the interpretation and manifestation of secularism in women’s politics and lifestyles many of them are united in their opposition to the establishment of an Islamic state (for example that is compulsory to wear veiling) and they share the sense that religion should not be mixed with politics.” Siham K., a member of Rabat Al-Mar’a Al`arabiyya (the Alliance for Arab Women) p141 said:I am one of the people who believe that Islam has to be separated from civil, political and economic rights and duties. It is an option that Egypt is a Muslim country. This should remain personal. The freedom of belief is integral. It should not interfere with women’s rights. It cannot be part of the view of politics and the future. This is another story altogether. I want religion to be detached away from actual politics.” [18]

Generally, Secular women activists call for total equality between the sexes, attempt to ground their ideas on women’s rights outside religious frameworks, perceive Islamism as an obstacle to their equality and a linkage to patriarchal values. (Karam, 1998: 2345).And they argue that secularism was important for protecting civil rights.[31].[32]

Opposition and critique

Secularism and Islam

Islamists believe Islam fuses religion and politics, with normative political values determined by the divine texts.[33] It is argued that this has historically been the case and the secularist/modernist efforts at secularizing politics are little more than jahiliyya (paganism), Kufr (unbelief), Irtidad (apostasy) and atheism.[25][34]Those who participated in secular politics were raising the flag of revolt against Allah and his messenger[35].

Saudi scholars denounce secularism as strictly prohibited in Islamic tradition. The Saudi Arabian Directorate of Ifta', Preaching and Guidance, has issued a directive decreeing that whoever believes that there is a guidance (huda) more perfect than that of the Prophet, or that someone else's rule is better than his is a kafir.[36]

It lists a number of specific tenets which would be regarded as a serious departure from the precepts of Islam, punishable according to Islamic law. For example:

  • The belief that human made laws and constitutions are superior to the Shari'a.
  • The opinion that Islam is limited to one's relation with God, and has nothing to do with the daily affairs of life.
  • To disapprove of the application of the hudud (legal punishments decreed by God) that they are incompatible in the modern age.
  • And whoever allows what God has prohibited is a kafir.[37]

In the words of Tariq al-Bishri, "secularism and Islam cannot agree except by means of talfiq [combining the doctrines of more than one school, i.e., falsification], or by each turning away from its true meaning." [38]

Secularists have been vilified, threatened, beaten and even murdered by militant Muslims. The case of Faraj Foda who was accused by Islamists of being an apostate from Islam, and agent of Western powers and culture which resulted in his assassination. "The killing of Faraj Foda was in fact the implementation of the punishment against an apostate, which the State has failed to implement."[39].[40]

Secularism and authoritarianism

There is a relationship between secularism and oppression in the Middle East. Spread of Islamist Fundamentalism makes secular leaders more repressive and authoritarian in order to protect secularism. At the same time the more repression from the government makes society opponent to secularism and this opposition makes Islamist Fundamentalism more popular in the Middle East[41]. Some argue that this can be attributed to a desire by such dictators to cement their power and the need to progress social reforms. This has left in many countries the Mosque as the only place to voice political opposition.[42] Scholars like Vali Nasr however argue that the secular elites in the Muslim world were imposed by colonial powers to maintain hegemony.[43]

Many people also associate secularism with military regimes, such as those in Turkey and Algeria. Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) succeeded in December 1991 elections in Algeria [44] and Welfare Party succeeded in 1995 elections in Turkey[45]. Both of these parties are example of Islamic parties. However, both of these parties were faced with military coups in order to protect secularism[46]. While Welfare Party government in Turkey was forced to resign from the office by Turkish military in February 1997 with a military intervention which is called as ‘post modern coup’[47], FIS in Algeria lived an austere military coup which carried the country in to a civil war in 1992[46]. Military forces in those countries could use their power in undemocratic ways in order to ‘protect secularism’.

In some countries, the fear of Islamist takeover via democratic processes has led to authoritarian measures against Islamist political parties.[48]The Syrian regime was able to capitalize on the fear of Islamist coming to power to justify the massive clampdown on the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.”[49] When American diplomats asked Hosni Mubarak to give more rights to the press and stop arresting the intellectuals, Mubarak rejected it and said that: If I do what you ask, the fundamentalists will take over the government in Egypt. Do you want that? Or when President Bill Clinton asked Yasser Arafat to establish democracy in Palestine in 2001, Yasser Arafat also replied similarly. He said that in a democratic system Hamas will take control the government in Palestine[41]. Most of the Middle Eastern autocrats drew upon the risk of Islamist fundamentalism in order to justify their autocratic rule of government in the international arena. In Freedom House’s 2008 Freedom in the World Report, the connection between authoritarianism and the risk of Islamist fundamentalism in the Middle East is reduplicated. The presence of movements committed to violent jihad poses a threat to the security of ordinary people and provides an excuse for the enactment of authoritarian emergency measures by rulers bent on suppressing all sources of political opposition.[50].

Islamic modernizers

Modernists argue that secular rule is necessary with a role for faith in civil society. So, unlike authors such as Bernard Lewis who have argued that Arab-Muslim is incompatible with democracy because concepts associated with democracy like the separation of religion from state, representative government and freedom are unknown within Islam and the Arab political tradition.[51][52],others like Dr. Muhammad Imara suggest that Secularism may not be incompatible with Islam"We do not reject secularism because it has been imported from the West. We need only examine our circumstances in light of our Islamic religion and its nature, to find out whether secularism would mean progress for us in the same way it did for Europe, or whether it would prove to be inappropriate and harmful[53]

Main points of discussion:

  • There is nothing un-Islamic about separating religion from state affairs.[54]
  • The Sharia was a flexible system which could adapt and use reason.[55]
  • Only Muhammad could rule by divine right and even he consulted with others whilst making decisions thus providing a precedent for consultative process and change.[55]
  • The concept of a divinely empowered caliph or religious leader is as much of an innovation as secularism and a notion imported from Catholicism.[56]
  • That the pinnacle or Middle Eastern and Islamic civilization was based on Islam being the religion of progress, intellect and scientific endeavor. [55]

See also


  2. such as Faris Nimr and Ya’qub Sarruf, intellectuals and journalists from Lebanon who relocated to Egypt in the 1880s and Salama Musa, who is a Coptic Christian Egyptian and founder of the Egyptian socialist Party in 1920 - Fauzi Najjar: the debate on islam and secularism, Arab Studies Quarterly; 1996, Vol.18 Issue2
  3. Black, A, "The history of Islamic Political Thought", Edinburgh University Press, 2001, pp. 316-319
  4. Fauzi Najjar: the debate on Islam and secularism, Arab Studies Quarterly; 1996, Vol.18 Issue2
  5. John L.Esposito, the Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality, p13
  6. Ibid., p13-14
  7. Aziz Al-Azmeh, Islams and Modernities, p48
  8. Nicola Pratt, Democracy and Authoritarianism in the Arab World, p 163
  9. Ibid
  10. Communism in the Middle East: Information and Much More from
  11. Communism in Iraq
  12. Alev Cinar, Modernity, Islam and Secularism in Turkey, p 14
  13. Ibid., p. 16-17
  14. Ibid.,p.18
  15. Conflicting Ideas of Secularism Cloud “Ideal” of Secular Democracy in Middle East, Panelists Say
  16. Homa Omid, Theocracy of democracy? The critics of `westoxification' and the politics of fundamentalism in Iran: Third World Quarterly; Dec92, Vol. 13 Issue 4
  17. Fred Halliday, Iran: Dictatorship and Development,p23
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 18.3 Ibid.
  19. Secularism and Democracy in the Middle East;
  20. Nazih N. Ayubi, Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Arab World, p. 113
  21. Laurie A.Brand, Women, the State and Political Liberalization: Middle East and North Africa Experiences,p178
  22. Paper: "Secularism and Democracy in the Middle East" by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd - May 16, 2003 - Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy (CSID)
  23. Nazih N.Ayubi, Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Arab World,p114
  24. John L.Esposito, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?, p.167
  25. 25.0 25.1 Fauzi Najjar, The debate on Islam and Secularism, Arab Studies Quarterly; 1996, Vol. 18 Issue 2
  26. Mahfouz's grave, Arab liberalism's deathbed | openDemocracy
  27. David Marquand and Ronald L. Nettler, Religion and democracy, p 67
  28. View a Page
  29. Syria - Islam
  30. Nadje Al-Ali, Secularism Gender and the State,p140
  31. Zainab Al-Sawaij, who serves as the executive director of the American Islamic Congress and is a human rights activist
  32. March 2, 2006 Conflicting Ideas of Secularism Cloud “Ideal” of Secular Democracy in Middle East
  33. Bonney, R, “Jihad: From Qur’an to Bin Laden”, Palgrave Macmillan, Hampshire, 2004, p. 149
  34. Nabhani, T, "The Islamic State", al-Khilafah Publications
  35. 1948, Mawlana Mawdudi founder of Jamaat e-Islami
  36. Ibrahim M. Abu-Rabi, Contemporary Islamic Thought, p 338
  37. Mohammad Ibrahim Mabruk, al-‘almaniyyun (Cairo, 1990),p. 149.
  38. Al-Ahram, 12 December 1989
  39. Sheikh Al-Ghazali (1992)
  40. The debate on Islam and secularism in Egypt
  41. 41.0 41.1 Zakaria, F. 2007, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad. W Norton & Co Inc, New York.
  42. Fred Halliday, Two Hours That Shook the World.
  43. Esposito, J, "The Oxford History of Islam", Oxford University Press, 1999
  46. 46.0 46.1 Norton, A. R. (ed), 1996. Civil Society in the Middle East, 2nd volume. Brill, Leiden
  47. Yavuz, M. H. (2006) The Emergence of a New Turkey: Democracy and the Ak Parti. Utah: Utah University Pres
  48. Garon2003
  49. Nicola Pratt, Democracy and Authoritarianism in the Arab World,p137
  51. (kedourie 1994; Lewis 1993)
  52. Nicola Pratt, Democracy and Authoritarianism in the Arab world,p2.
  53. Muhammad Imara, Almaniyya wa Nahdatuna al-Haditha (Cairo, 1986).p11
  54. Shaykh Ali Abd al-Raziq
  55. 55.0 55.1 55.2 ibid.
  56. Dr. Muhammad Imara
ar:العلمانية في دول الشرق الأوسط

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