Religion and secularization in the Middle East


Terrorism in the Middle East knows no limits.  The ancient monastery of St. Catherine in Egypt's Sinai desert was attacked, with 40 worshipers slaughtered.  This is the same religious shrine that has a decree of protection issued by the Prophet Muhammad himself until the end of days.

A bus carrying Coptic Christians on a prayer vigil was attacked, killing 26 people, including ten children.

As these incidents indicate, the challenge for Middle East leaders is the maintenance of religious beliefs within limits imposed by modernity along with secularization that doesn't trample religious observance.

The terrorists had clear goals in mind.  One: They wanted to demonstrate that the government does not have the ability to deter terrorism.  Two: The attack was a way to discourage tourism, the major source of revenue in the country.  Three: Making this incident distinctly religious is believed to cause defections from the secular impulse in the nation.

Religious freedom is clearly being threatened in Egypt, a condition that goes back 50 years to the publications of Sayyid Qutb, Islamic theorist and member of the Muslim Brotherhood.  This trend applies throughout the Levant, where secular nationalism has had to compete with the orthodox stance of radical Islam.  Gamal Abdel Nasser walked a fine line between the two positions by evoking a sense of national pride, but when his regime descended into pan-Arabism and economic collapse, secularism suffered as well.

In the Middle East, it is apparent that what is dormancy is not death.  President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is a pious Muslim who cautions against the extremism within his faith.  Those who want to weaken him do not fully understand the political alternatives.  Removing loathsome dictators, as was the case in Iran, Libya, and Iraq, does yields the blossoming not of a new spring, but rather of extremist forms of religions far more destructive than the regimes replaced.  Radical elements do understand the meaning of replacement.  A pathway to an Islamized Egypt lies in the "bulls-eye" on Sisi's back.

Western goals in the region invariably refer to Ataturk's secularization program in Turkey.  But while Ataturk's influence was profound, President Erdoğan has disinterred religious ideas, imposing them in a manner that would have been unthinkable before 2002, when he was first elected.  Religion may have been in a long slumber in Turkey, but it is now awakened and playing a profound role.

Sisi, to his credit, understands the need to balance religion and modernity; perhaps that explains why he is a threat to Islamists.  In his case, dedication to his faith is real, but it is not a faith imposed on the Egyptian people.  Surely, his critics contend that the blasphemy laws are not applied fairly to non-Muslims.  This may be true.  Nonetheless, the balance his government has achieved, however imperfect, is a veritable model for the region and the best hope for stabilization.

Herbert London is president of the London Center for Policy Research.

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