From Egypt to Tunisia – Towards A Politics of Post-Islamism and Post-Secularism

By AA Khalid

The terms ‘’post-Islamism’’ and ‘’post-secularism’’ are not my own constructs, rather Professor Bayat coined ‘’post-Islamism’’ and Jurgen Habermas coined ‘’post-secularism’’, but the interesting thing is that both constructs point towards a new means of democratic politics that has a liberalizing effect.

For years, the political orthodoxy has suggested that all religious political actors are necessarily autocratic and secular political actors are naturally more democratic. However, recent events in Tunisia and Egypt have completely forced us to reconsider the way we adopt political vocabulary and the dynamics of political discourse in some Muslim societies. A new type of politics encompassing post-Islamism and post-secularism is in formation in the Arab world.


The memories of harsh and unrelenting secular autocrats who ruled the Arab world in the name of an utopian nationalism or socialism are still raw in Arab minds. The broken promises of pan Arabism and failures of secular Arab socialism have led many to shun the autocratic and dynastic political dynamic prevalent in so called ‘’secular’’ parties like that of Ben Ali or Hosni Mubarak.

For years these two autocrats threatened the West by presenting a false choice between themselves and the ‘’Islamists’’ (by never defining actually who constituted this faction). Mubarak and Ben Ali played on the fears of their strategic Western allies and their own populations by making them believe that Arabs are only ever destined for stability never progress and require a strong man to keep them in check. The recurring Orientalist myth of Arabs being a rabble requiring a strong disciplinarian to keep them check permeated the Arab political elite but also academic and intellectual circles in the West such as the Neo-Conservative ideologues like Daniel Pipes.

For years neo-cons like Pipes peddled the discourse that Mubarak and Ben Ali are ”enlightened secularists” who can keep the so called ‘’devil we know’’ at bay and by forcing secularism down the throats of their populace.

This myth that the West should ‘’export secularism before democracy’’ has cost so dearly. The Western intellectual Peter Watson wrote an unusual and disturbing article in the Times a few years ago, called, ‘’Here’s an improvement on democracy’’. Watson suggests:

‘’ we [the West] should spend more time promoting secularism around the world and worry less about spreading democracy.’’

This fixation on supporting secular autocrats by Western governments has stunted the political progress of many Muslim societies. Watson makes the astonishing claim of calling the AKP an ‘’intolerant Islamic party’’, whilst forgetting the European Union officials and monitors have always praised the AKP for increasing the speed and scope of democratic and liberal reform.

Watson’s thinking is symptomatic of an ugly vision of democracy, where people are forced to give up their belief in God (or whatever belief or faith) in order to become more fully ‘’human’’ to be deserving of democracy.

Watson essentially argues Muslims cannot be trusted with democracy.

This secular elitism which permeates many Muslim societies fails to engage with the masses and fails to capture the democratic aspirations of its people.

Indeed Jurgen Habermas the leading sociologist and intellectual crediting with coining the term ‘’post-secularism’’ writes:

‘’ Religion is gaining influence not only worldwide but also within national public spheres. I am thinking here of the fact that churches and religious organisations are increasingly assuming the role of “communities of interpretation” in the public arena of secular societies. They can attain influence on public opinion and will formation by making relevant contributions to key issues, irrespective of whether their arguments are convincing or objectionable.’’

What Habermas is not calling for is a ‘’theocratic’’ state. Indeed Habermas himself proclaims his work is premised on a ‘’methodological atheism’’, but he qualifies by what he means as post-secularism’’ by suggesting the State should be a Liberal State which maintains a separation between religious institutions and political institutions but the public sphere (distinct from the State) should be open to all its citizens and citizens are increasingly using religious ideas, religious symbols and philosophy in many issues. Habermas writes that there is a fundamentally problematic assertion in the tradition of French secularism (which favours a very strict interpretation of the secular) that:

‘’Religion must be tolerated, but it cannot lay claim to provide a cultural resource for the self-understanding of any truly modern mind’’.

For those in the French tradition, religion is a virus and religion must be eliminated in the public sphere before we can even begin to discuss the prospect of democracy. Indeed Hosni Mubarak and Ben Ali faithfully followed this principle by banning and outlawing all religious parties in their countries. But what followed was a logical extension of this idea of French secularism, an autocratic imposition of a secular orthodoxy.

Habermas’s vision of post-secularism where all citizens are equals and can communicate with each other using secular and religious arguments in the public sphere but where the State remains independent of religious institutions is promising:

‘’ Certainly, the domain of a state, which controls the means of legitimate coercion, should not  be opened to the strife between various religious communities, otherwise the government  could become the executive arm of a religious majority that imposes its will on the opposition.

In a constitutional state, all norms that can be legally implemented must be formulated and publicly justified in a language that all the citizens understand. Yet the state’s neutrality does not preclude the permissibility of religious utterances within the political  public sphere, as long as the institutionalized decision-making process at the parliamentary, court, governmental and administrative levels remains clearly separated from the informal  flows of political communication and opinion formation among the broader public of citizens.’’

We potentially lose something meaningful when we restrict the types of arguments that can be used in public discussion (be they secular or religious arguments) as Habermas puts it:

‘’ Second, the democratic state must not pre-emptively reduce the polyphonic complexity of the diverse public voices, because it cannot know whether it is not otherwise cutting society off from scarce resources for the generation of meanings and the shaping of  identities.’’

Post-secularism is the type of politics in practice and the emerging discourse in the Arab world which has long suffered under brutal secular autocracies.

But what about post-Islamism?

Post Islamism or Evolutionary Islamism

Professor Asef Bayat articulated the notion of post-Islamism first in the Iranian context in a research article ‘’The Coming of a Post-Islamist Society’’ and then later in a much broader context in his book, ‘’ Making Islam Democratic – Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn’’.

The crux of the ‘’post-Islamism’’ is that it:

‘’ strives to marry Islam with individual choice and freedom, with democracy and modernity (something post-Islamists stress), to achieve what some scholars have termed an “alternative modernity”. Post-Islamism is expressed in acknowledging secular exigencies, in freedom from rigidity, in breaking down the monopoly of religious truth. In short, whereas Islamism is defined by the fusion of religion and responsibility, post-Islamism emphasizes religiosity and rights”.

Indeed, today’s uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt are not fuelled by an intense and passionate religiosity as seen in the Islamic Revolution of Iran thirty years ago but neither is it fuelled by a harsh French secularism.

The new revolutions of the Middle East is the realization that people of faith and people of no faith need freedom and liberty to pursue their own beliefs and lives to the best of their ability. The unifying factor between post-Islamism and post-secularism is the move towards a politics of liberalism. We are seeing the dawn of a new Arab liberalism harking back to the early Arab liberals between the 18th and 20th century as elaborated in Albert Hourani’s work, ‘’ Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age 1798-1939’’.

But others have always argued that the description of ‘’Islamism’’ must be qualified by an adjective before it, since some political parties who derive inspiration from religious values and religious philosophy can be seen to pursue a liberal and democratic agenda such as the AKP and some pursue a totalitarian and autocratic agenda such as the religious parties of Pakistan.

Tunisian dissident Rachid al Ghannouchi is known to students of contemporary Islamic thought because he is a thinker who argues that there is no conflict between Islam and liberal democracy. Robin Wright writes in Islam and Liberal Democracy: Two Visions Of Reformation quoting Ghannouchi’s political thought:

‘’Islam recognises as a fact of life the diversity and pluralism of peoples and cultures, and calls for mutual recognition and coexistence. . . . Outside its own society, Islam recognizes civilisational and religious pluralism and opposes the use of force to transfer a civilisation or impose a religion’’

In Tunisia the main Islamist opposition is liberal and democratic headed up by Rachid Al Ghannouchi. Moreover, Ghannouchi is a proponent of gender equality, minority rights, electoral politics, free media and human rights whilst maintaining that he can justify all these principles by using religious philosophy and religious values (which is detailed in the bookRachid Ghannouchi: A Democrat within Islamism). In short, Ghannouchi proposes liberalism without secularism and that is what is interesting about his political party al Nadha (Renaissance).

One could argue about labels with Professor Bayat, but his description of their being a trend towards marrying Islamic thought with liberal principles is accurate. Whether this is ‘’post-Islamism’’ or simply an evolutionary trend in the way Islamists operate in democratic arenas is a debate still to be had.

Autocratic and totalitarian Islamism is doomed to failure as it simply lacks the legal and moral resources to sustain a modern nation state instead it argues for an amorphous and vague ‘’Islamic State’’ which is nothing but a dangerous utopia.

The least we can say is that an Islamist is someone who thinks Islam has something to say about questions of politics, justice and social issues. Clearly then there is a spectrum of Islamist politics. There exist pragmatists, liberals, democrats, violent extremists and autocrats seeking a totalitarian ‘’sharia state’’.

Inclusive Liberalism

We are seeing in recent years in the Middle East with the pluralistic movement of democratic secularists and religious liberals as exemplified by the Green Movement in Iran, or the political liberalization of the AKP, or the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt a move towards post-secularism and post-Islamism heralding a politics of an inclusive liberalism.

The Empirical Evidence

There will be those saying, ‘’Great theory, but the reality on the ground is different’’. However, even that is not the case, since those who make such claims are intellectually irresponsible and lack any rigorous empirical research. In their seminal work, ‘’ Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think’’ leading scholars Professor Esposito and Dalia Mogahead came to some interesting conclusions. Muslim majority societies on the whole support democracy, human rights, gender equality and wish to see greater economic progress and development. There is a desire to see a rigorous democratic approach to solve the problems facing these societies. The researchers made use of extensive data and field research from the Gallup Poll.

Pakistan – Evolution Not Revolution

Pakistan is not Egypt nor is it Tunisia. These Arab countries had a clear autocratic figure upon which the anger and revolutionary zeal present among citizens could be directed against. The situation in Pakistan is more complicated. There are a whole host of political actors who can be accused of being inept, hopeless, and corrupt and run their parties with autocratic tendencies.

Pakistan’s democracy is a contest between multiple points of autocracy. You have the autocracy of the PPP which refuses to have any internal democratic mechanisms or any notion of internal accountability or transparency within its political party making it a citadel for the Bhutto dynasty. The Sharif brothers do the same with their party. Other political parties are guilty of ethnic authoritarianism or religious authoritarianism.

What we see in Pakistan is a contest of autocracies – secular, religious, ethnic and dynastic.The coming together of citizens from different walks of life to engage in rational debate in the spirit of tolerance is where the beating heart of a flourishing democracy lies, and that heart is dying in Pakistan due to the collective failure of our political parties.

The evolutionary trend in Arab politics with the move towards a politics of liberalism (triggered by evolutionary/post Islamism and post-secularism) is lacking in Pakistani politics.

Pakistani Islamism as characterised by our religious parties is notoriously deadly and totalitarian but our secular parties are also hopeless and indeed in the past have paved the way for a brutalising form of religion to take root.

An inclusive liberalism which speaks truth to the inherent need for social justice, economic progress, development, rule of law and real democracy is what is needed.

Whether this will require a new generation of political parties is a question which must be asked. Our current political parties have been ideologically exhausted and are giving way to a politics of the street where mobs run riot.

Professor Bayat has noted how in the Middle East student organizations, youth and women’s groups, the intelligentsia, and other social movements have facilitated political evolution towards his idea of post-Islamism. The ‘’Al Jazeera’’ effect, and indeed the effect of new forms of social media in general are also duly noted.

The Pakistani youth which constitute the bulk of the population could be the trigger needed for the post-secularism and post/evolutionary Islamism to facilitate the conditions for democratic liberalism.

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