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Why Do Secularism and Progressive Politics Fail in the Middle East?

 7 min read / 

In recent decades, the Middle East has been increasingly viewed by the outside world as a region populated by camel-riding, bearded men, hijab-clad women who are not allowed to walk on the streets by themselves, and Kalashnikov-carrying militia.

Even though these stereotypes are radically exaggerated, there is some truth to them. The region is coping with problems that the world should not be facing in the 21st century: major wars whose effects, unfortunately, are felt across the globe; political instability and terrible economies; and an appalling refugee crisis whose scope, again, goes beyond the borders of the region. The incapability of Middle Eastern countries to keep up with the developments of the modern world has been long attributed to the fact that the governance is not secular, and Islam is driving these countries.

Sultanistic Dictatorships

The Middle East has always been a region with political intricacy. In the times of conflict, citizens looked to strong kings, shahs, emperors, or more recently, dictators, to lead countries with their personal charisma, and harsh discourses against the West instead of solid legal, economic, and social foundations.

Political leaders have been incentivised to use Islam as a way to elicit support for their regimes. They rely on awarding supporters with wealth or positions in the government. As with the case of Gaddafi in Libya or Ben Ali in Tunisia, these leaders lose power very quickly if they will not or cannot reward their supporters.

Such regimes also do little to ameliorate societies. However, some progressive leaders such as Atatürk in Turkey have tried to stop them and modernise their countries. Western countries, being more developed, were the natural nations for Middle Eastern nations to look up to. After all, Western nations had lived through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and Reform periods, and had thus learned that they needed to implement secularism to stop the Church from getting too powerful and provoking the illiterate population to object to progressive movements.

Fundamental Differences

Such a policy would not work in the Middle East. Because Islam and Christianity has a fundamental difference: Jesus Christ deliberately stayed away from entering politics and promoted a secular governance with his words, “Pay back Caesar’s things to Caesar, but God’s things to God,” when asked if people should pay taxes and obey the government.

Mohammad, on the other hand, was a politician who ruled Mecca and Medina with the rules of Islam, laying the foundations of the Islamic theocracy in the Muslim world. Unlike Western societies, people of these regions observe religion as a critical part of their life, and they want Islam to play a role in their state’s politics and affect their way of life.

Trying to secularise a state whose citizens define themselves with the religious portraitures was the first mistake of many progressive politicians of the Middle East. These leaders or groups already had to cope with the general obscurantist mindset of these religious cohorts while implementing developments. And giving a new political system (undoubtedly, a way better one) to these people who were living based on their religion might have been too soon.

The Case of Iran

The Pahlavi Dynasty made this mistake in Iran. Reza Pahlavi started to express his sympathy towards transforming the nation from an imperial religious state to a republic after taking power with a military coup.

In the early stages of his Republican propaganda, he faced a strong opposition from the illiterate population who were following the orders of mullahs – local Islamic clerics who were supported by and working for the expediency of Britain. Those people were used to live under the rules of Islam, and change scared them.

Secularism meant abandoning Islam. Afraid of losing power, Reza Pahlavi then retracted the idea and ruled the country as a shah. But people remained unhappy and he was overthrown by his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

He became a progressive leader with a more assertive attitude, and eventually started the White Revolution (named as such because no blood was spilt), which included important reforms such as the formation of a literacy corps, enfranchisement of women, land reforms, profit sharing schemes for workers, and nationalisation of forests.

But as again, people were not happy: He was too pro-west for some and secular for some people, and too oppressive for some other. As both sides were unhappy, progressive Iranians came together with religious Iranians to end the Pahlavi dynasty, and then they elected Khomeini to be the first supreme leader of Iran.

He was a religious leader who knew very little about economics or governance. He started the Islamic Revolution, and poverty, religious and ethnic suppression, war and censorship followed. Now, Iran claims their recently elected President Rouhani, an old member of the Combatant Clergy Association and a candidate that was once backed by the Khomeini family, is a progressive reformist.

Pakistan’s Troubles

A similar case occurred in Pakistan. Despite being founded in the name of Islam, Pakistan’s first Governor-General Muhammad Ali Jinnah said in the first speech of the Assembly of Pakistan: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”

During the 1960s, Pakistan had a free market economy, a partially secular society (despite being an Islamic state officially, things like alcohol or night clubs were a part of the society), and an incredible banking sector. Again, the religious community was unhappy. Islamic clergy forced the socialist and anti-American prime minister Bhutto in 1970s to outlaw these. Already facing a strong Islamic opposition, he was overthrown by a military coup lead by the US-backed Army Chief, Zia ul-Hag.

Bhutto was sentenced to death. Zia became the new president under the martial law and became a major player in the Soviet war in Afghanistan right after the moment he took power. The Reagan administration backed his regime as it helped the US in its fight against Communism.

Zia found the parliamentary democracy tainted in many ways and brought the presidential system with a technocratic decision-making scheme. He replaced the parliament with a consultative council to help him in Pakistan’s process of Islamisation and banned all political parties. He organised a referendum in 1984 to extend and legitimise his status. The country was in such a state, that a vote against Zia, meant a vote against Islam. He got 95% of the total votes, though the voter turnout was below 10%.

Elements of Progressive Politics

It is easy to see the reason behind the failure of secularism in the Middle Eastern countries. However, a completely different scenario has played out in the region in areas where progressive politics has been successful.

In the 1930s, Turkey gave full political rights to women, including the right to elect and be elected locally (in 1930) and nationwide (in 1934). Turkey was founded in 1923, and despite being a secular country at its foundation, more than 90% of the population identified themselves as Muslims. Accordingly, it was an incredibly progressive move compared even to the European countries such as Italy, France, or Portugal, who only extended the franchise to women in 1945-1946.

Jordan has legalised same-sex marriage and provided equal rights to women and men in 1951. Bahrain is also one of the only Middle East nations to have legalised same-sex marriage (in 1976, way before the US). Iran is second in the world in transgender surgery (since 1985, after Thailand), and now performs about 300 surgeries annually. The process is also state-subsidised. The national health system covers nearly half of the costs of the surgery and psychiatric support.

Iran also has state-run drug rehabilitation facilities that help people who are suffering from drug addictions, both medically and spiritually. In these facilities, patients are provided opioids (heroin, codeine, Vicodin, morphine, etc.), so that they can avoid pain caused by the withdrawal, by replacing the heavy drugs with these opioids, and decreasing the amount of the intake gradually. Iran has 3,300 of these clinics; the USA, on the other hand, has four times Iran’s population, but about 1,300 clinics.

As long as the war in the Middle East rages on, there will be no grounds to truly push progressive policies like these, and the region will continue to be mired in conservativism and puritanism.

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