The Islamists and secularists of the Middle East have been fighting each other for a century. Their conflict has achieved nothing but perpetuating authoritarian rule. Yet, calling on them to unite and set aside their differences is naive at best, for their differences are real and fundamental. Faking unity during the Arab Spring backfired and left both sides more distrustful of each other.
What Islamists and secularists need to do is not seek an impossible alliance but rather build a framework for coexistence that allows them to break away from their zero-sum relationship. This is a critical first step toward laying foundations for democratic governance in the Middle East.
On the face of it, the schism between Islamists and secularists seems too deep to be bridged. They disagree on whether individual rights or “Islamic rules” prevail, whether individuals are masters of their own lives or fall under custody of Islamic authorities and whether all citizens are equal before the law. They also disagree on how to deal with non-Muslims, in their midst and abroad. These are disagreements over the foundations of society and state, as well as their place in the world.
On top of that, each side views the other as an aberration that needs redress.
Secularists view “political Islam” as a travesty of both politics and Islam. For them, Islam is a religion — its scriptures allow differing interpretations and have been shaped by the way societies developed. They believe conflating religion and politics leads to unspeakable violence and ultimately flies in the face of what both religion and politics are. The Islamic State represents the extreme version of what this dangerous conflation can achieve.
Secularists attribute the rise of political Islam to ignorance, socioeconomic decay, the failure of secular ideologies, foreign interference and accumulated historical anger. They seek to tackle, and preferably eradicate, political Islam through a concerted effort to improve education, fight poverty and improve governance. They often blame authoritarian rulers for failing to carry out this comprehensive reform program to its full extent, either because they are in league with Islamists or benefit from their presence.
The trouble is: Secularists did rule, yet failed to eradicate Islamism. They tried it under colonial rule and under nationalist heroes such as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Turkey and Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. They tried it under military dictators lsuch as Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad, and under civilian modernizers including Reza Pahlavi of Iran and Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia. None of it worked. Sooner or later, Islamism popped up its head again and either took over — violently, as in Iran in 1979, or gradually, as in Turkey in 2002 — or became powerful enough to form major opposition blocs, as in Tunisia and Egypt today. There is no reason to believe repeating the same programs would work now. Islamism, fight it or not, is not a transient phenomenon.
On the other side, Islamists view secularism as an aberration. To them, secularists are a product of Western cultural imperialism and patronage. As a result, Arab and Muslim secularists remain alien in their countries and can sustain their dominance only by force — mostly exercised through dictatorships supported by Western states. Ultimately, Middle Eastern secularists are seen as hypocrites, pretending to support democracy but unwilling to stand in free elections because they could bring the Islamists to power.
Secularism is, in this view, a virus that infected Muslim societies. The jihadists are willing to use force to remove it, while the moderate branch is more patient, advocating a gradual re-Islamization of society until all those alien cultural expressions “wither away.”
The trouble is that Islamists have tried both approaches and failed to eradicate secularism, too. The jihadist method has failed and backfired — at least as long as popular support is concerned. The gradual approach, adopted by the Muslim Brotherhood and its franchised organizations, was more successful. But nearly 100 years after its birth, Islamism is still struggling against secularists. Even more troubling are the experiences of Islamists in power in Iran and Sudan. Decades after they implemented Islamization programs covering everything from women to books, secularism is still alive and kicking. Even Saudi Arabia, which is founded on Wahhabi Islamism, is rife with demands for liberalization.
Neither Islamism nor secularism can be erased no matter how violent or comprehensive the eradication program is. All this conflict achieves is continued suffering and missed opportunities for good governance as authoritarianism become necessary to keep the other side — or both sides — at bay.
Islamists and secularists need a pact that allows them to compete and survive when the other side is in power. It is a difficult but not impossible task: World history is rife with examples of societies that have traveled down this road. The warring factions in Germany’s Thirty Years’ War, for instance, killed a fifth of its population and destroyed its economy without achieving a meaningful victory, and ultimately had to settle for coexistence.
Like in any civil war, the biggest hurdle to coexistence between Islamists and secularists in the Middle East is getting key players from both camps to recognize the impossibility of victory and the need for unpopular compromises. Until they do, conflict will continue and democracy will remain an elusive goal.
Ezzedine C. Fishere is The Post’s second Jamal Khashoggi fellow. He is the author of “The Egyptian Assassin” and a senior lecturer at Dartmouth College.