The Religious-Secular Clashes of the Arab World

China International Studies | 作者: Guo Xiangang | 时间: 2014-01-07 | 责编: Li Xiaoyu
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by Guo Xiangang[1]



On July 4, 2013, a date marked by the deposition of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, the Arab world ceased its temporary coexistence between secular and religious forces after the “Arab Spring” and stepped into the intense fighting phase between religion and secular forces. As a leading country in the Arab world, Egypt’s changing situation played a model role for other countries to follow. Secular force in Tunisia and Libya also imitated Egypt and started to fight back, marching in the streets and demanding the end of Islamic regimes. Currently, the overall situation in the Arab world conforms to the following description: secular forces shifting from the defensive to the offensive, trying to gain initiative and change the passive situations after the “Arab Spring”. But religious forces, unwilling to lose their democratically obtained power, are fighting in the streets. The two forces are both strong in their own ways, and it is hard for either of them to win in the short-term. The Arab world has thus been drawn into another wave of turbulence. At a critical moment in history, the forces of religion and secularity need to make rational choices in the interest of the Arab world and the region’s people. If they are unable to do so, the Arab world will be in a deep chaos for a long period, its social development will be stagnant, the livelihood problem will become increasingly severe, and reclaiming the Arab world’s occupied territories will not be realized within the foreseeable future.


Underlying Contradictions between Religious and Secular Forces


Since the Middle Ages, religious forces have withdrawn from the secular political field in most regions and countries in the world. That said, the Arab world was in special circumstances because its religious forces were deep-seated and had far-reaching implications. Especially in recent decades, secular regimes have become deeply involved in corruption and autocracy, the livelihood problems have become severe and the objective of gaining occupied territories was repeatedly defeated, offering opportunities for the politicization of the Islamic religion. Once fair elections were held, political parties that had Islamic backgrounds would always win and historical paradoxes appeared. After the breakout of the “Arab Spring”, Islamic political parties gained power through elections in Egypt and Tunisia while also expanding their influence in Libya. At the same time, religious organizations played a central role in Syria’s fight against Bashar al-Assad’s secular regime. Facing an increasingly religious force, the Egyptian secular force remained poised after its initial loss and hesitation. They then capitalized on the religious force’s poor administrative experience and the grim economic environment, took advantage of the common people’s discontentment and finally overthrew the religious regime. Superficially, the military-led secular force overthrew Morsi because he was not a very talented ruler and because he refused to listen to and meet the people’s demands. However, the underlying contradictions leading to the split between the two parties are as follows:


1. Theocracy or the Separation of Religion and Politics?

Since mankind entered the modern period, most national constitutions have practiced the separation of politics and religion, the exception being Iran and Afghanistan under Taliban rule. But Islamic forces, especially the extremists, are advocating for theocracy. Moderate Islamic forces, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which includes Egyptian Muslims, long ago abandoned their progressive views, maintaining an adherence to modern political principles rather than theocracy. The Morsi administration raised the “Five Not Policies” after it came into power: the Muslim Brotherhood would not become a dictatorship, would not interfere with press freedom, not neglect the interests of Christians, not give the military and the police special treatment and not force women to wear veils. However, secular forces regarded these policies as mere stalling tactics employed by Morsi, arguing that the Muslim Brotherhood would show their true colors and establish a regime similar to Iran’s once the situation came under control. This was the main reason why secular forces were eager to overthrow Morsi.


2. The Role of Islamic Law

Secular forces view Islamic law as an ancient form of law that only works in religious fields. Governing modern countries requires modern secular laws. After the Muslim Brotherhood came to power, they emphasized that constitutions should be established on the basis of Islamic law and that the basic spirit of Islamic law should be practiced fairly. This brought about considerable vigilance among secular forces. Most Egyptian military senior officials, members of the liberal elite and judicial officials, having received modern Western educations, could hardly agree that Islamic law should be regarded as the basis for the country’s new constitution.


3. Social Living Style

Secular forces maintain that people should be free to wear any clothes, dress up and show male-female intimacy in public, claiming this is a right that the government should not interfere with. Islamic forces hold that people’s behaviors, especially those of women, must meet the requirements of the Koran, and that society must be purified. Although the Morsi government did not forcefully impose Islamic law during its rule, the government encouraged common people to live life guided by Islamic values, and there was an obvious trend of women dressing according to Islamic tradition. In July 2012, a special channel appeared on Egyptian televisions in which all women hostesses wore black Islamic robes, veils, and gloves, showing only their eyes. This sparked much social debate in Egypt. The secular forces became very anxious about this, criticizing it as a backwards step in history and a distortion of the image of Islamic women.


4. Foreign Policies

Islamic forces support the output of the Islamic revolution. Muslim Brotherhood branches were long ago established in most Middle Eastern countries, supporting local Islamic forces in their quest to overthrow secular regimes. For example, the Brotherhood in Syria was publicly showing support for religious organizations to fight against the al-Assad regime in Syria. On June 15, 2013, the Morsi government announced the breakup of its diplomatic relations with the Syrian government, recalling the Egyptian Ambassador to Syria and shutting down the Embassy of the Syrian Arab Republic in Egypt. It took these actions to demonstrate its support for the Syrian opposition. On the other hand, both the Egyptian military and secular forces opposed the Morsi government’s intervention in Syria’s internal affairs through its support of the Syrian opposition. On July 20, 2013, Egypt’s new Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy expressed Egypt’s willingness to solve the Syrian issue by political means rather than through jihad. But with respect to the retrieval of the territories occupied by Israel, Islamic forces summoned the common public for jihad. Meanwhile, secular forces maintained that the problem be solved through negotiations after force failed; they were against the use of terrorism.

Theocracy is the central focus of clashes between the two sides. From the perspective of Egypt’s secular forces, theocracy represents a huge historical retreat, threatening to plunge Egyptian society into the darkness of the medieval ages. Therefore, as the backbone of secular forces, the Egyptian military is attempting to meet the masses’ demands and will take any means – even if they are extreme – to prevent the Morsi government from turning back the wheel of history.


II. Rivalry between Religious and Secular Forces


In the competition between religious and secular forces in the Arab world, secular forces can hardly defeat the Muslim Brotherhood in a fundamental way. Even though they gained temporary ruling power in Egypt by military means and through their crackdown on opposition parades, they can hardly truly defeat the Muslim Brotherhood. The two sides both have their advantages and weaknesses.

On the religious end, their actual strength has remained even though they have encountered difficulties. Since its foundation in 1928, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has worked hard to build schools, hospitals and establish welfare programs, winning the hearts of the common people and expanding to include hundreds of thousands of members. It has a solid foundation, abundant and long-term experience fighting against an oppressive political environment, and also strict organization systems. Aside from this, religious communities possess real estate, industries and abundant funds, providing a material basis for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to help the poor and support social welfare.

In addition, mainstream religious forces have kept some distance from the extremists and tend to remain moderate so as to adapt to the dramatically changing world. Beginning in the 1970s and with the goal of realizing a fair society, the Muslim Brotherhood has withstood persecution from the secular regime, insisted on propelling Egyptian society’s return to proper Islam through peaceful preaching, gradually discarded Islamic Fundamentalist objectives to establish a theocracy that integrates politics and religion, accepted a secular constitutional rule that separates politics from religion, adopted peaceful means and organized their political party to participate in parliamentary and presidential elections. In 1984, the Muslim Brotherhood participated in parliamentary elections in the name of the New Wafd Party’s candidate, seizing nine seats in the Egyptian People’s Assembly and marking the first time that the Brotherhood held seats in the Egyptian parliament. After the conclusion of the “Arab Spring”, Morsi, as leader of the Freedom and Justice Parity, came into power through elections and with the support of the Brotherhood. As Egypt’s first elected president, legitimacy is the most powerful weapon under Morsi’s control. Legitimacy has also emerged as the legal principle for international society to demand that the Egyptian military release Morsi.

In a similar fashion, the “Renaissance Movement” of the Tunisian Islamic political party won a constitutional election held in October 2011 and became the largest party after it gained 40 percent of the vote. In the following Tunisian presidential election held on December 12, Moncef Marzouki, who was supported by the Islamic political party, became president of Tunisia. “The Justice and Development Party” of the Moroccan Islamic political force also won a 30 percent approval rating in the parliamentary election that was held on November 25, 2011, thus becoming the largest political force; the party’s General Secretary Abdelilah Benkirane was appointed prime minister by the Moroccan King. In Libya after Gaddafi’s downfall, the Muslim Brotherhood formally founded the “Justice and Construction Party” on March 3, 2012; it ranked second in the Libyan parliamentary election held in July 2012. The above Islamic political parties all came into power through elections and gained their legitimacy in a democratic manner. They are implementing secular legislative, administrative, and judicial separate principles, respecting human rights and freedom of the press, and supporting women in their attempts to obtain government posts.

Although religious forces won elections in the Arab world, their shortcomings are still present. That is to say, despite their moderate stance on the separation of politics and religion, religious forces still wield much influence, and they will inevitably establish a constitution and regulations that infuse the people with religious colors. Such a conception is very backward when viewed in the context of modern society. At the same time, religious forces lack the judicial and military power that remains in the hands of secular forces. Therefore, in order to become a veritable president, Morsi adopted a series of measures to attempt to control the military and judicial agency, further worsening contradictions with the secular force.

On July 8, 2012, Morsi announced an order for the people’s assembly that was previously dismissed by the Supreme Court to resume his duty until the new parliament was elected. However, when the court reached a verdict two days later, it declared that the presidential order was against the constitution and Morsi had to make a statement the next day to show respect for the court’s verdict.

On November 22, 2012, Morsi issued a new constitutional statement stipulating that the president was entitled to appoint the attorney general and that all presidential orders, constitutional statements, laws and government orders were final decisions until the new constitution was issued and the new parliament elected. He added that these decisions could not be altered by either side. Such behavior was strongly opposed by the Egyptian administration of justice and Morsi was forced to scrap the statement.

From December 15 until 22, 2012, Morsi held a constitutional referendum and the constitution passed despite facing opposition from secular forces. But the secular forces had already quit the Constitutional Commission and would not recognize the constitution that was forcibly passed by Morsi. An administrative court controlled by the secular forces even showed opposition to Morsi’s presidential order issued on February 23, 2013, claiming that the passing procedures were illegal and that the presidential order announced by Morsi was invalid.

Faced with the counterbalance of secular force, the Morsi government proposed setting up an independent committee to amend the constitution with representation from all parties. At the same time, he proposed that a higher-level committee be established to realize national reconciliation. However, due to distrust between the secular and religious forces, Morsi’s desire to compromise did not come to fruition.

After Morsi’s defeat and downfall, the Tunisian secular force was greatly encouraged. Thousands of Tunisian people gathered in the capital on August 6, 2013, demanding the downfall of the transitional government led by the Islamic political party’s “Renaissance Move-ment”. In order to cope with the crisis, the Tunisian transitional government not only refused to resign but also agreed to expand its coalition government and was ready to compromise in order to avoid the fate that met the Morsi government.

Secular forces in Libya also imitated those in Egypt and started to fight back, demanding the dismissal of the Islamic political party, crying for police and military instead of the Muslim Brotherhood and attacking the headquarters of the Islamic Union Party. The Syrian secular al-Assad government was also encouraged to intensify its campaign against the opposition led by the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic force.

As for the secular forces, their advantages lie mainly in four aspects. First, the judicial administration and military are still in their hands. Second, they have agreed to conform to the developing trends of world politics or insisted that national governance be based on modern principles like the separation of politics and religion. They stress that religion should only work in social life but should not interfere with secular politics and that society will sink into chaos once the principle is transcended. Third, under the global background and having taken in a breath of fresh air, the people of the Arab world should not retreat to the dark middle ages. Fourth, modern educational systems have been established in the Arab world, elementary school compulsory education is generally implemented, progress is being achieved in modernization and backward medieval concepts are circumscribed.

The secular forces are at a disadvantage because even though the regime has regained power, it is not proper and can hardly be recognized by international society. Whatever excuses the Egyptian military makes to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood, they seem to be unjustifiable. As time passes, international society will apply increasing pressure to release the legitimate president Morsi. Additionally, the military-backed regime established by Arab secular forces after their countries’ gained independence finally sank into the cycle of corruption and family rule, leading to a poor image among the people. Liberals in the secular forces were dissatisfied that the military appointed retired generals as governors of provinces and they were anxious to avoid the military nightmare that persisted under Mubarak. Also the military crackdown on protesters caused many casualties, harmed the self-image of the military and spurred criticism from international society. Secular forces were further split when senior Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei resigned in protest of the interim government’s crackdown on members of the Muslim Brotherhood. It seems that improper actions could easily deprive the military of its popular support.

Apart from this, on issues of the economy and people’s livelihood, the Morsi government could hardly make any difference during its one-year reign due to the mutual balance of domestic parties and the fact that problems had accumulated for a long time. However, if the turbulent situation continues, secular forces in office will have no proper policy either. Currently, the unemployment rate in Egypt has reached up to 13.5 percent and the financial deficit is high. According to a report from the Gulf Times in Qatar, the current monthly budget deficit of the Egyptian provisional government is about 3.2 billion dollars and the government will struggle to meet its 33 billion dollar capital needs over the next 18 months. Currently, the secular government can only rely on being rescued by wealthy Arab countries, which will not solve the problem in a fundamental way. If economic problems cannot be solved after the new government is elected, the brunt of the common people’s argument will come down on the side that is in power.


III. Impacts of the Religious-Secular Rivalry


In the fight between religious and secular forces in the Arab world, Islamic forces have often met difficulties, while secular forces have gained temporary superior positions and the power structure in the Middle Eastern region is under restructuring:


1. Israel breathes a sigh of relief

Since the “Arab Spring”, Israel has been concerned that Islamic forces would carry out jihad against Israel after they took power in major regions of the Arab world. For Israel, jihad based on religious extremism is very hard to cope with. For instance, Hezbollah, whose ideology is based on Islamic fundamentalism, caused tremendous trouble for Israel. If the whole Arab world were to be controlled by religious forces and more religious organizations similar to Hezbollah appeared, this would be a nightmare for Israel. Although the Morsi government did not abolish Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, it would probably support jihad against Israel once it had the country firmly under its rule. Currently, Israel has been relieved about the dispositions of religious forces in Egypt, which is the largest country in the Arab world. Overcome by these feelings, Israel’s former Prime Minister Ehud Barack claimed that Egypt’s military leader, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, should get “support from the free world”.


2. The United States rejoices in secret

According to American standards, the actions of the Egyptian military amount to a typical military coup, but the United States has never labeled it a military coup. Instead, it adopted ambiguous signals, on the one hand delaying the delivery of weapons to the Egyptian military and stopping planned joint military exercises with the Egyptian military, but on the other hand drawing hasty conclusions based on excuses that “situations in Egypt are very special, truly a matter of life and death; civil war and serious violence could possibly break out”. The United States has thus kept contact with the Egyptian military and continued to provide it with military assistance. The United States stands behind such actions, claiming that the Islamic religious government poses the greatest threat to America’s ally Israel, and that the secular force led by the military is a United States political ally. However, the inconsistent attitude of the United States has hardly pleased anyone. Islamic religious forces accused the United States of actually encouraging the Egyptian military to adopt illegal measures to overthrow the elected government, conniving with the military to cruelly suppress the legal and peaceful demonstrations and assisting the military in the killing of the Egyptian people. Egyptian secular forces were similarly discontented with the United States, claiming that the Muslim Brotherhood ascended to power with the support of the United States. After the downfall of the Morsi government, the United States did not fully support Egypt’s secular forces but instead accused the Egyptian military of clearing out the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, which then encouraged the Muslim Brotherhood to continue fighting with the military and proved the United States’ two-faced nature.


3. Some Arab regimes are exultant

Countries faced with challenges from Islamic religious forces – such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Syria – could not hide their joy and publicly supported the actions of the Egyptian military. Three countries, namely Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, immediately announced that they would provide assistance of USD 1.2 billion to Egypt. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad announced on July 11 that the events in Egypt marked the failure of “political Islam” and that the Arab world would finally return to its proper track after the downfall of the Morsi Brotherhood. At the same time, Syrian government troops took advantage of the favorable situation and intensified its military’s elimination of the opposition’s armaments.


4. Deterioration of Egypt’s ties with non-Arab states like Iran and Turkey

After Morsi was disposed, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan reacted fiercely in a televised speech and claimed that the military coup was the enemy of democracy. At the same time, he accused Western nations of sitting back and being unconcerned with the Egyptian military’s coup. The reason behind the Turkish government’s opposition to the military actions is that Turkey is in control of the Islamic Justice and Development Party, which has sustained itself and developed despite a rivalry with the Turkish military. In short, the situation in Turkey is similar to the Islamic colors of the Morsi government. Iran is also against the Egyptian military’s coup to oust Morsi. On July 7, a spokesperson from Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs publicly stated that Morsi’s supporters should not give up the demand to resume his regime because the issue of presidential post should not be solved on the street. Iran opposes Egypt’s military coup because Iran’s current regime is of a similar nature to the Morsi government. Because of this, Morsi visited Iran after he took office and the long-term cold relationship between Egypt and Iran was improved tremendously. Iran’s isolated place in the Arab world was also improved. At present, given the change in the Egyptian political situation and the secular forces regaining office, Iran is afraid that Egyptian-Iranian relations will retreat to their former, mutually hostile status.


5. Al Qaeda and other radical Islamic forces take advantage of the situation to create disorder

After Morsi was overthrown, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current head of Al Qaeda, stated that the crusade, secularists and Americanized military used the Gulf capital to overthrow the Morsi government under the conspiracy of the United States. Al Qaeda boldly claimed the legitimacy of its argument: that elections would be fruitless and that jihad is the only accessible way to power. If the confrontation between Egypt’s religious and secular forces continues, some members of the Muslim Brotherhood will join forces with the Islamic extremists. This is precisely what Al Qaeda expects.

It can be seen that there are two beneficiaries from this tragedy: the first is Israel. After Egyptian secular forces took control of the situation, the pressure on Israel after the Arab Spring was released greatly. At present, the Arab world is trapped in a rivalry between religious and secular forces and unable to try to regain the Holy City and the occupied territories. Additionally, its internal contradictions have weakened the overall power of the Arab world, which cannot spare efforts to show solicitude for the miserable destiny of the Palestinian people.

Extremist Islamic organizations have also benefited. After the Arab Spring, the space for extremism force was compressed and Islamic moderate forces rose to power through elections. Seriously harmed by terrorism, the Arab people also hoped that peaceful means would be employed to eliminate corruption and the rule of military strongmen, thus resolving social problems and improving the people’s livelihood. Thus, the influence of extremist forces among the Arab people fell sharply. However, the Egyptian military’s overthrow of the Morsi government shut the door for Islamic moderate forces to gain power through peaceful means. Some members of the moderate Muslim Brotherhood will take risks and become radicals; extremist religious arguments of realizing goals through armed struggle and terrorism are becoming more popular.


IV. Prospects for the Arab World


The Arab world will remain in a transitional stage for the near future while it seeks a new development model. Western experience does not fit the Arab world – the regimes of military strongmen are deeply afflicted with corruption and have been cast aside by the people, theocracy will not be accepted and the confrontation between religious and secular forces will persist for a long time.

At present, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has three alternatives in facing the military crackdown:

The first is the Algerian model of armed resistance adopted by the 1992 Algerian Islamic Salvation Front after being banned by the military. When the Islamic Salvation Front won the parliamentary election, the military, which represented the country’s secular force, announced the invalidity of the election. They did this in order to ban and dismiss the Islamic Salvation Front for fear that the Islamic force would establish a theocratic system. The Islamic Salvation Front went underground, carried out terrorist attacks and started a 10-year civil war with the military, which caused many casualties among ordinary people and delayed national economic development. Eventually, the Islamic extremists took heavy blows.

The second is the Turkish model of enduring humiliation, accepting reality, waiting for the next election and rising again with more votes. In February 1997, the Turkish military demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan and banned his Islamic Refah Party. The Refah Party dealt with the situation calmly and continued to fight in parliament. Four years later, Erbakan’s followers established the Justice and Development Party that later won the 2002 election. The party has been in power since then and has sent many retired generals who plotted to overthrow the government to court.

This said, it is improbable that Egypt will replicate either of the above two models. As for the Muslim Brotherhood, the Algerian model is a path of no return and it could only give the military excuses to wipe out the Muslim Brotherhood. And the Egyptian military will also not adopt the Algerian model because, first of all, the common people are disgusted with using force after going through the “Arab Spring” and the military has to be cautious. Second, since the Muslim Brotherhood did not adopt armed resistance, it is unjustifiable for the military to carry out large-scale crackdowns; such crackdowns would also be condemned by the international community. Third, because the Muslim Brotherhood is a well-organized group, it will not be easily defeated by the military. A military crackdown will not necessarily conquer the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Turkish model will not work either. The Turkish military believed that Turkey was highly secularized and that the political situation in Turkey was under control, so the Islamic force was allowed to establish a new political party for the election. But there is a different scenario in Egypt. The 85-year-old Muslim Brotherhood has far greater influence than the Turkish Islamic forces. It is difficult for the Egyptian military to control the Muslim Brotherhood and the military will probably not allow the Brotherhood to establish a new political party. Although the Muslim Brotherhood is eager to follow the lead of the Turkish Islamic forces to gain power by participating in elections, the conditions are not ripe at present.

The Muslim Brotherhood will probably adopt the third alter-native, which is to generally adopt a non-violent approach, use various tools of public opinion to combat the military, hold peaceful demonstrations, strive for sympathy from the international community, force the military to release Morsi, resume elected government and refuse to admit any election results that do not feature the open participation of the Muslim Brotherhood.

This will be a prolonged rivalry. The Egyptian situation does not look like it will be stabilized soon. The grim Egyptian economy will become grimmer and people’s living standards will continue to decline. At the same time, the struggle between Egyptian religious and secular forces will spill over to other countries in the Arab world. Extremists will expand their influence and peace and stability in the Middle East will become out of reach.

For the long-term interests of Egypt and the Arab world, the religious and secular forces must make wise compromises. Specifically speaking, the military should respect election results and alter its ancient practice of forcefully overthrowing elected government. The religious forces in office should strictly adhere to the basic principle of modern politics, establish a constitution based on the separation of politics and religion, abandon any intentions to govern the society by Islamic law and reject the foreign policies of the Islamic revolution. However, the contradictions between the religious and secular forces are too deep-rooted to be mended overnight. Historical change is an uneven process.


Source: China International Studies November/December 2013 p97-113

[1]Guo Xiangang is Senior Research Fellow and Vice President of China Institute of International Studies.