In the west, we see secularism, democracy and liberty as the zenith of human progress – admirable goals which all societies should aim for. Indeed, throughout most of our history we have attempted to enforce these values on the rest of the world. Though our understanding of western values was different in the 19th century, European empires still attempted to ‘civilise’ the rest of the world by forcing their values on them. There are places where these practises have successfully created ‘Western’ democracies, however there are even more where this strategy has backfired with terrible consequences for the nations involved.
Despite these failures, western countries continue to attempt to mould the world in their image, regardless of the consequences. A more recent example of this –which is particularly infamous in the UK- is the Iraq war. Bush and Blair attempted to remove an authoritarian dictator and replace it with a secular democracy. The implementation of this plan was disastrous however. By forcing all of Saddam Hussein’s former supporters out of Iraqi politics, they only forced them to look for more radical ways to get their voices heard – resulting in extremist groups such as ISIS.
In 2011, when a wave of revolt spread across the Arab world, many hailed the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ as a triumph for world democracy. These premature celebrations quickly died however, as it became obvious that there would be no stable, democratic regimes created from these revolutions. As the situation stands currently, only one country –Tunisia- has managed to maintain relative stability since the installation of its new democratic government after 2011. In Libya, -a country that barely even exists at the moment-, it seems likely that an authoritarian dictator will eventually be replaced by his son, another authoritarian dictator. What is left of the Syrian state is still controlled by it’s original ruler and, along with Iraq, has seen large swathes of territory fall under the control of one of the most detestable organisations in history.
So why have all these attempts to create secular democracies in the Middle East failed? Surely if secular democracy is the highest form of governance, we should be able to see the system all across the Middle East. In the west, many will pin the blame for this failure on individuals and groups –such as ISIS- which have ‘disrupted’ the natural progress of civilisation from barbarism to democracy. The reality is that this is simply not the case.
An alternative idea was recently proposed by scholar Shadi Hamid in his book: Islamic Exceptionalism. He proposes that just because Christian nations have followed a path to secular democracy does not mean that other religions will do the same. Hamid argues that such a transition is unlikely in Islamic countries, because Liberal democracy simply does not offer the same sense of purpose. When someone joins an Islamist group/party, they do not do so for power or representation but because they believe they will receive eternal salvation from doing so. Islamism offers a sense of purpose, a sense that your actions on earth will lead to something more than can be achieved in a single lifetime. This is a drive that is completely missing from the politics of a liberal democracy, and this meaninglessness could be what drives many young men is western countries to choose to join extremist groups such as ISIS.
It is important to note that Islamism is not necessarily an extremist ideology. Hamid describes Islamism as: ‘an attempt to reconcile pre-modern Islamic law with the modern nation-state’. Until very recently, Islam was the foundation of society in the Middle East – it imbued all aspects of political and legal life. The modern idea of secularization and the modern nation state began to disrupt this system, and the modern ideology is Islamism attempts to link the old and the new – to reintegrate Islam into the modern nation state.
Not only does liberal democracy offer little meaning, but in the minds of many in the Middle East, it has become associated with invading western forces. The idea of democracy is one that the west has attempted to force on the Middle East throughout this century, and one that the Middle East has hence become quite resistant to. Islamism is characterized by the fact that it is not secularism. That it is an ideology that originates from the Islamic world rather than an alien force originating from the west.
So what is the future for the region? Is it doomed to be governed by Islamist dictators for all eternity? Probably not. Western attempts to force secular democracy on Islamic countries have backfired astronomically, and it is unlikely that a western system of government will ever become popular in the Islamic world. The ideology of Islamism may fade and be replaced by other systems in the future, but we can be sure that these systems will be distinctly Islamic and different to systems used in the west. Though the imminent future does not bode well for democracy and liberty in the Middle East, eventually new ideas and systems will evolve that may not be so alien and hostile to us in the west. One thing that we can be sure of however is that our western idea of ‘secular democracy’ will never take root there.