In light of the continuing political uprising throughout the Middle East, American leaders are reported to be recalculating their approach to the Muslim world.
Politico’s Ben Smith wrote this week that the Obama administration “clearly sees an opportunity,” signaling “that they’re hoping the changes in Tunisia and Egypt spread, and that they’re going to align themselves far more clearly with the young, relatively secular masses” in countries like Iran, Algeria and Lebanon.
Is this a new moment for American relations with Muslim countries? Is freedom a religious or secular idea?
It would be a huge mistake for American foreign policy to equate a “freedom agenda” with secularism and rule out the possibility that there is just as much, if not more, dynamism in the Islam of young Muslims around the world as there is among those who self-identify as secular.
There is a lively debate within Islam on the advocacy of democracy and civil liberties that is well summarized in Reza Eslami-Somea’s chapter, “Human Rights and Islamic Reform,” in the new book by Qumar-ul Huda of the United States Institute of Peace, Crescent and Dove: Peace and Conflict Resolution in Islam.
Moreover, this is not an issue just confined to Islam. Freedom throughout modern history is a religious idea and it is a secular idea. You don’t have to choose, or make them polar opposites. Yet, it is also the case that some religious ideas are completely incompatible with freedom. The current Iranian views on religion and democracy are a case in point. But some forms of secularism are also diametrically opposed to freedom. There, Joseph Stalin comes to mind.
I think the idea that the young people in these Arab countries are “secular” and that therefore we can work with them without all that messy religion is a comfortable one for the policy and media establishment. One of the most influential theses of the 20th century has been that modernization and secularism inevitably grew together. This has been a cornerstone of sociological, philosophical and even theological analysis from the period. Certainly, it is an idea that has strongly influenced political science and foreign policy.
Religion as a force in world affairs was supposed to be disappearing as forces of modernization such as democracy and globalization advanced. Then, of course, the Shah of Iran was deposed for a fundamentalist Islamic leader, and after that, 9/11 happened. Religion, in the form of Islam, could scarcely be ignored any longer, but then it became problematized as “anti-modernist” and regarded as incompatible with economic, political and social development toward modernity. This view is at the foundation of the famous “clash of civilizations” thesis of Samuel Huntington, i.e. that people’s cultural and religious identities will be the main source of conflict in the post-Cold War era. This is a thesis that U.S. political conservatives have embraced with vigor and far less erudition than Huntington and it is gaining in currency among the American public.
Is it so? Is resurgent religion destined only to retard the development of democracy, promote conflict and be a significant problem for foreign policy? In fact, in the view of two economists, John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge, it is not. Their book, God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World is an empirically based study that shows that not only is religion growing at exponential rates around the world, it is “succeeding in harnessing the tools of modernity to propagate its message. The very things that were supposed to destroy religion–democracy and markets, technology and reason–are combining to make it stronger.” Religion itself, in short, is a growing source of power in a digital world.
But will all this result in greater democratic freedom? We don’t know, precisely. But why privilege secularism over religion when the verdict on these new developments is years away? Let’s not continue to make enemies where we don’t need to, shall we?