Secular or religious? Why make enemies when we don’t have to?

In light of the continuing political uprising throughout the Middle East, American leaders are reported to be recalculating their approach … Continued

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?


    What an odd question! Freedom would have nothing to do with religion; but slavery or lack of freedom, now that has a lot to do with the repressive effects of religion. Which confirms the notion, that religion is primarily used for secular suppression of innate human conditions!

  • VictorFriendly

    There’s a lot of bad thinking in this article and it starts with Ms Brooks premise. She claims that for American foreign policy to equate a “freedom agenda” with secularism would rule out the possibility that there is just as much or more dynamism in the Islam of young Muslims as there is among those who self-identify as secular. To cut to the chase, it doesn’t matter if this is true or not since dynamism isn’t the essential ingredient for freedom. In fact, as we’ve seen in the case of the ’79 Islamist revolution in Iran, energetic public responses can be a lamentable hinderance to freedom.In the body of the article, the points Ms. Brooks makes don’t seem to amount to a coherent idea. She makes some supportable points, such as some in Islam wanting civil liberties; also that some policy experts had incorrectly expected that technology and reason would do in religion once and for all. However she gets off into the weeds by claiming that “some forms of secularism” are anti-democratic, a la Stalin. Since state sponsored atheism is positively an involvement by the state in religion (rather than indifference to it), calling it “one form of secularism” is like calling authoritarianism one form of democracy. The equivocation is not accidental, however. Ms. Brooks wants to put religious notions of freedom and secular ones on equal footing. If we can agree that what is at stake is what powers new state governments in the Islamic world will have, then she is wrong. We say government religion is not consistent with freedom at all: at a minimum it aims to stifle free and skeptical inquiry, and it only gets worse from there.To skip down to Ms. Brooks conclusion, she asks why we should privilege secularism over religion when technologically enabled religion may someday become more democratic (in apparent contradiction to the claims she makes earlier). “Why …continue to make enemies where we don’t need to…?” she asks. The answer is that you need to favor democratic principles grounded in reason and fairness over statist ones grounded in doctrine and discrimination. To be sure you shouldn’t make enemies when you don’t need to, but you often do make enemies when you do the right thing. In fairness, many religious-minded people the world over recognize that an elected secular government best protects religious liberty. It is both these people and those who feel oppressed by religion that the original Politico article was referring to anyway. The real question is: why turn a deaf ear to these more secular voices crying out for reform in that troubled region?

  • Kingofkings1


  • IslamicFundamentalismIsGood

    “The Islam of young Muslims”?A new euphemism for moderate (mediocre, secularized) Islam?How can Islam belong to a particular age range, when in fact those who have studied it for the longest time -and are therefore older- are supposed to be the most knowledgeable, and not vice versa?This writer maintains our backwards Westerner mentality of shaping Islam in whichever way seems more suitable to us. Why don’t you stop once and for all your messing up of nomenclatures?