Arab nationalism and political Islam

Secularism – ″the other option″?

In his essay, Syrian publicist and writer Hammud Hammud debunks conventional Islamist prejudices regarding the concept of secularism and examines the ambivalence of political Islam and Arab nationalism

Throughout the 20th century, the Arab world has always found itself operating either within an Islamist or nationalist framework. Questions about whether there may be a third outlet or source of knowledge which Arab intellectuals have tapped into have risen, but rarely has the answer been positive. In general, all Arab ideologies have usually operated within the two aforementioned spheres.

Despite political conflict between the two – sometimes even bloody – the existence of one is inevitably linked to the other. In fact, the current state of Arab ruin, especially that in the Levant, is an extension of that dynamic. It can′t be denied that the fall of the nationalist ideology meant that Arabs reverted to the Islamist one. In fact, Islamists themselves have said so.

In any case, my comments aren′t related to that, but to the intentional false claims of Islamists that Arab nationalist dictatorship is linked to modern politics and, therefore, to secularism.

The ″Islamist alternative″

Islamists continue to present themselves as the sole alternative to replace Arab political regimes that are complicit in spreading these false claims. (It is often concluded that Islamist ideology is a ″biological alternative″. Why? Because we are Arabs, it is believed that we are instinctively born into an Islamic space!)

This Islamist false claim says that with the fall of Ben Ali′s regime, his adopted ideology of Jacobin laicism – which was the basis of his dictatorship – fell, with the understanding that it was based on modernity. Soon after, the regimes of other Arab states followed suit, apparently proving this claim right.

Tunisians wave placards bearing the slogan ″Wanted: Ben Ali – Tunisia″ (photo: AFP)
Islamist interpretation of the Tunisian dictator′s downfall: the Islamists assert that with the fall of Ben Ali′s regime, his adopted ideology of Jacobin laicism – which was the basis of his dictatorship – fell, with the understanding that it was based on modernity

In fact, it gave credibility to the ″Islamist alternative″ with the rise of political Islam in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as the growth of Islamist movements in Syria that took over the struggle against the tyranny of the Assad regime. All these were taken as indicators that Arab secular ideology has fallen after having been the cornerstone of dictatorships.

For the most part, these false claims were based on two axes: firstly, a political one, that equates the tyranny of Arab political systems to western modernity; secondly, the axis that takes advantage of what the religious sphere offers, which meant accusing tyrannical Arab political systems of being based on atheist agendas and therefore against Islam, the assumed natural state of Arabs.

Undoubtedly, both axes are a product of a larger foundational cultural context, especially in terms of trying to delegitimise secularism by undermining its modern content and turning it into ″just another ideology″, while regressing back to Islamic heritage as the cultural and historical path that establishes present and future Arab aspirations. This heritage is recreated a thousand times to serve the tyrant and the Islamists.

Furthermore, there is the equation of secularism with the west, which has a history of hostility against Islam. Unfortunately, Arab nationalist dictatorships have not gone against Islamists in this intellectual nonsense. On the contrary, they have always tried to prove they were more Islamic than the Islamists themselves.

Islam as a means of legitimisation – Nasser

Gamal Abdel Nasser was a good example (so are his ′successors′) with his firm nationalistic legacy and the cartoonish aspect of its modernity and secularism.

Gamal Abdel Nasser (photo: AP)
Nasser the legend: to many, Abdel Nasser was a charismatic legend who bought into a socialist ideology that was hostile to imperialism and Zionism. But the Egyptian leader was in fact born into a religious sphere and was later influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. The fact that he remained chained to this socialist ideology until his death did not sway him from the religious intellectual frameworks within which he was raised

To many, Abdel Nasser was a charismatic legend who bought into a socialist ideology that was hostile to imperialism and Zionism. But the Egyptian leader was in fact born into a religious sphere and was later influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. The fact that he remained chained to this socialist ideology until his death did not sway him from the religious intellectual frameworks within which he was raised.

Furthermore, the Islamic cultural paradigm of his nationalistic ideology was not very different from that of his Islamist opponents, such as Sayyid Qutb. His rather fierce opposition to some Islamists, was nothing more than a temporary and military tyrannical ploy which he used to protect his dictatorship; the same was for his socialist ideology and his religious mentality.

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