DRAFT: 6.30.00   


Disenchanted Worlds:
Seculartization and Democratization in the Middle East


By Majid Tehranian
Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy
University of Hawaii at Manoa

Paper for Presentation at the World Congress of
International Political Science Association
Quebec City, August 1-5, 2000



Secularization in Islamic societies faces an especially difficult task. The Islamic Shari'a (Divine Law) is a comprehensive legal system dealing with all aspects of life. The closing of the gates of ijtihad in the 10th century faced Islamic societies with relative legal stagnation. Modernization has clearly undermined the legitimacy and viability of the Shari'a. Secularization in the modern Middle East may be therefore dated back to the 19th century when the impact of secular West on Middle Eastern societies called for urgent reforms. However, the process has gone through several distinct stages characterized by incremental secularization, radical secularization, radical Islamization, and resurgent secularization. This chapter examines the processes of secularization in dialectical relation to democratization, i. e. the broadening and deepening of political participation. Comparative secularization in legislation, education, judiciary, media, and culture will be the main foci of analysis. The chapter argues that the transition from orality and writing to print and electronic culture generally leads to diffusion of knowledge. This, in turn, reduces the authority of the clerics as the custodians of revealed knowledge. Secularization in the Middle East, as elsewhere, has been the result of increasing democratization of knowledge and power. However, democratization has been generally hostage to authoritarian regimes that resist change. It also has been retarded by rentier states whose large oil revenues or immigrants' remittances have shielded them against political pressures. A pathology of transition also has characterized the Middle East's passage to modernity. The ideologies of purification including "pure" nationalism, communism, secularism, and Islamism have retarded democratic development that requires co-existence and compromise among political adversaries.

" modernization involves a process of secularization; that is, it systematically displaces religious institutions, beliefs, and practices, substituting for them those of reason and science[Max Weber called this process] 'the disenchantment of the world.' It eliminates all the superhuman and supernatural forces, the gods and spirits, with which nonindustrial cultures populate the universe and to which they attribute responsibility for the phenomena of the natural and social worlds. In their place it substitutes as the sole cosmology the modern scientific interpretation of nature. Only the laws and regularities discovered by the scientific method are admitted as valid explanations of phenomena. If it rains, or does not rain, it is not because the gods are angry but because of atmospheric conditions, as measured by the barometer and photographed by satellites."

"Modernization", Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
[Accessed January 7, 2000].


This chapter considers secularization and democratization in the context of a diversity of Middle Eastern societies. It argues that relations between secularization and democratization in the Middle East are far more complex than those experienced by the West (Yalman 1973, 1991). Islam and democracy have been allies in some contexts and adversaries in others. Historically, relations between mosque and state in Islamic societies have been significantly different from the relations between church and state in Christendom. In contrast to the Christian doctrine of separation of spiritual and temporal realms, Islam generally sees them as united. Politically, absolutist monarchies in the Middle East were not transformed into enlightened despotisms as in Europe but, rather, became Wesstern colonial satrapies. They could not therefore pursue an effective policy of modernization and secularization. In the anti-imperialist struggles, the Islamic Ulama often made common cause with secular nationalists and liberals. Economically, most modern Middle Eastern states became directly or indirectly recipients of large oil revenues in the form of windfall "rents" that allowed them to avoid taxing their population while extending some social benefits and resisting the pressures for political participation. Culturally, the transition from orality to print and electronic media systems has led to accelerating mobilization of the tradition-bound lower strata of society with Islamic rather than secular ideological orientations.

A pathology of transition to modernity has characterized Middle Eastern development no less it had plagued prior industrialization experiences in the world. The passage to modernity requires mobilization of human and natural resources, which in turn fosters ideologies of disciplined puritanism requiring mobilization, dedication, hard work, and abstinence from consumption. In past historical experiences, the Puritan, Nazi, Fascist, and Communist Revolutions have performed that function. Faced with colonial domination, Middle Eastern societies have resorted to the more indigenous varieties of purist ideologies, including "pure" nationalism and Islamism. Such ideologies clearly hamper democratic development that requires co-existence and compromise among political adversaries.

Following a brief discussion of the comparative aspects of secularization and democratization, the chapter takes a historical approach. It reviews the ebb and flow of secularization and democratization under the rubric of three historical phases: (1) incremental secularization and democratization in the 19th century, (2) radical secularization without democratization in the inter-war period (1918-1941), and (3) radical Islamization with/out democratization in the postwar period. In conclusion, the problems and prospects for an emerging democratic coexistence between mosque and state will be examined.

Secularization and Democratization in Comparative Perspective

In modernization theories, secularization and democratization have been often considered mutually re-enforcing processes. In the Marxist tradition, religion is considered opium of the masses that blunts class-consciousness and revolutionary fervor. In the liberal tradition, traditional religious values are considered obstacles to modernity and modernization. In both traditions, secularization is considered an essential component of democratization.

This orthodox view may be generally valid for the Western historical experience. The rise of the modern world in Western Europe and North America was accompanied by decline of religious authority and monarchical power. It also led to rise of secular nation-states, and a succession of liberal democratic revolutions that laid the foundations of the modern democratic states. As exemplified by the United States constitution, one feature of this transition was the separation of church and state. In Western countries with an official church, such as the Church of England in Britain, secular laws eventually prevailed. Moreover, the transition from orality and writing to print and electronic cultures generally led to diffusion of knowledge. This, in turn, reduced the authority of the Roman Catholic Church as the custodian of revealed knowledge. Secularization in the West was thus the result of increasing democratization of knowledge and power. Jesus' injunction, "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Bible, Mark, 12:17) provided the theological legitimation for the separation of church and state.

By contrast to the early history of Christianity, temporal and spiritual authorities were united for the first forty years of Islamic history (622-661). Under the leadership of Prophet Muhammad and his Rightly-Guided Caliphs (khulaf al-rashidun), the nascent Islamic community was led by political leaders who were at the same time considered vicars of God on earth. Following the assassination of the fourth Caliph Ali, the Prophet's son-in-law, political power passed on to two dynasties that did not enjoy as much religious legitimacy. Although the Ummayed and Abbasid Caliphs continued to call themselves amir al-mu'minin, Commander of the Faithful, they were not universally respected or followed. Except for its first forty years, therefore, Islamic history was characterized by a de facto separation of mosque and state.

But historical memories of pristine Islam have persisted to give rise to several different tendencies, including Islamic conservatism, messianism, reformism, mysticism, separatism, and revolution (see Table 1). The most militant of these tendencies is an effort to return to the purity of pristine Islam by unifying mosque and state power. This tendency has expressed itself both in conservative and revolutionary politics. The earliest of such movements was the 19th century Wahhabi movement in the Arabian Peninsula that finally established the Saudi regime in 1932. The movement was and continues to be a puritanical doctrine that tries to re-establish pristine Islam. So was Ayatollah Khomeini's call for the establishment of an Islamic Republic. Both calls are fundamentally against secular regimes. They have reverberated throughout the Islamic world. However, the revolutionary tendency also contains within itself reformist secular potentials that have led in Iran to a struggle between the conservatives, liberals, and pragmatists.

The other three tendencies (messianism, mysticism, and separatism) may be considered strategies of resistance. By reliance on the messianic notions of the return of Mahdi (in Arabic, he who is divinely guided), for centuries Muslims have risen against their oppressive governments. The latest such incidence took place in Sudan when in 1844-55 by declaring himself Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad successfully defeated the British forces (Mortimer, 1982, 76-79). In mid-19th century, the Babi Movement in Iran led a less successful revolt. It merged with the constitutional revolutionary movement as well as the Bahai Faith founded by Mirza Hussein Ali, who had declared himself Mahdi in 1863 just before he was exiled.

Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, is arguably as old as Islam. In later centuries, it turned into a formidable movement of folk Islam organized in a variety of Sufi orders or brotherhoods (ukhuwwat). As a reaction against Islamic positivism, Sufism emphasized the Way (Tariqa) vis-à-vis the Law (Shari'a). It established a constellation of saints and places of Sufi gathering and worship other than the mosque, including khaneqah, zawiya, and tekya. A few Sufi Orders, such as the Sanusis in Libya (Mortimer 1982, 74-76) and the Safavids in Iran, also achieved positions of state power by establishing dynastic rule. Official Islam considered Sufism a religious deviance until the 11th century when Imam Ghazali (1058-1111) reconciled its principles with those of the Shari'a. Sufi orders subsequently helped to propagate Islam into south and southeast Asia. To this day, Sufism continues to be a source of religious inspiration for millions of Muslims. It provides a worldview that often shuns state power in favor of personal spiritual pursuits. It is largely quietist and except for a few historical instances, it does not directly confront state power.

By contrast, as typified by khawarij in early Islam and Shi'ism in much of Islamic history, Islamic separatism challenges the legitimacy of the state on religious grounds. Today, there are many separatist groups in the Islamic world that wish to set themselves apart from a dominant secular society that is perceived as depraved and beyond salvation (Sivan 1985, 86-90). In contemporary Egypt, such groups are exemplified by Jama'at al-tableMuslimin, later dubbed by authorities Takfir wa-Hijra (Condemnation and Migration), and al-'Uzla al-Shu'uriyya (Emotional Seclusion).

The six tendencies under discussion are not mutually exclusive. As Table 1 shows, the first three tendencies (Conservative, Reformist, and Revolutionary) can be readily identified in terms of historical periods and movements. But the religious tendencies towards Messianism, Mysticism, and Separatism cannot be as readily identified and dated. The latter tendencies may be considered as strategies of resistance that have a long and sometimes secret history.

Secularization and democratization in modern Middle East can be analyzed in terms of the ebbs and flows of the transition to modernity. As prismatic societies (Riggs 1964), Middle Eastern countries present almost every color in the complex prism of mosque-state relations. However, patterns seem to have shifted from incremental to radical secularization and democratization followed by radical Islamization with or without democratization. Although it is too early to judge, the latter period may be followed again by a period of incremental secularization and democratization. As in the Western transition to modernity during which Christianity was transformed through Renaissance and Reformation, Islam also is currently undergoing profound changes in its belief systems and practices. The transition from orality and writing to print and electronic cultures in the Middle East, as elsewhere, is leading to democratization and secularization of knowledge and power (Eickelman and Anderson 1999; Lawrence et al. 1999).

Before we discuss this evolutionary process, a few caveats on democratization and secularization are in order. First, as the preceding discussion has shown, Islam is not a monolith. There are enormous variations in beliefs and practices with respect to mosque-state relations. Second, in the processes of broadening and deepening of political participation, democratization is a journey not a destination. No country in the world can claim to have achieved perfect democracy, which in Lincoln's apt words means "government of the people, by the people, and for the people". However, elements of that ideal can be summarized as follows:

  • Political democracy: popular sovereignty; universal suffrage, protection of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness; majority rule, minority rights; fair representation and periodic elections, peaceful succession, direct voting such as referenda on critical issues, rule of law, habeas corpus, bill of rights and responsibilities of citizenship
  • Economic democracy: protection of property, free markets, free competition, government regulation of trade and investment to ensure absence of monopolies and fair standards in trade, exchange, competition, health, and environment.
  • Social democracy: social security for the unemployed, retired, pregnant women, children, provision of public health, education, and welfare
  • Cultural democracy: universal education, access to means of communication, freedom of identity, including speech, assembly, religion, language, privacy, and life style.

As for secularization, the fundamental principle is a separation of religion and state. This does not, however, mean a separation of religion and politics. In a secular society, religious institutions like other social institutions in a secular society are free to compete and express their political views in the marketplace of ideas. In contrast to theocracies, secular regimes do not allow a clerical class to monopolize political power in the name of God without reference to popular will. In this sense, secularization and democratization must be considered as two sides of the same coin.

One last caveat. Significant differences in Sunni and Shi'a theologies and religious organizations have led to different consequences in Iran, Turkey, and the Arab world. While unity of temporal and spiritual authority continued to be a tenet of Sunni Islam, Shi'ism from the beginning was a minority sect upholding the legitimacy of the House of Ali against the temporal rulers. From time to time, Shi'a dynasties came to power as in the cases of the Fatimids in Egypt (973-1171), the Buyids in Iran and Iraq (945-1055), and the Safavids (1501-1722) in Iran. But the majority sect continued to be Sunni, even in Iran until the Safavids brought Shi'a missionaries from Lebanon to convert the population to Shi'ism vis-à-vis the Ottoman Sunnis. For this reason, some scholars have argued that Shi'a Islam is an Iranian cultural creation that has grafted the Divine Rights of Kings into Islamic theology by vesting spiritual and temporal authority exclusively in the House of Ali. Whatever its origins, Shi'ism in modern Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, where it is followed by majorities, has generally assumed an oppositionist posture against secular governments. According to Twelver Shi'ites, dominant in Iran and Iraq, legitimate power belongs to the 12th Imam Mahdi who had disappeared into occultation in 878 and who will reappear someday to restore peace and justice in the world. By virtue of their spiritual authority as custodians of the Imamate, the Shi'a Ulama often succeeded in creating a state within the state. Collection of religious taxes (khoms, zakat, and sahm-i-Imam) and control of religious endowments (waqf) also gave them some financial independence. Although modern secular states have tried time and again to turn the Ulama into state pensioners, the Shi'a Ulama have often succeeded in maintaining their autonomy. They have thus generally acted as a stronger source of opposition to secular policies than their Sunni counterparts.

Incremental Secularization and Democratization

Middle Eastern societies came into direct contact and conflict with the secular West as early as the military defeats they experienced. The landing of Napoleon in Egypt in 1798 was the most dramatic of these events. Although the French were expelled in 1802 by the combined forces of British and Ottoman troops, the shock of contact started a secularization process that continues to this day. For the Ottoman Empire, the loss of Greece and Egypt in the early 19th century brought military defeat home. For Qajar Iran, defeat took place in the early 19th century as a result of two successive wars with Russia in which the country lost its control over the Caucuses and Central Asia. The resulting shock awakened the governments in Ottoman Turkey, Iran, and Egypt to the need for reform.

Reform began first with military institutions. Reorganization of armies along Western models of conscription, armament, and warfare was the first item on the agenda. In Ottoman Turkey, the Tanzimat Reforms of 1836-76 took the lead. A proclamation in 1839 upheld the principles of individual liberty, freedom from oppression, and equality before the law and a section of the 1856 edict concerned itself with the rights of Christians. However, such declarations by the Ottoman Sultans were primarily window dressing aimed at pleasing Western powers. The real reforms were in the army, including the major reorganizations of 1842 and 1869 following the pattern of the successful Prussian conscript system.

In Iran, military reform was conducted under the leadership of Crown-Prince Abbas Mirza. A French military mission sent to Iran by Napoleon assisted him in the task. However, as soon as France reached an agreement with Russia against Britain, the mission was withdrawn and Iran suffered defeat in the hands of the Russians (Amini 1999).

In Egypt, an ambitious Albanian military officer named Mohammad Ali led the modernization and secularization drives. As a society ruled by the control of a single superhighway, the Nile, Egypt presented the greatest opportunity in the Ottoman Empire for a total restructuring of society. The three-year French occupation (1798-1801) had undermined the country's traditional system. Muhammad Ali completed the task by putting an end to Egypt's traditional society. He organized a modern army, eliminated the former ruling oligarchy, expropriated the old landholding classes, turned the religious class into government pensioners, restricted the activities of the native merchants and artisans, neutralized the Bedouins, and crushed all movements of rebellion among the peasants. The task of rebuilding Egypt along modern lines now lay before him. Although he largely failed in this task by refusing to democratize the political system, his secular policies in administration, education, and law laid the foundation. Disbanding his mercenary army, he created a fleet and an army of Egyptians conscripted from the peasant class. To supply services for his armed forces, he created Western-style schools to train doctors, engineers, veterinarians, and other specialists. He also began sending students to European countries for training in modern techniques.

Following the military, educational secularization made the greatest progress. Education in Islamic societies had been the responsibility of the various millets recognized by the state as the People of the Book, including Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic communities. Education for Muslims was controlled by the Ulama and directed toward religious learning. The first inroads into the Ottoman educational system had been made with the creation of naval engineering (1773), military engineering (1793), medical (1827), and military science (1834) colleges. Similar institutions for diplomats and administrators were founded, including the translation bureau (1833) and the civil service school (1859). The latter was reorganized in 1877 and eventually became the political science department of the University of Ankara and the major training center for higher civil servants.

In 1846, the first comprehensive plan for state education was put forward. It provided for a complete system of primary and secondary schools leading to the university level, all under the Ministry of Education. A still more ambitious educational plan, inaugurated in 1869, provided for free and compulsory primary education. Both schemes progressed slowly because of a lack of money, but they provided a framework within which development toward a systematic, secular educational program could take place. By 1914 there were more than 36,000 Ottoman schools, although the great majority were small, traditional primary schools. The development of the state system was aided by the example of progress among the non-Muslim millet schools, in which the education provided was more modern than in the Ottoman schools. These included more than 1,800 Greek schools with about 185,000 pupils and some 800 Armenian schools with more than 81,000 pupils. Non-Muslims also used schools provided by foreign missionary groups in the empire. There were also 675 U.S., 500 French Catholic, and 178 British missionary schools, with more than 100,000 pupils among them. These foreign schools included such famous institutions as Robert College (founded 1863), the Syrian Protestant College (1866); later the American University of Beirut), and the Université Saint-Joseph (1874). Similarly in Iran and Egypt, secularization by state expansion of military, civilian, and educational bureaucracies followed the same patterns as in the Ottoman Empire but with significant lags.

Middle Eastern efforts towards state building, centralization, and secularization resembled the European models of benevolent despots such as Louis XIV in France (1638-1715), Frederick the Great in Prussia (1712-86), and Peter the Great in Russia (1672-1725). However, the results were radically different. From the 19th century onwards, European powers and cultural influences were increasingly penetrating Middle Eastern polities and societies. That in turn led to strongly ambivalent feelings about modernization and secularization cum Westernization. Modernization was thus viewed by some as Western imperialism to be resisted. To the Ulama, the process seemed to be not only undermining their authority but also destroying the very fabric of Islamic culture and civilization.

The seeds of dualistic cultural and educational development in the Middle East were thus sown during the 19th century. Although Turkey and Iran were not formally colonized, they too developed dualistic systems of religious and secular schools alongside the countries that were colonized (Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and Jordan). Iran followed Turkey and Egypt by establishing in 1852 its first modern university, dar al-funun, with the explicit objective of teaching modern sciences and technology. Missions of Middle Eastern students were also sent to Europe to learn Western science, technology, and culture. The returning students inaugurated translation of European works into Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. Schools, especially in the Levant soon followed the establishment of printing presses in Ottoman Turkey (1727), Iran (1812), Egypt (1815) and Iraq (around 1870). In 1881 French Jesuit missionaries established St. Joseph University. Introduced earlier by Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries, printing presses stimulated the growth of the city's publishing industry, mainly in Arabic but also in French and English. By 1900 Beirut was in the vanguard of Arabic journalism. A group of intellectuals sought to revive the Arabic cultural heritage and eventually became the first spokesmen of a new Arab nationalism (Hourani 1983).

While the modern educational institutions involved only a small percentage of the people, the masses continued to receive traditional education in the Islamic schools. An unintended consequence of all this was the rise of an anti-imperialist and reformist Pan-Islamic movement. A charismatic and forceful cleric, Seyyed Jamal ed-Din Al-Afghani (1838-1897), led the way. In the career of this single leader, we can see how the religious and secular forces were going to confront each other in the next century or so of Middle Eastern history (Keddie 1966, 1968, 1972, 1981, l983, l986). Born in Asadabad, Iran, Afghani followed an extraordinary career of religious and political agitation that took him from Iran to Afghanistan, India, Egypt, France, Britain, Russia, and finally the Ottoman court in Istanbul. Wherever he went, he counseled the leaders, led religious and political agitation against Western colonialism and their native allies, and called for external unity and internal reform of the Islamic world. He also left a legacy behind him. This was followed by Islamic reformists such as Mohammad 'Abduh and Rashid Reda in Egypt, and constitutional revolutions such as those in Iran, Egypt, and Turkey. He was clearly the precursor to the late 20th century resurgence of Islamic movements in many parts of the Middle East (Kedourie 2000). He may be considered as the godfather of the Islamic Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimun) in the Arab world and the Islamic republican movement in Iran.

Afghani's legacy was fourfold, including anti-imperialism, anti-absolutism, Islamic militancy, and Islamic reform. The four legacies converged in the constitutionalist movements in Ottoman Turkey, Egypt, and Iran. Revolutionary sentiments were also encouraged by the Japanese defeat of Russia in 1905 and the Russian Revolution of 1905. Although the Ottoman constitution of 1876-78 was short-lived, followed by Sultan Abdul-Hamid's autocratic rule, the Young Turks Revolution of 1908 re-instated it (Kayali 1995). In Iran, the Tobacco Revolt of 1891, the assassination of Nasser ed-Din Shah in 1898, and the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-09 can be all traced back to Afghani's influence. However, the Shi'a Ulama in Iran were somewhat divided on constitutionalism. A dominant faction led by two ayatollahs, Behbahani and Tabatabai, supported the constitutional movement. Another faction, led by a more learned and respected Ayatollah Nuri, opposed constitutionalism on the ground that secular, parliamentary legislation violated the Shari'a. Following the success of the revolutionaries, the latter was hanged on charges of murder. Seventy years later in the Islamic Republican Revolution of 1979, Nuri was resurrected as the hero of the Islamic revolutionaries (Keddie 1999, 61).

The nascent nationalist and democratic movements were facing strong foreign enemies. In Iran, the secret Anglo-Russian Treaty of 1907 divided the country into three spheres of influence with Russia controlling the northern provinces while Britain controlled the southern provinces. The central provinces were left to the Iranian government to operate as a buffer zone (Schuster 1912). In Egypt, the revolt of Egyptian military officers in 1881 under Col. Ahmed Arabi was inspired by Afghani. This was the first open expression of a nationalist movement directed against foreign and Turkish domination that also called for constitutional government. After a period of turmoil, in 1888, the British effectively turned Egypt and the Suez Canal into their own protectorate. Under Lord Cromer and Lord Kitchner, Egypt as well as Sudan became virtual British colonies.

Incremental secularization and democratization during the 19th century thus had a spotty and lop-sided achievement. The new constitutions of Iran, Turkey, and later Egypt (1922) were copies of the constitutions of Western parliamentary monarchies introducing democratic and secular legislation. Although Western powers paid lip service to the democratic ideals, their policies were dictated more by their inter-imperialist rivalries or cooperation than by a genuine desire to see the Middle East move toward secular and democratic societies. As a result of increasing Western penetration of the Middle East, dualistic cultural and political development became the main historic trend in the 20th century. In the Iranian constitution, for instance, an article called for a committee of five mujtahids to pass judgement on the laws passed by the Majlis to make sure that they conform to the Shari'a. But this article was never enacted. Narrowly based ruling elites often sided with Western powers in policies of secularization without democratization. In the meantime, the masses were kept relatively uneducated and steeped in their religious beliefs and practices.

Radical Secularization without Democratization

The next chapter in Middle Eastern secularization begins with the Inter-war period (1918-1940). The defeat of the Ottomans and the occupation and fragmentation of Iran brought into play two strongmen on the horseback. In the name of national salvation, Kemal Ataturk in Turkey and Reza Shah in Iran led vigorous national unification, modernization, and secularization campaigns that excluded democratization from their agendas. In this respect, Turkey was generally ahead of Iran. Reza Shah thus followed Ataturk's lead. However, given the exceptional power of the Shi'a Ulama in Iran, Reza Shah's achievement was perhaps the more remarkable. As Prime Minister, Reza Khan (later Reza Shah Pahlavi) toyed with the idea of replacing the Qajar monarchy with a republic. But the Ulama's opposition dissuaded him. The Ulama clearly saw Ataturk's example as a threat to their own power. Instead, under Reza Khan's direction, the Majlis passed a resolution in 1925 to replace the Qajar Dynasty with the Pahlavi Dynasty, a name that invoked pre-Islamic nationalist memories.

In the rest of the Middle East (Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, Transjordan, and the Persian Gulf emirates), the British and French colonial powers were directly in charge. Although they followed less rigorous secularization policies than Ataturk or Reza Shah, their agents were eager to reduce the power of the Ulama. In contrast to Iran and Turkey, where authoritarian secular nationalism dominated the scene, liberal nationalism in the Arab world proved a more potent weapon against the colonial powers. Only in Saudi Arabia where a new dynasty had come to power in the name of Wahhabi puritanism, the Shari'a was the exclusive law.

The winds of nationalism in the Middle East at the turn of the 20th century were so strong that they often swept the Ulama along. Nationalism, however, converged with a number of other ideological trends, including Pan-Islamism, Pan-Arabism, Pan-Turkism, Pan-Iranism, as well as liberalism and Marxism. What unified these disparate ideologies was anti-imperialism. The sentiments were directed against Western domination, but the primary attitude towards Western science, technology, and culture was positive. This was particularly true of Westernized intellectuals. Even among the Ulama, there were many wishing to adopt the Western constitutional limits on the power of the ruling despots.

The authoritarian nationalism of Ataturk and Reza Shah was heavily focused on state and nation building rather than institutions of political participation. Ataturk's instrument of modernization was the Republican People's Party, formed on August 9, 1923, replacing all other political organizations. Its program consisted of "Six Arrows: Republicanism, Nationalism, Populism, Statism, Secularism, and Revolution". The arrow of Secularism hit its targets most expeditiously one after another:

  • Abolition of the Caliphate on March 3, 1924 (since the early 16th century, the Ottoman sultans had laid claim to the title of Caliph of the Muslims).
  • Abolition of religious schools and courts.
  • Adoption of Western-style clothing.
  • Abolition of Sufi brotherhoods.
  • Emancipation of women, including the rights of voting and standing for election, abolition of polygamy, turning marriage into a civil contract and divorce into a civil action.
  • Adoption of the Swiss civil code, the Italian penal code, and the German commercial code in place of the Shari'a
  • Adoption of Latin alphabet to replace Arabic script in which Ottoman Turkish language had been written. This had the effect of cutting the younger generation from the Islamic historical memories and literature, but it also led to an increase in literacy.
  • Adoption of Western style surnames in place of old Islamic names and titles.

With some delay, Reza Shah in Iran followed essentially the same secularization policies. He did not, however, have the instrument of a political party and faced the opposition of a retrenched Ulama. He took away the schools and the courts from the control of the Ulama, but left personal affairs (marriage, divorce, and inheritance) largely under the control of the Shari'a. Although he succeeded in some of his social secularization policies (unveiling of women, institution of Western style clothing, adoption of surnames, and compulsory military conscription), he could not go far enough to grant suffrage to women or abolish polygamy. Even so, his social reforms were strongly resisted in some provinces (Bahar & Tafreshi n.d.).

There was initially a high degree of consensus about secularization among the ruling elite in Turkey and Iran. As many of those goals were achieved, many Turkish and Iranian nationalists wished to see more democratic regimes. In fact, Atatürk experimented in 1930 with the creation of an opposition party led by his longtime associate Ali Fethi, but its immediate and overwhelming success caused Atatürk to suppress it. In his later years, both Atatürk and Reza Shah grew more remote from their people--Ataturk by reason of excessive drinking and ill health; Reza Shah by reason of excessive autocracy and greed. Ataturk left a secular republican legacy behind him in Kemalism that continues to this day as the dominant ideology of the Turkish ruling elite. By contrast, Reza Shah's legacy was challenged from the secular left as well as religious right as soon as, in 1941, he was forced into exile by the Allied powers.

In contrast to Iran and Turkey, the Egyptian monarchy (1922-52) was torn between the King, the Wafd Party, and the British. The constitution (promulgated in 1923) was, like the Iranian constitution, based on that of Belgium. But Egyptian constitutionalism was as illusory as Egyptian independence. King Fu'ad was never popular and was prepared to intrigue with the nationalists or with the British to secure his powers. With its mass following, elaborate organization, and charismatic leadership of Sa'ad Zaghlul, the Wafd was the only truly national party in Egypt. Ideologically, it stood for national independence against the British and for constitutional government against royal autocracy. In practice--and increasingly after death of Zaghlul in 1927-- its leaders were prepared to make deals with the British or the King to obtain or retain power. Personal and political rivalries led to the formation of splinter parties, the first of which, the Liberal Constitutionalist Party, broke off as early as 1922. The primary aim of the British government was to secure imperial interests, especially the control of the Suez Canal. Egyptian political conditions thus bred competition and maneuvering among the parties representing different factions of the ruling elite.

Nevertheless, the dominant ideological trend in Turkey, Iran, and Egypt during the inter-war period was the same-secular nationalism. Return to pre-Islamic mythologies and memories was a distinctive feature of this nationalism. Secular intellectual and political leaders considered religion a barrier to modernization and turned to pre-Islamic lore for salvation. In Turkey, Kemalism looked to the Turkik past in Central Asia and Anatolia to transform Ottomanism into a Turkish identity not dependent on Islam. "Islamic" dress was discouraged. Turkish was purged of its Arabic and Persian vocabularies and Turkik equivalents were found or coined to replace them. History was re-written to glorify Turkish origins and achievements. Zia Gökalp (1876-1924), a leading Turkish intellectual, had already laid the ideological foundations for Pan-Turkism and later secular Turkish nationalism confined only to the Ottoman Turks. Although he did not live long enough to see his dreams realized, he was elected to the Parliament of the new republic shortly before he died. His influence on the development of Turkish secular nationalism was next to that of Ataturk himself (EBO 2000).

In Iran, the secularists argued that the Arabs had imposed Islam on the Iranians and that the Islamic period represented a decline in Iranian civilization. Return to ancient Iranian architecture, names, celebrations, and customs were encouraged. Zoroastrianism as the religion of pre-Islamic Iran was celebrated. An Academy of Iranian Languages was established to purge Persian of its Arabic vocabulary and to replace it with revived or newly coined words. The leading Iranian intellectuals in the development of a secular nationalist ideology were Mirza Malkam Khan, Mirza Fath Ali Akhundzadeh, Mirza Agha Khan Kermani, Hassan Taqizadeh, Seyyed Jamal ed-Din Esfahani and his son Seyed Mohammad Ali Jamalzadeh, Sadeq Hedayat, and Ahmad Kasravi. Some of these intellectuals, novelists, preachers, and politicians came from clerical backgrounds adopting a secular, freethinking ideology. Among them, Ahmad Kasravi (1980-1946) went farthest in his anti-clerical views by establishing a religion of pakdini (pure religion) that tried to purge all metaphysics and superstition. He paid for his beliefs when in 1946, a Fadaii Islam zealot assassinated him (Keddie 1981, ch. 8; Kasravi 1990).

In Egypt, an influential intellectual, Taha Hussein (1889-1973), connected his country's national identity with Pharaonic times and with Mediterranean-European culture. Having been educated at Al-Ahzar (the oldest Islamic university), the newly- established secular Cairo University, and Sorbonne, he was uniquely qualified to challenge religious beliefs and establishments. He was eventually declared an apostate by the Ulama. But this did not prevent him from serving as minister of education (1950-52) in the last Wafd government before the overthrow of monarchy. During his tenure, he vastly extended state education and abolished school fees. Secularists such as Taha Hussein considered Egypt capable of easily partaking of modern Western civilization. Religious differences were considered of no consequence. Muslims, Copts, and Jews were considered equally Egyptian. The development of a standard literary Arabic, fusha, emphasized the unity of all Arabs, regardless of confession.

In all three countries (Turkey, Iran, and Egypt), these approaches allowed, indeed required, all religious communities to partake of a single legal and societal system, at the price of denying the Muslim loyalty of the majority of the population. By contrast, in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, Islam played a primary role in the formation of a national identity. In Pakistan, it provided an alternative for Muslims who would have otherwise had to share in an identity defined by a Hindu majority in independent India. In spite of the fact that Mohammad Ali Jinah (1876-1948) was himself a thoroughly secular, British-educated barrister, he led the Muslims into partition from India. In Saudi Arabia, the state was forged in the image of the Wahhabi fundamentalist faith. Elsewhere in the Arab world, especially in the Maghrib, secular nationalism's downgrading of Islam was muted by a qualified acceptance of Islam as one, but not the only, important source of loyalty.

The main instrument of secular nationalism, in turn, was secular education. This was as true for the three large states as for the smaller ones in the region. Secular education could provide not only skilled human power for modernization; it also could inculcate the civic virtues necessary for modern citizenship. Educational expansion, however, was more rapid in independent countries (Turkey and Iran) than in the colonies. In Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria, educational policy mirrored French interests. In Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, and Iraq, British policy was dominant. Both colonial powers followed similar policies: to preserve the status quo, train a limited number of native administrators, arrest nationalism, and, in the case of France, promote its own culture and language. Accordingly, they limited educational growth. The colonial powers favored private, foreign, and missionary schools for the upper classes. The public systems were centrally administered. Their curricula were often copied from the British or the French and therefore of limited relevance to local needs. The quantity and quality of teachers were inadequate, and dropout rates were high. Few modern schools were to be found in the Arabian Peninsula. Only in Lebanon and in the Jewish community in Palestine, large numbers of students were enrolled in modern schools. Elsewhere, only a small percentage of the populace (including a few women) received a modern education.

Following its independence, each country nationalized some of its private schools, which were regarded as promoting alien religions and cultures. Each country also greatly expanded educational opportunities, especially at the upper levels. In 1925, Egypt nationalized a private institution founded in Cairo in 1908 and made it into a national university and subsequently opened state universities in Alexandria (1942) and 'Ain Shams (1950). The newly independent countries also sought to equalize educational opportunities. Iraq provided free tuition and scholarships to low-income students. In 1946, Syria made primary education free and compulsory. Jordan enacted a series of laws calling for free and compulsory education and placed strict controls on foreign schools, especially the missionary ones.

Despite progress, secular education could not overcome the existing cultural and social obstacles to universal education. The modern educational systems were divided into schools for the masses and for the elite. Both types coexisted uneasily with the traditional Islamic schools, which ran the gamut from traditional maktabs (primary schools) to the venerable al-Azhar University. Educational participation rates in the secular schools stood at relatively low levels.

In both Turkey and Iran, progress toward secular education was more strident. Ataturk and to a lesser degree Reza Shah were determined secularizers. Ataturk closed the religious schools, promoted coeducation, prepared new curricula, emphasized vocational and technical education, launched a compulsory adult education project, and established the innovative Village Institutes program to train rural teachers. In 1933, he reorganized Istanbul University into a modern institution ad later established Ankara University. In Iran, Reza Shah followed similar policies. He integrated and centralized the educational system, expanded the schools, especially the higher levels, founded the University of Tehran (1934), sent students abroad for training, moved against the Islamic schools, promoted the education of women, and inaugurated an adult education program. Nevertheless, the Iranian educational system remained small and elitist (Menashri 1992).

Following World War II, secular socialist "revolutions" led by the military regimes called for universal primary education, an emphasis upon vocational training, expansion of the higher levels, and the promotion of women's education. Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, and the Ba'athist regimes in Syria and Iraq promoted their secular Pan-Arab ideologies by means of the mass media (notably newspapers and radio broadcasting). Their aim was to transform society and culture. They integrated and unified the educational system by bringing the religious schools under secular control. All public education was made free, and strong efforts were made to universalize primary education, to upgrade technical and vocational education, and to improve the quality of education generally.

In North Africa, the substitution of Arabic for French as the language of instruction presented yet other difficulties. When Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco gained independence from France, most teachers taught only in French. Appropriate texts in Arabic were not available. By the 1980s the Arabization process remained incomplete; in all three countries, some instruction was still being given in French.

Generally speaking, the educational reforms did not always produce the anticipated results. Egypt failed to devise a coherent fit between educational expansion and developments in other sectors. Tunisia, too, despite large investments, was unable to coordinate educational expansion with the needs of the economy. Above all, secular education was no match for the powerful religious beliefs of the incoming students who were from the more traditional lower strata of society with Islamic rather than secular orientations.

Islamization with/out Democratization

Recent decades have witnessed mounting social and political mobilization in the Middle East. An Islamic resurgence against secular policies of the 20th century has been an integral part of this mobilization. Rapid urbanization, increasing literacy, deepening media exposure, and a demographic revolution that has tilted the population composition toward the young have catapulted the more religious, lower strata of society onto the political scene. Yet, formation of democratic institutions of political participation (trade unions, voluntary associations, political parties, and free elections) has not kept pace with increasing mobilization. If we consider political development and democracy to be a function of institutionalization of political participation, the outcome of this lag has been political decay rather than development, i. e. rise of underground political activism, violence, and terrorism (Huntington 1968).

Much of this activism has expressed itself in Islamic terms. As the lower strata of society have gained increasing access to cities, literacy, and the media, their Islamic leaders and movements have best articulated their political aspirations. In contrast, by their close association with Western powers and interests, the secular elites have largely lost the competition for the political imagination and loyalties of this mobilized, semi-urbanized, youthful, and often unemployed or underemployed population.

The historical roots of Islamic resurgence are embedded in the social structure of Middle Eastern societies. As a crossroad of major population movements in history, the Middle East has been an ethnic melting pot for centuries. Iranians, Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Jews, Copts, Maronites, Druzes, and Assyrians have lived, inter-married, and interacted with each other for a very long time indeed. The Medina Constitution of Prophet Mohammad (622-632) had found an ingenious solution to the problem of ethnic and religious diversity. It gave religious and political autonomy to the Peoples of the Book (ahl al-kitab) requiring them to pay special taxes (jizyah) in return for protection. Successive Islamic empires adopted this constitutional regime under what came to be known as the millet system. The system produced a high level of tolerance for the minorities.

Modeled after the European Westphalian order of territorial nation-states, secular nationalism inevitably exacerbated ethnic and religious tensions. As Iranian, Arab, and Turkish secular nationalist regimes reconstructed the Middle Eastern states in the image of newly-defined, purist models of "nations", their traditional Muslim population as well as their ethnic minorities were increasingly put into a defensive position. Long before the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, which dramatized the vulnerability of the secular nationalist regimes, a number of Islamic thinkers had opposed nationalism altogether. In India, Mawlana Abu'l-'Cia' Mawdudi, who was the founder of the Jama'at-i Islami, opposed both secular and religious nationalism and argued for the Islamization of society as an alternative to nationalism. Mawdudi later became the most influential Islamic ideologue in the formation of Pakistan. In Egypt, Sayyid Qutb and Hasan al-Banna', who were the mentors of the Muslim Brotherhood, fought for the educational, moral, and social reform of Egyptian society and indeed of all Islamdom. In Iran, Ayatollah Shaikh Fazlullah Nuri (d. 1909), Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini (1902-1989), and a French-educated sociologist Ali Shariati led the charge against secular nationalism. Among the Islamic ideologues, Khomeini was perhaps the most daring to call for the overthrow of all secular regimes by replacing them with Islamic republics led by Islamic jurists (fuqaha), i. e. vicars of God on earth (Khomeini 1981; Keddie 1981, 205-213; Tehranian 1992).

Given their significantly different conditions, Middle East societies have experienced the Islamic resurgence in different ways. At the risk of over-simplifying a very complex and evolving situation, Middle Eastern countries can be divided into five groups with respect to the relations between mosque and state.

1) Convergence of mosque and state: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, Afghanistan

2) Suppression of mosque by state: Turkey, Algeria, Iraq, Syria

3) Confessional: Lebanon

4) Uneasy Coexistence: Egypt, Israel

5) Evolving Coexistence: Jordan, Kuwait

For reasons that have been already reviewed in this chapter, the Shi'a Ulama in Iran were possessed of sufficient financial and administrative autonomy to be able to fill the political vacuum left by a monarchical regime. The story of the Iranian revolution has been extensively researched and published and need not detain us here (Keddie 1981; Saikal 1980; Tehranian 1992). Two men who are not normally credited for it paved the way for the Islamic revolution. During his long tenure as the chief Shi'a mujtahid (marja' taqlid), Ayatollah Boroujerdi (d 1961) created a virtual state within the state by developing the most extensive financial and administrative system that the Shi'a Ulama had achieved up to that time. By pursuing a policy of modernization without democratization, Mohammad Reza Shah also had created a political vacuum. By destroying all secular communist and liberal sources of opposition, the Shah's regime had thus paved the way for the Shi'a clerical hegemony. Given the fact that the Shi'a Ulama are rather decentralized in organization and financing, following the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, significant differences among them have gradually emerged. Three groups may be identified, including the conservatives led by Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei (Supreme Leader), liberals led by Seyyed Mohammad Khatami (president since 1997), and pragmatists led by Hojjaul-Islam Ali Akbar Rafsanjani (president during 1989-97). All three groups are united in their goal of upholding the Islamic regime, but differ on how to respond to the democratic pressures from below.

By comparison to the revolutionary regime in Iran, the theocratic regimes in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Sudan are politically repressive and socially conservative. The Saudi regime has been intolerant towards the rights of women and minorities. The Taliban in Afghanistan were brought to power by United States arms, Saudi money, and Pakistan military leadership. They have suppressed women and minorities. The Sudanese regime has been engaged in a bloody civil war against its own Christian population in the south. In December 1999, however, President Omar el- Bashir deposed the clerical parliamentary speaker and political strongman Hassan Turabi. The president's increasing power suggests that he can normalize relations with Sudan's neighbors and bring perhaps some stability to this corner of the African continent.

The second group of regimes, including those in Turkey, Algeria, Iraq and Syria, are secularists with little tolerance toward their Islamic oppositions and critics. As Hakan Yavuz (2000, 34) argues,

"The social fault lines that have emerged in Turkey because of the crisis of Kemalism and growing economic inequalities involve four major actors: the military, which uses Kemalism to legitimize its dominant institutional position; the TUSIAD [Association of Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen], which also controls the major media outlets; Sunni Islamic groups, which are divided into four major factions; and Turkish ethnic and sectarian minorities, mainly the Kurds and Alevis. The fault line these actors straddle do not represent 'ancient hatreds' between competing groups. They are instead a product of a closed political system whose military-bureaucratic guardians have played an active role in aggravating societal divisions".

Although the situation in each country is unique and requires its own analysis (see the relevant chapters in this volume), many of the same problems apply to Algeria, Iraq, and Syria, where military-bureaucratic regimes are presiding over restive civil societies. By contrast to Turkey, where the Islamic resurgence has been relatively non-violent, the latter three countries have experienced militant and violent Islamic movements. In Iraq and Syria, the iron hand of the state has so far squashed the movements. In Algeria, following the cancellation of the 1992 elections in which the Islamic Salvation Front (ISF) won a majority of the National Assembly seats, a merciless civil war started pitting the military regime against the militant Muslims. However, by the election of Abdelaziz Bouteflike to the presidency in 1999, Algeria has inaugurated a new phase of reconciliation between the secular and religious elements. According to Robert Mortimer (2000, 13), "despite his lack of electoral legitimacy, Bouteflike has the skills to lead Algeria out of the nightmare of the 1990s."

Because of its high literacy and civil society strength, Lebanon has always enjoyed a higher level of democratic freedoms than most other Middle Eastern societies (Ibrahim 1999). Through a national compact, the Lebanese political system has attempted to maintain a delicate balance between its main religious-ethnic communities. The resulting confessional system has reserved the presidency for a Maronite, the premiership for a Sunni, and the speakership of the Parliament for a Shi'a. The civil war of the 1980s disturbed this delicate balance, which had to be reconstructed through hard negotiations by giving more power to the under-represented Shi'a population. The presence of Syrian forces in Lebanon currently guarantees short-term and undermines long-term stability. Nevertheless, Lebanon is now trying to restore its democratic tradition.

Having had the longest experience with Islamic movements, the Egyptian military-bureaucratic regime has led an uneasy coexistence with its militant Muslims. President Gamal Abdul-Nasser (1954-1970) attempted to co-opt the Ikhwan members by advancing reforms at home and militancy abroad while waging battle against Israel. For a while in the 1960s, Nasser's banner of Pan-Arabism could not be easily challenged. President Anwar Sadat (1970-1981) reversed Nasser's policies by entering into a peace accord with Israel, befriending the West, and inaugurating economic liberalization. He also confronted the Muslim militants by repressive measures that led to his assassination. As Selim persuasively argues in this volume, Egypt launched a process of democratic transformation in the mid-1970s that has been stalled.

Democratization from above is thus the norm in the Middle East wherever pressures from below build up sufficiently to threaten the regimes. In the aftermath of the Iranian revolution, decline of oil revenues in the 1980s and 1990s, and the Persian Gulf War of 1991, several Middle Eastern regimes had to liberalize to survive. The logic of rentier states that generally deny participation in recompense for no taxation, has been greatly undermined. In Jordan, for example, high levels of debt, inflation, and the expulsion of Palestinians from Kuwait into Jordan strained the financial capabilities of the state (Wiktorowicz 1999). The 1989 riots in southern towns populated by Jordanian tribes loyal to the Hashemite throne awakened King Hussein to the need for democratization. The parliamentary elections that were subsequently held allowed multi-party competition, including some Islamic militants who made it to the Parliament. Following the ascension of King Abdullah to the throne in February 1999, severe limits on political activity have been re-introduced. Similarly in Kuwait after the Gulf War, the regime could no longer resist the demands for the revival of the Parliament. In 1999, however, the Parliament rejected the Amir's proposal for the extension of suffrage to women. As demonstrated also in the Iranian and Algerian revolutions, political participation by patriarchal Middle Eastern men often denies political democracy to women.


This chapter has limited its analysis of secularization and democratization in the Middle East to primarily internal rather than external factors. In a region that has been dominated by foreign powers for the past two centuries, this analysis may be considered incomplete. Nevertheless, it has been argued here that foreign domination has played a critical role in creating serious obstacles to secularization and democratization. While Western powers have generally supported secularization, they have often stood on the way of democratization by supporting client dictatorial regimes. In contrast to the Western historical experience in which secular nationalism and liberal democracy undermined the authority of the Church, Middle Eastern anti-imperialism has brought the Ulama, nationalists, and democrats into an uneasy alliance. In recent decades, however, that alliance has been fractured by the increasing militancy of Islamism as evidenced notably in Iran, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Algeria.

The chapter also has identified the varieties of state-mosque relations with respect to secularization and democratization trends. These varieties include convergence of state and mosque, suppression of mosque by the state, confessionalism as well uneasy and evolving coexistence. The interactions of secularization and democratization have been thus too complex to lend themselves to any facile generalization. Radical secularization as typified by Kemalist Turkey and Iran under the Pahlavis followed an authoritarian path. A more liberal secularization regime as typified by Egypt has led to an evolving co-existence between state and the mosque. Middle East's multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies, however, best lend themselves to constitutional regimes that allow freedom and autonomy for the varieties of religious communities. The Lebanese confessional system best typifies such a regime.

If we consider democracy as a process of broadening and deepening of political participation, its minimal requirements are popular sovereignty, electoral representation, and civil liberties, which together may be identified as political democracy. Social democracy goes beyond this minimum requirement by providing equality of opportunity and social security for all citizens. Cultural democracy goes even further by providing freedom of identity negotiations with respect to language, religion, ethnicity, gender, and life styles. While some Middle Eastern societies have made halting progress toward political democracy, most of them have failed to make any significant strides toward social or cultural democracy. In rentier states where falling windfall revenues (from oil or immigrants' remittances) are forcing the states to concede democratic freedoms to their civil societies (notably Iran, Jordan, and Algeria), prospects for democracy currently seem more encouraging.



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Majid Tehranian is professor of international communication at the University of Hawaii and director of the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research. A graduate of Harvard with a doctorate in political economy, his teaching and research have focused on international peace, security, communication, and development. He is former director of the Matsunaga Institute for Peace at the University of Hawaii (Honolulu), Iran Communication and Development Institute (Tehran), communication research and planning at UNESCO (Paris), and trustee of International Institute of Communications (London). His latest books are Technologies of Power: Information Machines and Democratic Prospects (1990), Letters from Jerusalem (1990), Restructuring for Ethnic Peace (1991), Restructuring for World Peace: At the Threshold of the 21st Century (1992), Global Communication and World Politics (1999); Worlds Apart: Human Security and Global Governance (1999); Asian Peace: Security and Governance in the Asia Pacific Region (1999). He also edits Peace & Policy. Since 1981, he has been banished paradise where he surfs the Pacific and the Net at majid@hawaii.edu.


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