SECULARIZATION: The Singular Hope for Freedom, Modernity, and Human Rights in the Middle East (May 2006)

For many centuries, the people of the Middle East have been trapped in a quasi-dark age where the enlightened western concepts of secular government, individual liberty, and human rights have failed to penetrate.  The principal cause of this resistance to embrace modern political innovations is a stubborn adherence to Islamic law.  Its effects have been a stagnation of cultural, technological, and economic development, strained relations with the outside world, and endemic violence. The only realistic remedy to this tragic state of affairs is a radical program of secularization which explicitly marginalizes Islam and establishes representative and secular governments in place of the current crop of theocracies, monarchies, and dictatorships.

The prospects for such secularization and liberalization however are complicated by the peculiarities of Islam itself and by the discovery in the twentieth century of vast oil deposits in the region.  The monopolization of oil wealth by corrupt Middle Eastern governments and the dependence on that commodity by the liberal nations of the West have conspired to create a stasis of sorts whereby the freedom and well-being of the people in the region were sacrificed by the West in the name of stability and easy access to oil.  The entrenched rulers of the wealthy oil-producing nations, for their part use their vast wealth to at once provide generous social benefits to the people, creating a perpetual state of dependence and quiescence; to amass large military and security forces using imported technologies (whose main function is to brutally suppress, based on Islamic law, any domestic liberalization movements); to prevent liberalization of their economies and thus forestall the emergence of a vibrant and politically active middle class; and through state run religious schools (madras’s) and media outlets they deflect the attention of the frustrated masses towards the West and Israel, setting them up as straw-men and blaming them for the ills that have befallen the Islamic world.

For this purpose Islam is well-suited for among its basic precepts is a disdain for infidels, or those who refuse to recognize Allah as the one true God and Mohammad as the last of His prophets, and the concept of jihad, or holy war which makes the spread of the house of Islam, or lands under Islamic rule (dar-al-Islam) against the house of war, or non-Muslim states (dar-al-harb) obligatory for able-bodied Muslims.[i]  In sura 5:51 the Koran also prohibits friendship between Muslims and unbelievers: “Believers, take neither the Jews nor Christians for your friends.  They are friends with one another.  Whoever of you seeks their friendship shall become one of their number.”[ii]  This further complicates efforts by western nations to foment popular movements among Muslim populations against their oppressors, a tactic which was wildly successful in Eastern Europe during the cold war.

These Islamic concepts of superiority, violence, and intolerance are routinely and cynically exploited by hard-line Islamic theocrats (such as the Iranian Mullahs) and seemingly moderate monarchs (such as the Saudi royal family) alike to consolidate their power by focusing their subjects’ animus towards the West.  And the West, prior to the attacks of Sept. 11, were loathe to intervene of behalf of the masses in the Middle East for fear of losing its access to cheap oil.  The result has been a perpetuation of the status-quo with Islam serving as both the source of the lack of freedom and human rights in the region and the primary tool by which change has been precluded.

The Roots of Islamic Law

Islamic law or sharia was developed on the bases of the Muslim holy book, the Koran, and the hadith, which is a collection of reliable accounts, or sunna of sayings and actions of the Prophet Mohammad.  These sources, in Islamic tradition are considered infallible as the Koran is the very word of God as revealed to His Prophet, and Mohammad is considered to be rightly guided by God, thus also infallible.  A third repository of infallibility, (based on a saying of the Prophet: “My community will not agree upon an error”)[iii] in Islamic tradition is the ijma, or the consensus of believers.  This refers to the          Ulama, or the community of Muslim scholars whose opinions, or ijtihad on matters of Islamic law are considered final and irrevocable.  In the words of historian H.A.R. Gibb “When, therefore a consensus of opinions had been attained by the scholars of the second and third centuries (by about 900 A.D.) on any given point, the promulgation of new ideas on the exposition of the relevant texts of the Koran and hadith was as good as forbidden.”  Furthermore, “Any attempt to raise the question of the import of a text in such a way as to deny the validity of the solution already given and accepted by consensus became a bid’a, an act of innovation, that is to say, heresy.”[iv]  Since all sources of sharia are considered divine and infallible, Islamic law has remained largely unchanged for more than a thousand years in spite of global trends toward secularization and political liberalization.  The lack of any recognition of human law makes democracy impossible in a strictly Islamic state.

Unlike Christianity which suffered three centuries of persecution (before the Roman Emperor Constantine embraced it, making it the official religion of the empire), and has a doctrinal predisposition towards secular government: “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God That which are God’s” {Matthew 22.17}, Islam was almost immediately burdened with temporal governance due to its stunning early military successes.  For this reason, Islam became very early on more than just a faith, but a comprehensive set of rules on everything from inheritance and personal hygiene to war-making.  In the words of Charles Watson “By a million roots, penetrating every phase of life, all of them with religious significance, it (Islam) is able to maintain its hold upon the life of Muslim peoples.”[v]  This also partly accounts for Islam’s resistance to change.


Islamic Law vs. Human Rights

Under Islamic law inequality is institutionalized: women and non-Muslims are formally and legally inferior to Muslim men.  Domestic violence (including death by stoning) against women is not only acceptable under sharia, but may be considered a religious duty as it was endorsed by the Prophet himself and is enshrined in the Koran; because it is believed men cannot control their carnal desires around aroused women, clitoridectomy, or female genital mutilations are commonplace[vi], and for the same reason niqab, or total body coverings are mandatory for females in public under sharia; men may have up to four wives and several concubines (temporary wives) under Islamic law and can divorce their wives on a whim, claiming custody of their children, while the reverse does not apply; and men may marry and consummate with girls as young as nine years of age. All of these examples of injustice, and many more can be traced directly to the three infallible sources of Islamic law.

While women suffer brutally under Islamic law, atheists and converts from Islam are considered apostates and are to be summarily executed.  “People of the book”, or Jews and Christians are the subject of punishing and humiliating rules and restrictions.   They are also forbidden to testify in court against a Muslim and therefore may be victimized with impunity by their Muslim neighbors without legal recourse.  And in spite of their official superiority over women and religious minorities individual liberty, even among Muslim men is virtually non-existent.

Prospects for Reform

Since Islam is incompatible with democracy and human rights and due to the concept of infallibility it cannot be adapted to modern realities, the only realistic avenue for the advancement of freedom in the Middle East is for religion to be removed from the public domain entirely.  In the words of Azam Kamguian “Attempting to modernize or reform Islam will only prolong the age-old oppression and subordination of women in Islam-stricken societies.  Rather than modernizing Islam, it must be caged … Islam must become subordinate to secularism and the secular state.”[vii]

How can the entrenched impediments to secularization and democratization, namely Islam and oil wealth be overcome?  The attacks of September 11, 2001 have paradoxically presented the free world and the oppressed people of the Islamic world with a great and finite window of opportunity: The United States and its Western allies have been shaken from their twentieth-century, real-politic foreign policy mindset towards the tyrants of the oil-rich Middle East.  The removal of the repressive former regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq in the wake of the terror attacks on the U.S. may be the beginning of a democratic domino-effect in the region to the extent that the popularly elected, democratic governments their can resist a reversion to Islamic law.

The example of secular Turkey may also serve as a guide and inspiration, and if the experiments in democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan are successful they may join Turkey in forming an axis-of-freedom of sorts in the region, giving great momentum to the democratization movement throughout the Islamic world.  And in Iran, the birthplace of the modern Islamist movement, a huge and restless majority of pro-western youth exists, which if given the proper amount of support and encouragement, may effect regime change their without western military intervention.  The infrastructure of republican government (elected parliament and executive) is also in place in Iran, which, though currently under the heel of the Ayatollah and his Islamic revolutionary council, could in the event of a toppling of the Mullahs prevent the sort of chaotic transition to democracy that has marred the liberation of Iraq.  The latest and most dangerous variable in this complex matrix is the pending acquisition of nuclear weapons by the Iranian regime and its promise to obliterate Israel which may fatally alter this calculus and preclude the possibility of peaceful regime change.  It is entirely possible that the recent saber-rattling in Tehran is their attempt to force a pre-emptive attack by The U.S. or Israel in a desperate bid to stave off an inevitable insurrection by using a rally-round-the-flag defense of the homeland.

Two other important trends are the information revolution which enables people trapped behind the Islamic curtain to communicate and coordinate with the outside world (often) without government censorship or monitoring; and the emergence of alternative energy sources which, over the long term will reduce the West’s dependence on Mid-East oil, thus its tolerance for repressive regimes.

Only time will tell if these trends, combined with the emergence of democratic governments in the heart of the Middle East will help the reform movements in the region attain the critical mass needed to effect change.  But is it at least possible that the modern spasm of Islamist violence is not, as we in the West fear, a resurgence of the aggressive Islamic conquests of the middle ages but rather a reactionary last gasp by radicals to combat the inexorable global shift towards secularization and human rights in the post cold-war era?  Can the current age of hijackings and car bombings be akin to the Nazi’s doomed and desperate offensive into the Ardennes in 1944, or the Japanese last stand on bloody Okinawa?  Certainly their motives are the same: to maximize American losses to force a premature peace rather than unconditional surrender when victory was already out of reach, thus chasing the U.S. out of the region leaving her enemies free to plot further treachery.  If there is to be any hope for change in the Middle East the U.S. must remain as steadfast now as in the final days of World War II.

[i] The Koran, Translated by N.J. Dawood.  London: Penguin,2003, 361

[ii] The Koran, 85

[iii] Lewis, Bernard.  The Middle East: A Brief History of the last 2,000 Years.  N.Y.: Scribner,1995, 226

[iv] Gibb, H.A.R.  Mohammedanism, an Historical Survey.  London, Oxford University Press, 1950

[v] Institute for the Secularization of Islamic Society, “The Totalitarian Nature of Islam”, 30 April, 2006

[vi] Weiner, Lauren, “Islam and Women”, Policy Review, 30 April 2006

[vii] Kamguian, Azam, “Islam and the Liberation of Women in the Middle East”, Institute for the Secularization of Islamic Society, 30 April, 2006

About michaelstjoseph

Michael St. Joseph is the pen-name of a Catholic conservative citizen of the greatest country in the history of civilization. He has a law enforcement background and lives with his family in the New York area. He can be reached at
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