Is secularism possible in the Arab region given the numerous influential factions that have a religious face?

Curator's Note

 The video clip I chose takes a religious and cultural approach to conflict in the Arab region. I prefer using the label “Arab region” because it does not adopt the Orientalist label of Middle East. The guest of the show is Ibtihal Khatib who is a sociologist at a university in Kuwait and explains why the public adoption of religion and its institutionalization are harmful to society. She provides an excellent explanation of secularism—that it’s about the separation of religion (in this case, Islam) and the state/government. In that case, the state would have no legal authority to advance any religion over another and civil society be able to accept and encourage a public sphere that does not espouse any religion or faction over another.



As she rightly states, the Arab region does not accept or tolerate secularism, because of the huge stigma associated with it. This stigma is the result of the complex historical, political, and cultural relations between the West (Britain and now the U.S.) and the Arab region. The speaker criticized Hizbullah’s usage of religion as a public image and tool in Lebanon; in spite of the faction’s success in mobilizing the Lebanese people, she seems to say that democracy and political stability cannot happen if religion remains publicized. All religions and ideologies are entitled to equal representation in a secular society and a representative public sphere cannot exist with religion playing a gate-keeper role. So, in the context of Hizbullah and conflict, the speaker in the clip asserts that institutionalized religion is detrimental to a democracy and equal representation. In a secular society and government (which obviously assume many forms), Christians, Muslims, Jews, Confucionists, Daoists, atheists, and infidels participate in a public sphere equally and religion would not “weed out” any voices. Of course, there are exceptions such as in times of crisis and war where the state would need to set the public and national agenda by espousing a faction or an ideology (as in Hezbullah’s case or Hamas in former Palestine), thereby marginalizing opposing or threatening voices. Within the context of the Arab region, Saudi Arabia espouses the Wahhabi ideology (which is an extremely conservative and orthodox interpretation of Islam, often bordering on ignorant decrees), Iran supports a similarly conservative form of Islam, and Egypt has the Muslim Brotherhood. What all these and other cases share is a public religion and it leads to conflict and oppression.


Hussam, thanks for an interesting clip. I’m going to list a number of issues that both the clip and your comments raised in my mind, rather than attempt a coherent response. Hope that’s ok.

Responses to the clip:

  • It is interesting that Ibtihal Khatib confounds religious states and religious coercion (or conversely secularism and freedom of religion), and does not bring up that these ideas stem from particular historical (and geographical) moments of history. Where is the recognition of the influence(s) of the Enlightenment, of modernity, of liberalism, of human rights, etc. in her discourse? And moreoever, why does she not problematize the fact that she seems (as does her interviewer) stuck in problematic binary distinctions (for example sacred texts and building a modern state are at odds with eachother)?
  • She says at one point that she thinks of herself as first and foremost as a Kuwaiti. She’s worried that that when it comes down to a choice for the ‘Arab street’ (argh, that term again!) that religious loyalty would trump national loyalty/interest. Without judging one over the other, one must not forget the 20th century experience of the miserable failure of Arab states to offer their citizens all the promises of what such a political entity ought to bear within it. In other words, the ‘state’ (or indeed ‘nationalism’) has done very little for the general Arab population since its emergence in the post-colonial period; why is it such a surprise then, that people may look elsewhere for ‘salvation’?

Responses to your note:

  • In an increasingly mediated world and arguably increasingly religious world, I would disagree that the ‘publicness’ of religion leads to oppression and conflict. If anything the increasing mediation and publicness of religion is testament (no pun intended) of the growing freedoms of expression and religion, no? Even of the commercialization of religion. These freedoms are in fact at the root of the ideology espoused indirectly by Khatib: liberalism, secularism, nationalism, etc. I think of so many examples – from the Arab world, from the Muslim world, from the US, from everywhere – in which religion has taken on new mediated forms which have not resulted in oppression, but, in the best case scenario, a new-found freedom of expression, and in a worse (not the WORST) case scenario, a preaching to the choir.
  • A minor comment: I take issue with your equating Hizbullah and Hamas with the state, respectively, since both are ‘parties’ within larger ‘states.’

Thanks for an interesting post, which has obviously brought up lots of things to think about on my end!

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