Implications of Public Attitudes
The survey results cited here have descriptive as well as predictive implications. Descriptively, while public attitudes in support of “political secularism” in Turkey and Indonesia are congruent with the separation between religion and politics existing in these countries, the popularity of “societal secularism” in these states remain quite different. In terms of predictive implications, public attitudes in Tunisia and Iran, both of which have already undergone a significant process of societal secularization, suggest that “political secularism” could take root in these two countries. Finally, while “pure secularism” may be impossible in Muslim countries today, and although attitudes toward the separation of religion and societal life or “societal secularism/secularization” are ambivalent, “political secularism” could be implemented in Muslim countries. Those who are too skeptical about the possibility of any “separation” in Muslim societies are normally biased towards “pure secularism” or “societal secularism”.
At the same time, the analysis of public attitudes toward religion and politics in Turkey, Tunisia, Iran, Indonesia, and Egypt demonstrate that there is no single generalizable approach to the appropriate role of religion in society and politics in Muslim countries. This diversity in attitudes is not only prominent between Muslim countries with different cultural backgrounds, but within Arab countries (Tunisia and Egypt) with more similar cultural profiles. As such, approaching Muslim countries as homogenous entities is misleading and counter-productive to understanding Islam’s compatibility with democracy.
Conclusion: the Future of Democracy in Egypt
Because of societal divides on the role of religion in politics, the prospects for democratization in Egypt remain murky. The results of a very recent survey by the Pew Research Center indicate that a majority (61%) of respondents preferred to base the role of religion in Egyptian politics on a “Saudi Arabian model” rather than a “Turkish model”(Pew Global Attitudes Project, 2012). Although this preference might indicate a rejection of Turkey’s “societal secularism”, aforementioned figures in support of the dominant role of religion and sharia in politics may also make observers skeptical about the future of democracy in Egypt.
Based on these poll results, if Egyptians do not institutionalize a separation between religion and government, a theocracy, akin to the Iranian model, may emerge which would abridge the same civil liberties that Egyptians overwhelmingly support.
When he wrote his famous book on The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, Fareed Zakaria was skeptical about the future of democracy and political secularism in Indonesia. He believed after Suharto political Islam would emerge in Indonesia and threaten the secular character of the country (Zakaria, 2003). For three decades, Suharto had suppressed Islamic groups and encouraged societal secularism. Indeed, after Suharto, Indonesia became societally de-secularized. People were able to practice their faith openly and Islamic groups found themselves able to operate publicly. Nevertheless, to a great extent, political secularism remained strong in the country.
Since publishing the book in 2003, Zakaria has revised his former skepticism, recently writing: “Ten years ago most people thought Indonesia wouldn’t even exist as a country after (President) Suharto fell … It was poor. It had the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism, extremism and jihadi groups. But the democratic political system stabilized the country. It provided vents and escape valves for some of these tensions”. He added, “Indonesia is still a pretty complicated place with a lot of corruption, dysfunction and some problems of Islamic extremism. But, by and large, it has been a stable democratic country with economic reform.” Zakaria proposed this model for Egypt and concluded, “I think that’s not a bad model for Egypt and I think if Egypt could get there – which is quite possible – it would be amazing progress for the country” (Zakaria, 2011). Zakaria’s proposal may, in fact, be a realistic and pragmatic option for Egypt.
While the Turkish model of societal secularism may be unworkable for Egypt, a path forward may be provided by the Indonesian model, in which the public presence of religion is respected while its separation from politics is guaranteed. Whatever the inspiration, past experience shows that, in practice, a version of “political secularism” is necessary to stave off the rise of theocratic rule in Muslim countries. Egypt’s future may hinge on this realization. A famous Iranian proverb says, “do not examine what has been already examined”. Let’s hope the Egyptians will apply it.
*After his studies in Mechanical Engineering at Tehran University, Ammar Maleki studied Policy Analysis at Delft Technical University in the Netherlands. He is currently a PhD candidate at the Tilburg School of Politics and Public Administration, doing comparative research on the relation of cultural values and models of democracy, with a focus on new democracies in Muslim countries.
* *Acknowledgement: I would like to gratefully thank Pooyan Tamimi Arab and Dominic Bocci for their kind review and constructive comments.