Secular liberals the tip of the Islamist spear

By Razib Khan | January 31, 2012 11:53 pm

I have long been on the record as a skeptic of the of the proposition that democratization in the Arab world will usher in liberalism. To a great extent I think that my skepticism has been vindicated, though these are early times yet. But looking at the events as they are playing out in Egypt and Tunisia reminds me of the rock-paper-scissors games.

Tunisia is arguably the best case for liberal democracy in the Arab world. It has a low fertility, a strong connection to the West via a Francophone elite, and has long banned practices such as polygyny. And unlike Egypt or Syria ethnic or religious conflict does not loom on the horizon. Tunisia is overwhelmingly Arab and overwhelming Sunni. Its Islamist party is genuinely more moderate than the Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt, and Salafists are not present in massive numbers in Tunisia. Nevertheless, it looks like Salafists have taken to beating up those whom they believe offend their sensibilities. In The New York Times article linked above there is the quote: “You lost your daddy, Ben Ali!” Ben Ali refers to the late authoritarian ruler of Tunisia. Islamists have been trying to dislodge these authoritarian rulers for decades; but it took the rising up of secular and affluent children of the middle and upper middle class to overthrow the regimes (with the collusion the military).

And yet once the authoritarian rulers are gone the Islamists seem to have the liberals by the throat. In Egypt they wiped the floor with them in democratic elections. In Tunisia the Salafists are not quite so powerful, and the more moderate Islamists have to take into the account the opinions of the large secular liberal urban population, but the latter are now subjected to violence by religious fundamentalists. Naturally the Islamists wish to legalize polygyny in Tunisia.

People will focus on Syria because of the violence. Egypt because of the size. But Tunisia is the really informative case. If Tunisia can’t make liberal democracy work, there’s little hope for other Arab nations. On the other hand, if hopes don’t unravel, then at least it’s a start.

MORE ABOUT: liberalism

Comments (14)

  1. omar

    I can see why there is unease about the overthrow of asshole dictators and their replacement by a “democracy” that will find it difficult to resist asshole salafists. But the first thing to keep in mind is that it may not be a real choice. Most of the asshole dictators were/are real assholes, not just “morally” but practically. They run nepotistic, narrowly based regimes that get more and more stupid with each passing year. They are sometimes propped up by Western (mostly American) money and training, motivated by some combination of oil diplomacy and/or efforts to buy security for Israel with American dollars, but there is no way America or anyone else can change all of them into effective and popular regimes. In those cases, the support and subsidy only serves to identify the increasingly hated dictator with America and helps to generate endless stupid conspiracy theories about the elders of Zion. Its not worth it.
    The various “authoritarian” regimes are not all the same and one or two may find a formula for longevity and transition to something better on their own terms (Jordan? Saudi Arabia?), but most are such stupid kleptocracies or so narrowly based that they cannot be successfully propped up. They will all fall, one way or the other.
    Once they fall, the Salafist assholes definitely have a good chance of pushing things in an illiberal Islamist direction (even if they dont take over completely). salafists are willing to use violence, they are highly motivated SOBs and the wider culture is permeated with the notion that Islam is/was a perfect religion and once applied correctly, must make things better. Most people dont know batshit about Islam any more than most Christians know about Christianity. For 200 years, “real Islam” has been an imaginary beast while real power has been in the hands of infidels or their agents. Its hardly surprising that an attempt to bring that imaginary beast to life will be made. In some cases, it will be successfully resisted by other forces, in one or two cases it may go to the point of an Iranian style “Islamic revolution” and stop there. But since Iran (with its ancient cultural unity and Shia religion) is more or less unique), in some benighted Sunni lands, the place will crash and burn all the way to Somalia and Afghanistan.
    But maybe in Tunisia, it will actually turn out OK. Not even near perfect, but maybe OK.
    Salafists and their willingness to use violence means some violence is inevitable though. Its not going to be smooth sailing in any of these countries.

  2. Dan

    Could this title be expanded to ‘Secular liberals tip of religionist spear worldwide’?

    It sure seems like in the modern era after the birth control pill, religionist societies are much better adapted than secular societies, in terms of fecundity. The effects have been in place for only forty years and already the results are astounding. The fertility gap remains large and proportional to religiosity.

    To me this is the largest feature across the demographic landscape, and over just a few generations can trend toward literal replacement.

    It seems to me that western secularists are fighting the wrong battle when they work to totally secularize their own societies. Demographics seems to dictate that societies with a religious impetus not to inhibit fertility will prevail and if your society is not among them, it will simply decline and be replaced. This is a brutal reality, hardly recognized because the birth control revolution is only a few decades old.

    It would seem essential to differentiate which natalist-leaning religious traditions are relatively more compatible with scientific rationalism and pluralism and favor (or at least work less hard to actively undermine) these ones. Absent a conscious choice, the choice will be made for us.

    It sure seems like secular liberalism contains the seeds of its own demise, doesn’t it?

    Yes I know that places like Scandinavia and France and the UK have seen rebounds in fertility but these have involved massive and unsustainable transfer payments, and have often still left fertility below replacement. How can this work as a long-term model given the state of the public fisc in these countries? Indeed in such countries it is usually religious immigrants who take fullest advantage of such policies.

  3. Matunos

    Keep in mind that it took between 137 (19th Amendment) and 181 years (Civil Rights Act of 1964) for the United States to achieve modern standards of secular liberalism.

    While I would love to be able to wave a magic wand and make the world safe for secular liberalism, I am willing to settle for a greater adoption of some of the fundamental principles like popular sovereignty and consent of the governed. So long as Islamist parties maintain a reasonably democratic order (as in, say, Turkey), they will remain beholden to the people, and eventually I believe liberal traditions will develop. Though it may take much longer to see the desired result, it will be a much more ingrained and stable form of liberalism than when we try to graft our social norms upon peoples.

    Propping up friendly dictators is a short term (and often short-sighted) strategy. Sure, as long as the strongman maintains power, he is a convenient tool for our national interest. But as we see in a place like Egypt, the 58-odd years of relatively secular dictators trying to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood have if anything only grown the power and influence of the Islamist organization.

    People cannot be oppressed into liberalism.

  4. gcochran

    “secular liberalism contains the seeds of its own demise”

    I guess there’s hope.

  5. Dan

    “I am willing to settle for a greater adoption of some of the fundamental principles like popular sovereignty and consent of the governed. ”

    This may feel good for the winners, but it certainly doesn’t feel good for minorities in Egypt, and it certainly doesn’t bode well for personal freedom. When Rome’s outer tribes sacked Rome and won the day you had a kind of popular sovereignty, yes sir.

    If popular sovereignty is your cup of tea, these also must be upsetting times, because Europeans have lost 100% of their “popular sovereignty and consent of the governed” while Americans have lost a chunk of theirs. Europeans at least don’t seem all that troubled by the developments, compared with how hard they fought to keep sovereignty in earlier times.

  6. isamu

    Liberal democracy is a contradiction. All real democracies will trend toward illiberalism unless entrenched undemocratic institutions can counter it. Of course, these institutions ultimately become the real authority and not the elected officials, hence, the system will no longer be meaningfully democratic. This is the situation in the US and Europe today; these countries do not have true democracy but a stage-managed theatre where elected official have a small political sandbox they can play around in but never go outside of.

    Now, when you have these True Believers exporting their glorious Democracy to the Turd World and finding out that in real democracy there is no sandbox and elected leaders can enact any crazy old radical or reactionary idea in their heads — then the hilarity begins.

  7. Tomasz R

    Aren’t these people in islamic countries an artificial breed? With those who think rationally being regularly killed for leaving islam, and those prone to belief being encouraged to breed you end up with population bred to believe.

  8. Tom Bri

    Consider how long it took Christianity to liberalize, and the awful behavior of the various Christian factions as they did. I would say the US benefited from the bad example of Europe. I can hope that Islam will benefit too. But it is not much hope. I expect the next few centuries to be extremely bloody.

  9. Clark

    I’m not sure comparisons to the length of development in Europe and the US is a fair comparison. In those cases it was developing for the first time and involved a lot of trial and error. Now there are clear patterns to follow, lots of literature and so forth. As people become more educated there’s no need to have to retrace the mistakes and evolution of Europe or America. That’s like saying technological modernization has to follow the same path – yet oddly coal powered industrial revolutions don’t really function in most 3rd world countries the way they did in 18th and 19th century Britain.

    That’s not to say that the middle east will become liberalized. If nothing else China shows that there’s not some sort of cultural determinism at work. Different groups will find their own stable equilibrium points. When most of your population don’t adopt a liberal-like form of Islam and are fairly uneducated it’s kind of ridiculous to suppose a liberal democracy would develop any time soon. The most liberal nation there is Turkey but it was forced into a lot of liberal practices for much of the 20th century. And even a lot of those aren’t habitual in the country (although one could argue that some of that is influence from the rest of the mid-east)

    I hope it becomes more tolerant and liberal. There’s no reason it can’t become such. But it seems to me the incentives are all headed in the other direction.

  10. dave chamberlin

    On a related subject (where the third world is headed) I have to give a plug to a book I think many at this forum will find very much worth reading. The book is called El Narco by Ioan Grillo and it details another part of the world, Latin America and it’s partial descent into what the author describes as a criminal paramilitary complex. It is a fascinating read and while it may not seem to be related, it is a prediction of what happens to a country that combines grinding poverty, wholesale corruption, and easy money for the violent. My apologies for jumping subjects but the latin american model of a criminal paramilitary complex will spread and is spreading given the right environment.

  11. H

    There’s the beginning of a backlash against the awful standards of media coverage of the Arab Spring, with its simplistic democracy-against-dictatorship narrative. American and British journalists and academics on the Middle East come in two forms: Israel-centric neocons or liberals reluctant to make generalisations about Arab societies. Outside of these two approaches little else has been given room. Although some of the Wikileaks files sent by US Embassies in the region suggests that American diplomats in private aren’t quite so clueless.

    John Bradley’s After the Arab Spring: How Islamists Hijacked the Middle East Revolts has just come out and looks worth reading. The blurb suggests it’s a critique of journalism on the region, and Bradley’s 2009 book on Egypt was the only one to predict imminent social unrest. Having said that Bradley also assured readers that any post-Mubarak elections would see the Islamists in Egypt trounced.

    Dave, Ioan Grillo’s book was part serialised on Radio 4 last month and sounded fascinating.

  12. Susara

    #6: as for your reference to the “Turd world”. I’m a South African; were we to meet in person, would you call me a turd to my face? The word ‘civilization’ derives from the word ‘civil’, you know.

  13. Rafael

    Why exactly is this a bad thing? why should Arab countries aspire to liberalism? It’s clear liberal values only have predominated in the West because social conditions particular to them – specially material wealth – enable them. In poor countries, in societies that have suffered from religious or ethnic strife, reliance on tradition (religious or otherwise), and the institutions who guard it, is high — and this is so because through them people can achieve some sense of stability, of safety, that external reality constantly questions, that the state is often unable to enforce. It’s also natural that they would want such instituions to participate in political life, if given a choice. As the West is generally more stable and prosper than much of the Third World, and as their state apparatuses are more efficient in imposing the rule of law, Westerners aren’t under the psychological pressure to hold onto traditions and religions as most of the rest of the world. But why should Muslims, or Third Worlders in general, want to emulate Western constitutions? What’s the big deal in allowing them to build their own brands of democracy, to write constitutions that, instead of making a mockery of European laws (as is the case for many Latin American countries), take into account their own particular social conditions and create laws that respond to their own needs? Humanity is not all the same. Social needs vary from a place to the other. As such, it is only normal that countries will adopt different sets of laws, of political systems, etc.

  14. Parts of Tunisia are farther north than parts of several European countries are south.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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