Is Islamist-Secularist a Contradiction in Terms?

By Rayyan Al-ShawafDecember 20, 2016

Is Islamist-Secularist a Contradiction in Terms?

Confronting Political Islam by John M. Owen IV

DEALING WITH what is called “political Islam,” especially its violent strains, is one of the most intractable questions of our times. History does not yield easy answers. But could earlier religious and ideological conflicts in the West offer any clues?

In Confronting Political Islam: Six Lessons from the West’s Past, John M. Owen IV, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, argues in the affirmative. While Owen rarely prescribes specific action, he lays out possible future scenarios for the Middle East based on his study of six historical “legitimacy crises” that convulsed the West.

Owen insists that Islamists are motivated in large part by ideology (and an accompanying desire to resist secularism), but Islamic theology itself merits little of his attention. Shouldn’t the extent, if any, to which various Islamist parties’ doctrine hews to the Qur’an and Hadith matter a great deal? Not to this author. “It is not Islam the religion that is generating the problems, any more than Calvinist doctrine per se was sowing discord in early modern Europe,” he declares, much too dismissively.

Perhaps because Owen is, as mentioned, a professor of politics, he focuses on ideologies manifesting themselves in the political arena. While he does not interrogate various Islamist groups’ claims to Qur’anic bona fides, he is correct in identifying the Middle East’s current political turmoil (with conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Egypt to show for it) as the culmination of a long-simmering “legitimacy crisis — a contest over the best way to order society.”

Expanding on the relevant chapter of his earlier book, The Clash of Ideas in World Politics: Transnational Networks, States, and Regime Change, 1510–2010, Owen frames the transnational aspect of the clash as one pitting secularists against Islamists, with the latter pushing back against the former — though he should have noted that in several countries it is just as much a case of Sunni Islamists versus Shiite Islamists.

As for how this violent legitimacy crisis may play out, the author, drawing on examples of ideologically rooted conflicts in the West’s past, suggests three possible outcomes. One is victory for this or that side, as happened with the resounding triumph of the United States and Western Europe (representing liberal democracy and capitalism) over the Soviet Union and its satellites (representing communism) toward the end of the 20th century. A glance at the Middle East reveals that such a result is unlikely, given the balance of power. For example, in Syria, where — broadly speaking — a secular regime and Shiite Islamists face off against an array of Sunni Islamist groups, a clear-cut victory for either side seems unlikely.

A scenario seen in the Dutch Republic of the 17th century is “transcendence,” whereby a country moves beyond a religious conflict by opting for religious tolerance and even secularism. But don’t expect anything of the kind in the Middle East, if not simply because, as Owen indicates, thoroughgoing secularism has gone out of fashion. And when it comes to conflict between Sunni and Shiite Islamists (playing out in Syria and Iraq, and to a certain extent in Yemen), it behooves us to recall that despite their differences, both groups largely came into existence in reaction to secularism. For this reason, it’s extremely doubtful that they’d accept a reversion to their region’s “extreme secularism of the middle twentieth century, in which the state seizes control of the religion so as to eliminate its independent role in public affairs.”

This leaves us with a third possibility, which Owen terms “convergence,” a hybrid form of governance that, in 18th-century Western Europe, included both monarchic and republican elements. He pays particular attention to signs that an “Islamist-secularist” variation on this outcome will define much of the Middle East’s future political landscape.

If “Islamist-secularist” sounds like a contradiction in terms, that’s because it is. Yet states are rarely models of political consistency. Moreover, as the author notes, “a majority of the world’s majority-Muslim countries already have some kind of hybrid regime, in which the sources of law are both Sharia and secular civil law.”

Owen is right on this count. We’ve seen the Islamist-secularist amalgam gain traction in Tunisia (which he refers to briefly), with efforts to end the fighting in Libya tending in the same direction. Meanwhile, although Shiite-dominated Iraq is a lot more Islamist than secular, it remains far more of a hybrid than neighboring Iran, an avowedly Islamic state. And if the warring parties in Syria ever negotiate a political settlement to their conflict, it will likely entail incorporating elements of Islam into a form of governance that for the past few decades has been largely secular.

Owen ventures that Turkey, which has undergone a shift from strict secularism to a more Islam-tinged political system under the authoritarian but popular Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (who has ruled the country in one form or another since 2003), constitutes an emerging exemplar of this Islamist-secularist convergence.


Take note of Owen’s nuanced view of Islamists. He dismisses the reductive, simplistic, and oftentimes clearly agenda-driven charge that they constitute a monolith. Yet he correctly maintains that, despite their differences, they all seek to make their interpretation of Sharia, or laws derived from the Qur’an and Hadith, the main source of legislation. As such, Owen cautions, moderate Islamists, whom he identifies as those who eschew violence in pursuit of their goals, must not be mistaken for liberals. This point bears emphasizing, as does the author’s related observation that Western democracies and Middle Eastern Islamists can and do make common cause when it comes to a host of political and economic issues.

Yet there’s a two-pronged problem here — at least from the perspective of (most) liberals. To begin with, Owen’s definition of moderate Islamists as simply those who abjure violence as a means to attain power and/or enact Sharia ignores other basic measures of moderation. Would an Islamist who strives peacefully and through lawful means for a state that persecutes heterodox Muslims and non-Muslim citizens still qualify as moderate? If so, where would that leave a similarly peaceful and law-abiding Islamist who advocates only limited discrimination against such unfortunates? Owen, it appears, would lump the two Islamists together in the moderate camp.

The second part of the problem concerns Owen’s seeming endorsement of a version of realpolitik that bulldozes all moral considerations, so that any common cause that Western democracies make with Islamist states knocks down the notion that the former should pressure the latter over, say, their objectionable-to-dismal treatment of women and religious minorities. As it happens, this lamentable conception of realpolitik already holds much sway in the West. Consider the fact that the United States and most Western European states have had — at best — strained relations with Iran since that country’s revolution in 1979, yet maintain excellent political and economic ties with Saudi Arabia. Both Iran and Saudi, the former a pseudo-democratic republic and the other an absolute monarchy, are Islamist states run according to their respective clergy’s (admittedly differing and sometimes conflicting) interpretation of Sharia. Both violate personal freedoms, repress political dissent, marginalize religious minorities, and discriminate against women.

The realm of foreign policy is where the two states part ways. Iran not only opposes US domination of the Persian Gulf and beyond, but is also actively pursuing its own hegemonic designs on the region, often through junior-partner regimes as well as militia proxies. Meanwhile, “the Saudis many years ago decided to accept and support Western hegemony in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East more generally,” which resulted in the obscurantist Islamist monarchy becoming one of the United States’s closest allies. Owen observes that “economic and military cooperation with Washington has opened the Saudi dynasty to charges of hypocrisy and incoherence.”

But what about hypocrisy and incoherence on the part of the United States itself, whose successive presidential administrations purport to care so much about freedom, democracy, and human rights? Owen believes Islamists qualify as moderate merely by shunning violence, and he apparently believes that the scale for measuring moderation among those who attain power is similarly one-dimensional: a willingness to align their foreign policies with those of the United States.


A particularly important lesson imparted by Confronting Political Islam is that a state can be at once ideological and rational. In fact, according to Owen, most states fall into this broad category, including the United States and even the former Soviet Union (after its initial fervid phase). For those observers of the Middle East fearful of the Islamic Republic of Iran, this will come as a relief — even more so when Owen cites examples of that country’s acculturation to international political norms following the period of ideological zealotry ushered in by the 1979 revolution and Ayatollah Khomeini’s capture of power.

But such relief should remain tempered with caution. Arguably the most disturbing of several sanguinary portraits Owen paints of medieval Europe depicts the demise of the Electoral Palatinate in the early 17th century.

The Palatinate, an autonomous entity within the German-ruled Holy Roman Empire, was a fiercely Protestant state whose successive rulers were bent on spreading Calvinist Protestantism everywhere. “But [they] were not blind fanatics,” Owen points out. “The counts Palatine were rational ideologues, pursuing the triumph of Protestantism and elimination of Catholicism in Europe, but doing so through careful calibration of means with ends.”

Any notion that the Palatinate would continue to strike such a balance between ideology and rational behavior dissipated in 1618. That’s when a fanatically anti-Catholic Palatine prince intervened directly in the political affairs of neighboring Bohemia, which was part of the (staunchly Catholic) Habsburg Empire. The latter not only reversed the prince’s gains in Bohemia, but also went on to destroy the Palatinate itself. This unexpected episode “shows that under some leaders such a state [ideological-rational] may lose its prudence and take on foolish risks, holding when it should fold and bringing catastrophe upon itself and others.”

Owen could have conceptualized another scenario that would confound many an observer: a state that moderates its ideology or even dispenses with such a thing altogether in favor of a strictly “rational” outlook will not necessarily enact major foreign policy changes, as political considerations may impinge on matters. For example, although Hezbollah, the Syrian and Iraqi regimes, and the Houthis of Yemen are all sustained by a distinctly Islamic Iran, there is no guarantee that a new political dispensation in Tehran would want to divest itself of such valuable and region-wide politico-military assets. If anything, should a realpolitik akin to Owen’s steamroller variety take hold among Iran’s policymakers, it would flatten all obstacles thrown up by conscientious Iranians. The new regime would continue to make use of its regional satellites in ways that redound to Iran’s political advantage, but might assign them a different set of tasks couched in non-Islamic rhetoric.

At various points in Confronting Political Islam, Owen highlights the almost automatic influence of states that incarnate distinct ideas of governance. This proves instructive in light of the position of the United States today. In a conclusion aimed squarely at Americans, Owen dispenses some compelling advice: work hard to preserve and enhance your country’s example as a constitutional democracy — and a liberal one at that. For the United States’s status as such, coupled with its domestic politico-economic accomplishments, may well entice others to emulate its system of governance, irrespective of how they feel about its foreign policies. After all, people are attracted by success.


Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Beirut. He has contributed reviews to the Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, Miami Herald, San Francisco Chronicle, Toronto Star, Truthdig, and other publications.

LARB Contributor

Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a book critic and editor based in Malta. His reviews and essays have appeared in the Boston GlobeChristian Science MonitorGlobe and Mail, Miami HeraldPopMatters, San Francisco Chronicle, Toronto StarTruthdig          Washin​gton Post, and elsewhere. His debut novel, When All Else Fails, was recently published by Interlink Books.


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