It’s clear that the strain of secular modernity within the Arab and Islamic world, particularly in North Africa and through the Middle East, is finally being felt as it conflicts with the conservatism of Islamic law and its struggle for control of the state. It is polarising the peoples of many Arab and Islamic nations where the repercussions of the Arab Spring revolutions are now being felt in a myriad of ways as it ripples through the region.
Islam will likely remain the dominant religion of these regions even among the secular modernists who would prefer to be free of the constraints of some of the stricter aspects of Sharia law. For this reason Islamic movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood are suffering setbacks that have recently manifested themselves in the form of revolt against their power, power that was won only as recently as the advent of the Arab Spring revolutions when conservative Islam offered a way out of the grip of corrupt secular dictators.
The Syrian civil war has exposed the deep rifts between secularist Muslims who oppose their dictatorial leaders but also oppose the conservative Islamist fighters that have enjoined them to fight the dictator, and then, within all that, is the added antagonisms of Sunni and Shia sectarianism. The mess in Syria is antagonised even further still by in-fighting among the various Sunni jihadist groups and between the secularists and the jihadists. Emerging from the turmoil is the apparent successes the secular Shia dictator is enjoying with the help of Shia Iran and their allies in Lebanon, Hezbollah, who are taking full advantage of the turmoil within their enemies’ ranks.
In Egypt some 90% of the population are Muslims and, of those, some 2.5% to 3% are Shia while the rest are Sunni. Around 9% of the population are Coptic Christians and around 1% of the population are other denominations of Christians. Within the predominately Sunni Muslim Egyptian community there is a powerful conservative lobby known as the Muslim Brotherhood. It is this group that took the lead in fomenting the revolt that led to the demise of the secular dictatorial regime of Hosni Murbarak but only after secularists had initiated the revolt. The Islamists eventually won power via the ballot box and Morsi became their President. But things haven’t moved forward as the people had hoped. The secularists among the Sunni component of the Egyptian population demanded Morsi step down. When he refused, the secularly inclined military stepped in and pulled him down.
This scenario is now being duplicated in Tunisia and Libya where secularists have grown weary of the initial enthusiasm they had for Islamists during the Arab Spring.
The battle now, it seems, is between secular modernists who want to be part of the global community adopting universal values of liberal tolerance towards social issues such as attitudes towards women, homosexuality and human rights while retaining their religion, and, on the other side, conservative Islam, the hardliners of which hanker for a strict society ordered entirely by Sharia law while the extremists fight for a pan-Islamic caliphate that crosses the borders and boundaries of Islamic nations arching around three-quarters of the planet.
When Morsi first became president after the elections it seemed a happy medium had been struck but as time went on hardliners among the Muslim Brotherhood gained increasing influence in government. This influence may well have been tolerated if it had been accompanied by an increase in economic prosperity but instead the economy simply got worse and everyday living became increasingly difficult. A similar story has unfolded for Tunisia and Libya. The initial flush of enthusiasm for a moderate Islamic-dominated government has given way to disappointment and disillusionment which has now divided Islamic people throughout North Africa and across the Middle East.
The issues are complex and the causes are varied, but for sure, the West must take some of the blame for the turmoil that now exists. It was the West’s support of the dictators that ultimately led to the Arab Spring revolutions and it was the West’s intrusions into Islamic lands that has led to the radicalisation of Islam.