Secular despots – coming soon to an Arab state near you

Despots secularising the Middle East might sound appealing to the Economist, but it has little to do with reality.

In a November 2 article, the Economist named Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi "the new Arab cosmopolitans' [Reuters]
In a November 2 article, the Economist named Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi "the new Arab cosmopolitans' [Reuters]

From a recent article in the all mighty and wise Economist, we learn that a new crop of “secular” Arab despots are seizing on what it calls our “zeitgeist”. They are pushing forward with a robust secularising agenda that will outmanoeuvre and bypass their Islamist opposition, appease their boisterous middle-class constituencies, and in the process solidify their iron fist of tyranny while allowing women without a veil to enjoy their shisha in public or any other such happy amenities.

“The region’s authoritarians, who once tried to co-opt Islamists,” we are told, “now view them as the biggest threat to their rule. By curbing the influence of clerics, they are also weakening checks on their own power. Still, many Arab leaders seem genuinely interested in moulding more secular and tolerant societies, even if their reforms do not extend to the political sphere.”

The good tidings the Economist brings to its readers eager to exploit the economic opportunities such secular despotism promises to deliver to Europe and co., echo equally auspicious news that the Guardian had brought to its readers about a week earlier. The newspaper reported that “Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has vowed to return the country to “moderate Islam” and asked for global support to transform the hardline kingdom into an open society that empowers citizens and lures investors.”

In a spirit of good brotherly love among Muslims, the Saudi prince, of course, blames Iran for the turn to the nasty old “radical Islam”.   

“What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia,” the prince declared, “What happened in the region in the last 30 years is not the Middle East. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, people wanted to copy this model in different countries, one of them is Saudi Arabia. We didn’t know how to deal with it. And the problem spread all over the world. Now is the time to get rid of it.”


This blaming of Iran and Iranians for all the ills of the world is, of course, an old cliche among many Arab princes and emirs and even some scholars too. There are scholars of gender and sexuality in Islam who blame polygamy on Iranians, while some thinkers have blamed Iranians for the rise of homosexuality among the Arabs. 

Left to their own devices Arabs, according to this xenophobic fantasy, would have been happily monogamous, heterosexual, and above all moderate Muslims, bordering with the top choice of being “secular” too. These nasty old “Persians” have been an old plague to these puritanical princes and their learned advisors.  

‘Secular despots’ and their ‘moderate Islam’

Back to earth and among us mortals, however, we see a link between what our Saudi prince calls and considers “moderate Islam” and the “secular tyrants” of whom the Economist reports.  As Madawi Al-Rasheed recently wrote: “The crown prince’s understanding of moderate Islam is a project in which dissenting voices are silenced, activists are locked behind bars, and critics are forced into submission.” 

What is now being trumpeted as “moderate Islam” is an ideology of submission to the overpowering domination of neoliberal economics without any moral or imaginative resistance. 

Accepting the Zionist theft of Palestine and competing to establish open diplomatic relations with Israel, systematic oppression of civil liberties at home, mobilisation of transnational Arab armies to bomb civilian targets in Yemen, turning ancient and historic cities to wet dreams of predatory capitalism, massive waste of national resources on advanced military equipment are some of the vintage doctrinal dimensions of this “moderate Islam” now being promoted by these “secular despots”. 

But under the smokescreen of these “secular despots” and hidden beneath their “moderate Islam,” between the degenerate ideologies of fanaticism and ignorance that has informed the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the tribal despotism ruling supreme from one end of the Arab and Muslim world to another, stand tall masses of millions of people whose ancestral faith and political agency are not at the mercy of either Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his gang of murderers or General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi commanding a reactionary junta subverting the Egyptian revolution.  


A fine example of such benevolent dictatorship that the Economist describes is the United Arab Emirates whose leaders have evidently “led the way in relaxing religious and social restrictions. While leading a regional campaign against Islamist movements, Muhammad bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the UAE’s de facto leader, has financed the construction of Western university branches and art galleries.” 

What this kind of outdated Orientalism betrays is the simple proposition that the more the world looks like a fictional Europe, the more it is “secular” and “moderate”, the more they are to be trusted and welcomed.  Left to their own non-western devices, these Muslims become nasty, brutish, and fanatical. If they cannot become secular and moderate Muslims by themselves, then (damn it, why not) let a tyrant do it for them. 

Nations negating their states

Entirely outside the purview of such banal Eurocentric imagination, the fate of nations in the Arab and Muslim world is determined by the internal logic and rhetoric of an entirely different dynamic.

The beautiful struggles of Arabs and Muslims for justice and civil liberties can no longer be divided into the bogus, flawed, and outdated “secular” versus “religious” division or “moderate” versus “radical” Islam. These are US and European think tank mantras categorically irrelevant to the inner working of Muslim moral and historical imagination, of which neither the Economist nor the Saudi prince have a blasted clue. 

European colonialism and American imperialism (both now gathered at the root of the Zionist theft of Palestine) framing the rise and persistence of nativist tyranny, are the chief catalysts of critical thinking in the Arab and Muslim world and thus map out the future of its collective national destinies. Without a simultaneous attention to these historical forces, any fly-by-night concept like “secular despots” or “moderate Islam” is highfalutin hogwash. 

Ours is as much an age of post-Islamism, in the elegant phrasing of Asef Bayat, as it is of post-secularism, as Jurgen Habermas has theorised. The binary of secular/religious was of a European (Christian) vintage and had nothing to do with Islam, Judaism, or any other religion. “Secularism,” as Gil Anidjar has persuasively argued, was and remains Western Christianity thinly disguised. 

The inner dynamics of Islam in its encounter with Europeans colonial modernity and the effervescence of Muslim communities in their renewed global and cosmopolitan contexts are mapping out the contours of a vastly different world than the one imagined by the Saudi prince or the prognostications of the Economist. 

Tribal monarchies, fake republics, military juntas, secular tyrants, and the militant fanaticism they have created, branded, and now fight are all made of the same cloth. The fate of 1.6 billion human beings who call and consider themselves, in one way or another, ‘Muslim’ is not and will never be determined by the juvenal delusions of any Arab prince or “secular tyrant” – nor indeed by their common nemesis in the frightful apparition of ISIL and its ilk. 

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” The Saudi prince must get his clues from the prince of Denmark, stop listening to his American and Israeli advisors and cease wasting his nation’s resources on useless billion-dollar projects. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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