Friday, December 6, 2013

Taking Stock of Recent Arab Irreligious Trends

A snapshot taken from the video of Mashrou Leila's recent song "للوطن" (for the homeland), which features an Arab transsexual belly dancer

The recent rise in Arab atheism seems to be a trending topic across the global online community. However, while diversified in their respective scales of analysis, almost all the material published on the topic have fallen in two crippling traps. 

The first of these is giving the Arab Spring a pivotal role in the parsing of the phenomenon. For instance an otherwise brilliant writer uncritically states that out of 60 Arabic atheist groups on Facebook, only a fraction predates the Arab rising. What he missed here is the fact that such groups have short life spans, given that they receive a large amount of negative reports as soon as they become slightly visible. Therefore, the writer could have as well claimed that a few of the said groups precedes any arbitrary date in the past five years, during which Facebook began gaining traction throughout the world - I personally remember a dozen defunct Arab atheists groups from the period intervening between 2008 and 2010.

The second trap is according the phenomenon more significance than it really deserves. Of course, these active atheists are fulfilling the important but long disabled societal functions of pushing the limits and enfeebling the grip of the dominant discourse - that being religious in this case, more specifically Islamic - by showing it for what it really is - i.e. ossified, obsolete, self-referential and a heavy, unnecessary tax on personal and public development. But aside from the background of modern secularism against which this strand of atheism is perpetuated, very little is presented as a substitute for what is being lambasted.

Yet the media is naively depicting the phenomenon with rosy colors without providing any account of the dynamics involved - e.g. the modes through which value shock is produced by this newly strengthened party of atheists, let alone their modes of organization and how the traditional authorities are responding among other things - which is a tell-tall sign that such articles are dictated by emotions as opposed to reason. 

Arab Secularism on the other hand is being pronounced dead by these very same online outlets, and the obituaries published are all to the effect that most Arab states were undergoing a rapid process of secularization during the 60's and 70's of the past century, which came to a halt during the 80's, and began reversing until it met its demise in the past two decades. Makes you wonder, will this myth ever end?

The truth is these Arab "secular" movements of the past century were the manifestation of a process whereby a nascent Arabic-Islamic discourse - born little before the death of the Ottoman empire, only to grow under the supervision of condescending colonial mandates - was reshaping its exteriors to reclaim some of its dignity via gaining the respect of its former bullies, while leaving its interiors intact, pretty much like they were for an eternity by then - take the example of the expulsion of Egyptian Jews under Nasser, an icon of Arab "secularism", and the constitutional provisions explicitly prohibiting Christians from ever attaining country presidency, and banning civil marriage under the rule of Syrian Al Ba'ath, another, though it be less glamorous, icon of the "secular" movements of those long gone times.

Nonetheless, a genuine notion of secularism - based solely on citizenship, merit, and civil liberties - seems to be at last emerging among the masses. To be clear, this is not restricted to the online sphere, but is becoming significantly tangible offline as well. My own guess is that it has been there for a while now, in an embryonic form buried deep down in the minds of frustrated bystanders, who until recently have operated under the assumption that no matter how bad things might go in the Arab world, the Afghan and Iraqi scenarios will never come to pass elsewhere. But, boy, were they belied? This assumption could not be proven any more false by the atrocities the radical Islamists have committed in tolerant Syria, and to a lesser extent in the scientifically advanced Egypt, where their rule has only seen the country through a devolution of medical practices - this notion of secularism does not approve of military despotism either, but that is a matter out of the scope here.

However, while definitely becoming more and more vociferous by the day, the question remains whether or not these secularists will learn how to organize themselves so as to occupy a sizable space in the Arab political sphere in time. Will we witness such a thing? A little optimism can't hurt here: the French revolution was followed by period upon period of terror, until the French society became what it is today. A refreshing thought, but we should as well be reminded that pre-revolution France was as far as it can get from the ethnic and religious minefield that what we refer to nowadays as the Arab world has always been.