John Voll, Professor Emeritus of Islamic History at Georgetown University:

Islamic movements in the second decade of the twenty-first century are experiencing significant changes in their nature and place in Muslim and global society. The Arab uprisings are part of this broader evolution of movements in the Muslim world. One element in these changes, as shown in post-Arab uprising Islamic movements, is the increasingly blurred line between groups and movements that are identified as “secular” and those that are identified as “religious.” This development may require rethinking some of the influential grand narratives about the nature of Islamic movements. Some commonly-used conceptual frameworks for analysis – like the secular-religious polarity – are inadequate for dealing with the new realities of movements in the twenty-first century.

The “secular-religious” analytical binary can lead to misleading conclusions about the nature of developments in post-Arab uprisings political societies. It depends upon assumptions embedded in old-style secularization theory – a theory which even one of its founders, Peter Berger, says “is essentially mistaken” because the “assumption that we live in a secularized world is false” (The Desecularization of the World, 1999,  2). However, much of the analysis of post-uprisings developments still frames the discussion in terms of a competition between “secular” and “religious” forces. Post-uprisings competitive politics in Tunisia and Egypt, for example, are frequently described in terms of competition between secularists and Islamists.

The basic framework of this analytical binary is familiar, with an assumption that becoming more “secular” means becoming less “religious.” Accompanying assumptions are that the “secular” is more closely identified with modernity than the “religious” and that the “religious” is somehow more “traditional” and “conservative.” (The scare quotes indicate my reservations about the adequacy of these terms in analysis of post-uprisings movements.) Using terminology containing these identity assumptions can lead to misunderstanding the dynamics of post-uprisings movements.

In analyses based on the secular-religious binary, Islamists are often identified as the “religious” element and this can pose analytical problems. When Islamists in Tunisia, for example, work within a coalition government and adopt positions that are not within the bounds of a strictly defined Islamism, they are described as somehow being less religious. Olivier Roy argues that the examples of Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt demonstrate that “exercising power ends up secularizing the religion” (In Search of the Lost Orient, 112). However, the Tunisian Islamist leader Rashid Ghannouchi’s “Muslim democrats” are not necessarily less religious; they are simply manifesting their religion in ways that are different from old-style Islamism. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was seen by many as, in Roy’s terms, secularizing the religion, in contrast to the more Islamist Salafi groups. Analysis of post-uprisings Islamic groups in other places also used the binary terminology, as in a Carnegie report on the PJD in Morocco, noting that “during its time in government, the PJD has largely operated as any secular party.” (Intissar Fakir, Morocco’s Islamist Party,  8) These are important and insightful analyses. However, using terminology that implies that the developments within the Brotherhood, al-Nahdah, or PJD create “less religious” movements leads to a misunderstanding of the tensions in post-uprisings polities. Post-Islamists are less Islamist but not necessarily less Muslim. The competitions are not “religious” groups against non-religious groups; they are between groups whose religiosity needs to be viewed outside of the secular-religious binary.

On the other side of the secular-religious binary, non-Islamist leaders who oppose or suppress Islamist groups tend to be identified as “secular,” regardless of their claims of “religious” support for their authority. President al-Sisi in Egypt suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood but presents his anti-Islamist policies as religious reform aiming at combating religious extremism, not as opposition to religion. An article in The Economist (2 November 2017) which states, “Despots are pushing the Arab world to become more secular,” identifies al-Sisi in this “secularist” group. It also includes in the discussion the proposed policies of the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. Prince Muhammad, like al-Sisi and most other leaders in the post-uprisings Arab world are not advocating secularism, they are defining alternative modes of Islam to combat Islamist extremism. To view the political contexts of post-uprisings Islamic movements as somehow involving a competition between secular and religious forces is to misread the nature of the conflict. Muhammad bin Salman’s “moderate Islam” is as religious as militant Salafism; it, like Tunisia’s Muslim democrats, represents a different framing of Islam but still represents a religious framing.

Post-uprisings developments highlight important longer-term trends. There has been a religionization of what is called “secular,” and a secularization of what is called “religious.” Increasingly, the so-called secular and the so-called religious are blending together in a new format that requires either new definitions or new terminology. To use an ugly neologism, the new modes of movements and state policies are increasingly “seculigious.” Whether or not one uses terms like that, it might be useful to follow the example of Sinem Adar, who does not use the term “secular,” because she finds “secular(ism) an ideologically overdetermined concept that often strains a sober discussion about the role of religion.” (Jadaliyya, 14 March 2018)