Iraqi protesters breaking into Baghdad's Green Zone (Photo by Khalid al Mousily/Reuters)
Grossmont Middle College High School

Opinion: Lack of political secularism impedes Middle East’s ideological progress

The Peace of Westphalia, the Glorious Revolution and the War of the Spanish Succession are few of the final major conflicts and events caused by religion in Europe, all occurring around the late 1600s to the early 1700s. Following these events, the European endeavors of war mainly turned to money or political power during, and beyond, the 1700s, laying a secular structure for technology to thrive and for commercial capitalism to blossom, so it goes.

The story of modern Western culture—comprising its new economic, social, and political ideology—has been told countless times. One of its greatest landmarks is one that the world fails to find in parts of the Middle East today: secularism.

Recently tensions between Iran and the U.S. have reached a peak not seen in decades after the killing of Iranian General Qasim Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (deputy chief of Al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi—Iraqi Shi’ite Militias) by an American Military drone strike. This occurred after Iraqi Shia stormed the Green Zone and vandalized the American Embassy in Iraq.

The Green Zone’s Iraqi security, who had tear-gassed hundreds of protesters months earlier, did not oppose the Iranian-backed protests—a testament to the Iranian influence in Iraq, according to the New York Times. Iran’s significant influence on the protesters is largely a result of the sociopolitical power religion holds in Iraq.

Iraqi culture has a certain problem with secularism that it refuses to outgrow—Iraqi society, as a whole, is heavily traditional. Western entertainment groups and websites face no problem satirizing Christianity or Judaism and finding approval from an audience, but the satirizing of Islam in the Middle East is heavily frowned upon, even on social media.

The portrayal of prophet Mohammed is banned in the Middle East, and extremist Muslim groups have even threatened or attacked Western entertainment attempting to use Islam in humor, such as Charlie Hebdo and South Park in 2010.

After living in Iraq for about 13 years, I believe that the heart of the problem is that the word “secularism” sounds a little too close to “atheism” in the ears of Iraqis. This, of course, is not all of Iraqi society, but the majority—the uneducated, deeply devout, and traditional. Even the educated often fall into traditionalism as the Quran is taught in Iraqi classrooms, usually by extremely devout teachers.

On the other hand, the American Gen Z-ers and Millennials are becoming far more secular than the generations preceding them, arguably a result of religious disillusionment from an expansion of information through technology. When it comes to believing that religion is important, praying, and attending religious services, newer American generations consistently average less than the ones preceding them, according to a study by Pew Research Center.

Moreover, Pew Research Center also shows that the percentage of religious people in generations (from Baby Boomer to Millennial) has been steadily decreasing, most significantly in Catholics, Evangelical Protestants, and Mainline Protestants. The increased generational religious-liberalism may set up a push for secularization through internet culture in the Middle East.

While it may be true that as generations grow older, they become extensively more religious, Michael Hout, professor of sociology at New York University, claims that “in the past 20 years, we really haven’t seen a lot of evidence of that cycle continuing,” in an interview with Pew Research Center.

This could most likely be a result of the modern technological revolution: if the printing press allowed Protestants to learn their Bible in their vernacular without religious institutions in the 1500s, modern availability of information offers infinite tools for people who feel religiously disenchanted.

Modern culture and globalization may prove to be a sturdy foundation for the Middle East to separate religion and politics. The reason surveys like Pew Research Center’s can not be extracted from countries such as Iraq is that there’s little statistical information, especially regarding religion, in under-developed to developing countries. Nonetheless, the ongoing wave of Western detachment from religion may largely influence the advancement of secular ideals in the Middle East as the United States dominates internet culture.

Religious experience is spiritual and unique to the individual, but the extreme notion of religion present in Iraqi ideology uses Islamic dogma as an instrument of shaping politics and society. At times, it feels like Iraq is in a perpetual Orwellian war with secularization, using the fear of atheism and what is deemed as blasphemy to further etch religion into society.

People have the right to be Shi’ite or Sunni, and no one is in any position to condemn either; however, one of Iraq’s biggest political downfalls is the amount of sociopolitical power Shia clerics hold. The secularization of politics cannot be possible if clerics like Muqtada Al-Sadr maintain their profound power over people. Only a corrupt society can have one man simultaneously be a leader of religion, military, and politics.

On the other hand, Some Iraqis have an unhealthy, nostalgic sentiment toward Saddam Hussein’s era due to the lack of sectarian quarrels at that time. While it may be true that religious tension was almost obsolete compared to today’s Iraqi government, it must be noted that people did not suddenly become secular and accepting of each other under a totalitarian state. It often goes without saying, but a dictatorship is not the right answer—however, neither are political clerics.

The root of Iraq’s vigorous religious attachment is that Eastern philosophy relies on tradition and custom a lot more than Western philosophy does. This is evident in the evolution of these two philosophies—even though Eastern civilizations were older, Western civilizations evolved significantly faster as they relied a lot more on ideals of liberty and individualism.

The contrast in philosophies could be traced back with a Nietzschean perspective that analyzes the foundations of Eastern and Western thinking, and why there are major differences in their ideals—for example, a difference in fundamental ethics and values as a product of the different leading religions is an important topic in such analysis.

The point to be made is that even though Eastern values (of which the Middle East—namely Iraq in this context—is a part of) rely on tradition, secularism must dominate the political realm to avoid the use of religion as a means to rule the masses. No matter what purpose some religious institutions may have adopted, religion, eventually, must be treated as a personal journey, not a collective effort to define people.

This does not insinuate that religious gatherings or collective worship must be abolished; quite the contrary, if one is independently intertwined with their religion, then it can create a sense of community with others. It is only corrupt when these communities fall under the power of demagogues.

In the light of the ongoing troubles in the world, from COVID-19 to an unreliable-at-best American president, the world does not haste to think of the Middle East, and it can not be blamed. There were times when the Middle East did not haste to worry for itself either, but the latest generation grows to create a foundation upon which Middle Eastern secularism could be possible. The fuel of enlightenment is much more abundant than it has been for a while in the region, and it’s only a matter of waiting for a spark to ignite a monumental cause.

Books upon books can be written around this very topic, yet that shouldn’t override the curiosity in the voyages of young thinkers during this age of information. Past imperialism and sectarian support has surely corrupted the Middle East and many under-developed regions; however, there is also a civic responsibility in people to shape and refine an identity for their nation. The goal is not to undermine the continuous struggle against oppression, but to acknowledge the history and to progress, without forgetting, or wholly embracing, the past.