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Rethinking Secularism as a Political Principle in the Middle East: From Negative to Positive Understanding and Perception of Secularism

Abstract : In the existing literature on secularism in the 2000s, it is commonly argued that secularism is in crisis. Although it was accused by scholars of generating conflict among identities, today there is a consensus to rethink secularism as an inclusionary and democratic principle. However, rethinking secularism cannot be separated from historical democratic gains, such as basic rights and/or gender equality. In that respect, rethinking secularism should be based on universal basic rights, equality, and freedom. In this paper, it is claimed that discourses of some intellectuals and political elites in the Middle East provide certain clues that point to the emergence of secularism with that new perception, which is egalitarian and liberal. Although they have some inconsistencies in their discourses, and they are not full-fledged secularists, it is significant to inquire whether their discourses about secularism comply with rethinking secularism.

In this paper, we argue that secularism is gaining acceptance among the intellectual circles of Middle Eastern countries, especially in Turkey, Iran, and Tunisia. Although these countries have experienced a kind of Islamization and/or fusion of religion and power at the state or social level, the recent developments point to the increasing acceptance of secularism as a way to avoid fundamentalism and radical conservatism. It should be added that this phenomenon is so new that it can only be seen in the discourses of intellectuals, and not yet at the popular level. That is why this paper will focus on the intellectual discourses and party declarations concerning secularism. While taking this phenomenon into consideration, it is also argued that secularism is put forward as an inclusionary, liberal, and egalitarian concept as a requirement for democracy in these countries. The negative image of secularism is nurtured by its near history in the Middle East where authoritarian leaders and administration implemented it to exclude groups of people from participation in the political process. In that respect, the early history of secularism in the Middle East shows that it was used to consolidate the powerful position of the elites. However, today it is seen as an emancipatory and egalitarian requirement for democracy against radical conservatism and nationalism . That is why this new understanding of secularism is more related to political liberalism.
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Submitted on : Friday, October 22, 2021 - 4:36:14 AM
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Alphan Telek, Edgar Şar. Rethinking Secularism as a Political Principle in the Middle East: From Negative to Positive Understanding and Perception of Secularism. Anna Tomaszewska; Hasse Hamalainen. The Sources of Secularism, Palgrave Macmillan, pp.245 - 293, 2017, 9783319653945. ⟨hal-03394084⟩

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