The uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia share many common characteristics: Beyond the successful ouster for their dictators, both presented a change agenda focused on better standards of living, jobs, education, less corruption, and more social justice; an agenda seemingly clear of any religious claims that many have consequently labeled as “secular.”
Yet, in post-revolutionary Egypt, and Tunisia the question over how Islam will shape the new political reality is on everyone’s mind. The fact that the uprisings were about secular demands does not presuppose that the political discourse will take place outside of the realm of Islam. But does it at least prelude to a new era of genuine debate about the role of religion in North African politics?
In Morocco for instance, secular groups who are calling for a real separation between the state and religion are strongly re-emerging, but by challenging the system of the majority, their struggle is as hard as that of a minority campaigning in an unfriendly environment. Considering the reactions to the secular option in this most modern Islamic country, this institutional proposal seems as unconventional as the battle on legalizing gay marriage across the US. Coincidently, many opponents of secularism exploit the issue of gay marriage in the west to decry that a secular government might gradually pave the way to legalizing gay marriage in Morocco. Nonetheless, despite all attempts to deter the process, the battle is engaged and supporters of secularism are coming out of their closets.
Take the example of the Feb20 movement for change in Morocco. Beyond demands for decent jobs and better standards of living, they have consistently expressed their attachment to a democracy based on universal individual freedoms, and a clear separation of power. But a landmark of this movement is that they have also called for equality between men and women. Their facebook page: “Mouvement du 20 Février pour l’émancipation de la femme marocaine!” provides an excellent forum for supporters of gender parity in Morocco. This distinct approach based on contesting traditional social and legal gender roles sets the Moroccan movement apart from its Egyptian or Tunisian counterparts.
The secular predilection of the Feb20 movement has prompted the Islamist Nadia Yassine, daughter of the Abdeslam Yassine leader of the banned Islamist organization Justice and Charity, to stop short from saying the S word, and to state that a state a la Turkey would be a suitable reference model for Morocco. Interestingly, supporters of secularism in Egypt are currently debating the use of the expression “civic state” as a way to attenuate the semantic controversy over the term “secular”. The predominance of a secularist agenda within the movement also explains the negative reaction of the Salafist Fizazi who announced immediately after his release from prison that ‘the Feb20 must be cleansed from its atheist members’ (listen to video 5:22 min) atheism being the bad name given to secularism by Islamists in Morocco.
Hence the question: Will change in Morocco lead to more political Islam or secular progress?
As timid as they seem, the secularist claims of the change movement not only challenge the political status quo but are also undermining the Islamist tendencies in Morocco. Yet, Islamists still have clear advantages. As mentioned above, they have the ingenuity of successfully confusing secularism with atheism in the minds of a Muslim population with a high illiteracy rate. Most importantly, Islamists operate within their natural institutional and cultural environment (Islamic culture and state). Thus, when they engage in social actions like helping the poor, it is easy to give them credit for it as their social actions are carried out using a distinct Islamic discourse, and their clothing style serves as a billboard that advertises their political ideology. The same is not true for seculars who could be of various ideologies and beliefs, and thus not so visually or rhetorically distinct. Equally, social actions carried out by seculars may remain contained within the charity sphere without directly benefiting their political agenda.
In addition to a cultural and institutional disadvantage, seculars face a historical and etymological weakness. Being mostly adopted by western democracies, the word secularism is equated with the West, thus it is often resisted as a way to protect cultural identity and political independence from former colonizers.
Despite these challenges, the Feb20’s demands for secularism are real, and the statements of the Islamists Nadia Yassine and Fizazi are clear indications that beyond the basic demands for jobs, better standard of living and education, the demand for secularism in Morocco is increasingly viewed as genuine and realistic.
Perhaps, the current phase in the reform process represents the opportunity for supporters of secularism to increase their organizational efforts, build momentum and launch an awareness campaign that counters the propaganda against secularism and emphasizes its social, cultural, political, and economic benefits in a future modern and democratic Morocco.