How likely is secular democracy in the Middle East?

How likely is secular democracy in the Middle East?

Ambassador Feridun Sinirlioğlu, a former Undersecretary at the Foreign Ministry who is Turkey’s new “point man” at the U.N., believes the Middle East has to move toward a secular and democratic future.

“We also see that this multicultural region needs a secular and democratic future on the basis of freedom of religion and belief,” Sinirlioğlu said in an interview with Hürriyet’s Cansu Çamlıbel, just prior to flying off to New York to assume his post as Turkey’s Permanent Representative to the U.N.

“The Arab Spring, which started in 2011, also began with the same demand. People were demanding democracy. Democracy and secularism were both on the agenda,” he added.

Despite current problems and seemingly insurmountable difficulties in this regard, Sinirlioğlu remains an optimist. According to him, “the Middle East will eventually get a secular democracy established as a reflection of the people’s consent and will,” even though “this process may take time.”

Diplomats are pessimists by profession but optimists in public. Still, we must give Sinirlioğlu some benefit of the doubt. It is not impossible that a secular democratic future awaits the Middle East. Whether it is probable, though, as long as the current hold of religion on all aspects of life in the region continues is another question. 

Given the mess that followed the Arab Spring as the established order in region - and the potentially emerging order, as in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt - worked to undermine democracy, let alone a secular democracy, the prospects in the Middle East for attaining what Sinirlioğlu suggests seem dimmer than ever.

It is true, as Sinirlioglu said, that the Arab Spring started off with a demand for democracy. But whether “secularism” was part of the deal, as he suggests, is another question. “Secularism” always was and remains an unpalatable term in much of the Middle East, where it is seen as another word for atheism, and as being essentially against Islam. 

The “secularism with a stick” imposed by regional dictators prior to the Arab Spring, simply to keep Islamists at bay rather than promoting democracy, also helped tarnish the whole concept of secular democracy. 
Some may recall how President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (who was prime minister at the time) was chastised by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt after he exhorted Egyptians in 2011 not to fear secularism. Not only did Erdoğan not dwell on the issue after that, but he gradually pursued policies which have left many today questioning whether Turkey is still a secular democracy.

Given how even Turkey, which was considered a model for the region with its secular democracy despite having a predominantly Muslim population, has regressed in this regard, Sinirlioğlu’s optimism regarding the future of the Middle East appears counterintuitive.

However, what is more crucial is the fact that Sinirlioğlu’s approach is at odds with the policies pursued by the government to which he is answerable. He may underline the need for a secular democratic future for the Middle East, but many in this country and in the West do not foresee this for his own country. 

In order for his projection for the Middle East to be convincing, the government in Turkey would have to also believe the same and push hard for it. Yet one hears hardly any mention of or support for secular democracy in Turkey by members of the government or their supporters in the media. 

Democracy only denotes for them what comes out of the ballot box. It seems to be a means to undermine the foundations of secular democracy, rather than developing and reinforcing them. In other words, as Erdoğan once said, democracy is seen only as a train taking them to their destination.

Still, we wish Sinirlioğlu success in his new post.