Updated with Audio: Secular Good, Muslim Bad: Unveiling Tunisia’s Revolution

Update: As a guest on State of Belief radio Haroon discussed the problematic nature of our discussions around secularism, democracy, and Islam. Listen below. — ed.

It’s hard to say where Tunisia will go from here, but I can’t suppress the smile on my face. Tunisians have risen up against an outstandingly oppressive, corrupt, and sclerotic regime, and chased a dictator out of power (what a satisfyingly pathetic flight that is to trace).

Nobody expected Tunisia—“modern,” “secular,” and among the most “Westernized” of Arab nations—to throw off its nauseating government; in 2008’s Press Freedom Index, Tunisia ranked 164th out of 178 countries. Culturally, Tunisia appeared to have gone in all the right directions, so why had it politically failed? And why didn’t we expect it? It’s because of this mind-map: If an Arab/Muslim is culturally Western, he is naturally in favor of democracy; if culturally other, he is some kind of authoritarian.

I’m saying this because of the New York Timescoverage of Tunisia’s revolution, which expresses a deep concern for Tunisia’s “secularity,” a term that vexes me precisely for its imprecision. A secular Muslim society can be one whose government has no religion (in that sense, America is also secular), or it can be one in which religion itself goes mostly ignored (in that sense, America is not secular). The Times never really establishes if it means to convey the former, the latter, or both.

We still can’t seem to get past this confusion of personal belief with political order, especially since Islam is such a visible religion, and our idea of religiosity assumes that what is visible cannot be uncoerced (and uncoercive). Human beings are not so simplistically motivated, nor is religion so one-sided, that we can put folks in boxes which say, “they are doing this for religious reasons,” as opposed to “they are doing this for non-religious reasons.” How do we even determine religious reasons?

Take this paragraph:

For the first time in the month of protests, the demonstration on Friday also included large numbers of women — almost none wearing veils — and many snapping cellphone pictures of the crowd to post on the Internet.

If, instead, it had been veiled women calling for democracy, would their protests have been any less meaningful? If so, we’d probably make this calculation: If their governments had stifled their society, that’s the fair trade we make to keep the bearded barbarians and headscarved hordes in check. I say “probably” because indeed we did: Tunisia was a close American ally in the war on terror, much as we cozy up, time and time again, to vile leaders who use the Islamist bogeyman to crack down on human rights for those human types.

Too often, secular regimes in the Muslim world are not democratic. Their secularism is itself an imposition, and often a violent one. Turkey is an instructive example (trivial tidbit: Tunisia’s flag is a deliberate echo of Turkey’s, since the territory was part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries.) In Turkey, a popular, democratically elected party, many of whose members are individually pious, is using the ballot box to push an unelected secular elite out of its privileged statist position.

If we don’t get this dynamic, we won’t get Muslim politics. I’m not talking about a religious agenda driving a revolution (even though we Americans appealed to God against the King in our Declaration of Independence), I’m talking about people calling for democratic change. We get so hung up on “secularism” that we miss the larger dynamic between personal piety and political space, and the rise of more and more explicitly democratic movements in the Muslim world. We also miss the fact that Tunisia’s oppressive regime also oppressed religion.

There’s undeniable, broad, and non-partisan popular frustration with a corrupt government, which Tunisians are rightly sick of. Tunisia’s dictatorship—Ben Ali was in power since 1987, back when the Soviet Union existed—also strictly controlled Tunisia’s religious life. Religiously active Tunisians were persecuted and sometimes forced out of the country, and this contributed in no small part to the universal sense that this government did not respect or reflect the Tunisian people. Tunisia’s Islamist opposition was very comfortable with democracy, much like Turkey’s AKP, but that still didn’t help them. (They’re in exile.)

But that element of the story is missing, and in its place we get this:

Tunisia is far different from most neighboring Arab countries. There is little Islamist fervor there, it has a large middle class, and under Mr. Ben Ali and his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, it has invested heavily in education. Not only are women not required to cover their heads, they enjoy a spectrum of civil rights, including free contraception, that are well beyond those in most countries in the region.

To repeat, there’s little “Islamist fervor” in Tunisia because Islamist fervor—something as benign as fasting in Ramadan—can land one in some very hot water. (Put that into perspective: imagine our government preventing folks from observing Lent.) But let’s not end there. Tunisia is also different from most neighboring Arab countries because, we are told, in Tunisia, “women [are] not required to cover their heads”.

For a list of the Arab countries that do not mandate that women cover their heads, how’s this?: Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Yemen, and Bahrain. That’s 15 countries, including the most populous, Egypt. And while I’m not sure about The Sudan, there are of course strong restrictions around women’s dress in Saudi Arabia. That’s possibly 2 countries for the other side. (In fact, in the whole Muslim world, only two other countries legally mandate the veil: Iran and Afghanistan.)

There must be an explanation for why a journalist would make such a broad, unsubstantiated statement, and it returns us to the simple need to define Arabs as either secular (like us) or religious (unlike us), an effect of which is a confused causation. Namely, because many Arab states aren’t democracies, they must be Islamist states, where of course women must have to cover their heads.

This assumption lazily equates the public practice of Islam with all things undemocratic, whereas we are inclined to view secularism–even when enforced by a dictator–as explicitly preferable, even though in the experience of many Arabs (and Muslims), secularism is the ideology which justifies control of their lives, religion, and politics.

In the Western world, we achieved political secularism after decades of debate and division. But it was nevertheless an organic process, such that we feel secularism is “ours,” and we have ownership over it (or, at least, many of us do—the religious right would beg to differ, and sometimes for reasons not dissimilar to Muslim frustrations with secular elites).

In the Muslim world, on the other hand, the secular brand is badly tarnished, because it’s often associated with either the colonizer or indigenous elites who forced local cultures to change. (Ataturk and Reza Shah, secular leaders of Turkey and Iran, obligated women to uncover their heads and men to change how they covered theirs; in Turkey, some who refused to change their clothes were executed).

In a number of Arab and Muslim states, you can go to the beach, get a drink, skip prayers, and walk around with your hair down. You just can’t expect that your vote will matter. Tonight, in one less country, it seems that may no longer be the case. That government was overbearing, it overreached, and now, it seems to be over. Let us pay less attention to the visibility of their religiosity, stop trying so hard to classify Arabs and Muslims between the acceptable and unacceptable, and spend a little more time in awe of what humans did before guns and tanks.

Freedom is on the march. And, I might note, with only a tinge of sarcasm, we didn’t even need to invade their country.