Secularists and Fundamentalists: The Dangers of Compromise

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The election in Tunisia raised many questions about the nature of the relationship between secularists and fundamentalists. As more Arab countries allow for ‘free’ elections, the dilemma will spread. Will, or should, secularists allow themselves to ride on the coattails of fundamentalists? Is this not what happened in Tunisia with the party of Moncef Marzouki expressing sympathy and amity toward the Al-Nahda? Marzouki admitted that his party did better than other secular parties because he did not attack fundamentalists. But is this a wise policy? Does this bode well for the political role of secular parties in the Arab world?

It is clear that this dilemma is not new. Some secular parties, like Tudeh in Iran, allowed themselves to be used by fundamentalist forces (Khumayni) to project a deceptive image of diversity and pluralism. It was not long after Khumayni came to power before he initiated his campaign of executions against former allies (secular and non-secular alike). There are clear dangers and hazards imbedded in the alliance between the fundamentalists and the secularists. Let us be clear: when the secularists are strong, they never ever contemplate aligning themselves with fundamentalists. So the balance of power between the two sides is always — in present-day politics — in favor of the fundamentalists who will call the shots once a coalition government is put in place. Furthermore, the agenda of the two sides is so divergent that any claim of unity is based on either pretensions or typical political deception. As for the reasons behind fundamentalist friendliness toward secularists, it has become clear, in Iran and elsewhere. The fundamentalists need to project a face of friendliness and openness before gaining power. They need to show a façade of broad-mindedness to get the support of the public at large.

But the rise of fundamentalism in the Arab world is partly due to the reluctance among Arab communists and secularists to declare ideological war on the fundamentalists, especially because the latter group served the cause of reactionary forces in the region and beyond for much of the cold war. Some people raise the example of Hezbollah to suggest that it is possible for secularists and fundamentalists to align together against Israel. It is true, that there is a small section of fundamentalist who have engaged in fight against Israeli occupation. The example of Hezbollah in Lebanon is one example and some secularists in Lebanon are politically aligned with the party. But the political (in the broad sense) alliance between some communists and Hezbollah should not extend to the electoral realm. Communists may share with Hezbollah the resistance agenda, but they don’t share the rest of the political program of Hezbollah. And the alliance, in elections, would cost the secularists dearly. In past elections, communists were more than willing to align themselves with Hezbollah, especially in South Lebanon, but the party was not enthusiastic. The party is more rigid vis-à-vis secular communists, than vice versa. When Hasan Nasrallah speaks about the history of the resistance movement in Lebanon, he rarely pays tribute to the communist contributions and in passing.

And the example of Al-Nahda is too fresh in our minds. What is there to join ranks with? Al-Nahda is very conservative in the economic realm, and wishes to extend the mandate of the World Bank and IMF in Tunisia. Fundamentalists in general are rather conservative on economic matters and don’t call for a larger role by the state for the alleviation of the pain of the poor. Furthermore, Al-Nahda is now sending most friendly messages to Western governments and the US—the same governments that sponsored and armed the dictatorship of `Ali.

Secularists should keep their distance from fundamentalists. The next stage of struggle, electorally and politically, requires that secularists devote efforts and energy to refute the arguments of fundamentalists and to expose their hypocrisy.


Only shia have the right to build alliances according to the Blog of As`ad or Assad. This is the logic behind his Blog.

Again, liberal biased of Asa'd Abu Khalil. Asa'd knows forsure that liberals can't compete with the Islamic views yet he thinks he owns the truth and Muslims have to be directed and ruled by liberals and secularists because they are better "ideologically". Liberalism has ended as the Capitalism my friend, living in California does not change the facts or living in Lebanon does not stop the majority of people from pursuing their aspiration of applying Islam and getting rid of the western ideology. Unfortuantly the Sheikhs of Libralism don't get yet and they seem to be in permenant illusion. The ideas of the liberalism don't stand and the collapse is coming to this ideology sooner than later the way the Roman and Greek ideas and empire collapsed. Just a matter of time; let the people on the ground say their words and don't wait on US or the Europeans to push their idealogy by force and by puppets.

This question is misleading. The question is why indigenous muslim party allying themselves with westernized west worshippers.

I don't agree that secularists are not also conservative on economic matters? I also don't agree that fundamentalists (which in the general Arab setting means Islamic fundamental) "in general are rather conservative on economic matters."
The rising fundamentalists have been supported by Saudi Arabia and they're encouraged to just focus on Sari3a law instead of economic and political changes. They're allied, so to speak, with capitalist regimes and promote these ideas.
In general terms, there's a strong leftist expectation and trend among poor and lower classes in the M.E., which will either take over the leadership or split these parties. Secularism has nothing to do with it.

As some wise man before me said, correlation does not necessarily mean causation.

As'ad, this article is well written and a cogent presentation of current dilemmas in the Arab world.
I feel most fortunate to experience your's and the other writers knowledge of the Arab world here at Al Akhbar.
Hideous lies cloud our perceptions throughout the Zionist west. The truth rings strongly here for a great refreshing change.

"Will, or should, secularists allow themselves to ride on the coattails of fundamentalists?"

No. As you point out, this is what happened in Iran, with rather fatal results for secular Leftists.

Khomeini and the Tudeh Party in Iran circa 1979 to understand Ennnada and the CPR in 201 in Tunisia?! This assumes an essentialization and fossilization of politics in the Arab world. Bernard Lewis would agree.

C'mon As'ad, you *are* better than this.

One size doesn't not fit all in the Islamic world. People and political parties can change and evolve. Moreover, mainstream Islamist politics today are very different than 32 years ago.

The late Eqbal Ahmad once said that what matters in the end is not political ideologies but political principles: popular sovereignty, freedom of the press, freedom of expression etc. He made this comment after saying he has no problem living in a state is officially called "Islamic" or not.

Respect basic principles of justice and good governance. This is what really matters.

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