Secularism Should not be Shunned

Jordan can become a shining example of an Arab nation that chooses to adopt secularism, not as a nefarious concept that seeks to undermine people’s faiths and beliefs, but as a way of cementing democratic values.

The Arab world has never seen shoddier times, with most of the nation states that were formed after the upheaval of World War Two now lagging behind the rest of the world in almost every significant socio-economic indicator.

Democracy as a political structure is almost nonexistent, replaced by an assortment of authoritarian, patriarchal and sectarian based systems of government. Social justice is lacking, gender equality is missing, and youth unemployment is at a historic high in most countries.

The so-called Arab Spring has been a complete disaster. It has largely resulted in more oppression, supplementary identities, and failed states in the tragic cases of Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Even worse, it triggered foreign intervention in the internal affairs of key Arab countries while providing a fertile ground for the emergence of radical takfiri groups such as Daesh, who may have suffered military defeat in Iraq and Syria, but still exist as a fighting force in Somalia, Libya, and Egypt.

To make things worse, the traditional inter-Arab cooperation structures, such as the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council have become even less effective, leaving individual Arab countries to seek to build transient alliances that serve limited and short-term goals.

It’s tragic that this resource-rich and strategic part of the world is struggling so. Most countries have sought to rely on foreign support rather than buffering the concept of regional cooperation that preserves independence and cushions the region against polarization and external meddling. It’s depressing that most countries spend more money on arms than on education and health care.

The Arab Spring has come and gone, along with the demands for freedom, dignity, and social justice. Voices calling for social change and political reforms have been snuffed out. But this does not mean their fundamental demands are now in any way less needed.

This brings us to the thorny issue of secularism, which for most is viewed as an offensive term that seeks to undermine people’s faith and is the basis of a foreign conspiracy to spread indecency, perversion, and moral corruption.

But in reality, secularism merely seeks to separate the state from religious institutions, and help create a free society based on democratic values and the separation of powers with an independent judiciary. These attributes deliver transparency, a system of checks and balances and social justice. Moreover, together they instill civic values that protect the sick and the less fortunate while freeing the mind to excel in applied sciences, philosophy, and free enterprise.

These are not untested theories, but proven paths that many nations have taken many decades ago. And we don’t have to look to the west, often accused of spreading decadence, to make a point. Great lessons can be drawn from the experiences of South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Turkey and Japan where religious freedom is unhindered and society is able to chart its way to protect its core values.

Such experiences must be studied and analyzed to come up with a localized version of how this region can move forward and create its own renaissance. To believe that the entire Arab world would collectively adopt such a path would be unrealistic. But some countries are more equipped than others to present themselves as game changers. Jordan stands out as the most suitable candidate.

We don’t lack the political will nor the ability to build capacity and mobilize people. Jordanians have one of the highest levels of education and practical experiences, not to mention the entrepreneurial spirit. But it is a country that has missed chances in the past. Political reforms have stumbled while the lack of an economic vision has been the reality of the past few years. Now we find ourselves seeking self-reliance as we slowly lose the financial support of our traditional backers.

This is the time to open a new page and unleash our hidden potential. In recent months we have seen the beginning of a shy debate over the virtues of a civil state, which is a euphemism for secularism. This debate must be encouraged and those who defend the values of a civil state must not be shunned.

Freeing the mind is the ultimate goal towards providing a fertile ground for a new Arab renaissance. But we must first turn our slogans into reality and for that to happen we must summon the will to change our destiny.