Gen-Z at the Heart of a Battle of Ideas in the Middle East

Burcu Ozcelik

A student-run art exhibition resulted in arrests last month at Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University, which was also the site of separate protests against a government-appointed head. Students were detained for inciting hatred and insulting religious values for a poster depicting Islam’s most sacred site alongside LGBT+ flags. Many, including practising Muslims, defended the art as a case of free speech (at the same time they acknowledging that it rattled some Muslims). The government swiftly condemned the artists as a motley assemblage of amoral atheists and Western puppets seeking to undermine Turkey’s socially conservative society. But the overwhelming public outcry it sought to stir never came. The reason is that Turkey, and the broader Middle East, is grappling with a debate over the fundamentals of politics and morality that could recast the existing binary of secularism and Islamism. But how successful it might be is another question, given the complexity behind both poles of regional politics.

The rise of religious political ideas in recent decades, such as the populist brand of Islamic nationalism in Turkey, has fueled debates about the continued role and relevance of secularism. Despite the ubiquity of simplistic accounts, secularism in the Middle East does not follow a strict rule book. Broadly understood as the separation of religion from the legal persona of the state, it implies that personal-status matters, such as marriage and inheritance laws, should be governed by “this-worldliness” rather than Sharia. In reality, there has never been a one-size-fits-all model of secularism that could apply universally – and unproblematically – across the region.

In the contemporary European context, secularism differs greatly from parts of the Middle East where secularist ideas inform the identity of the state. Laicité in France is seen as an extreme form of the separation of religion and state, a bastion of intolerance hiding under the sheen of ultra-liberal progressiveness. Perhaps nowhere else does secularism invoke such a rigid, unapologetic stance against the public expression of personal faith than in France.

In the Middle East, both secularism and Islamism have validity in the history of states like Turkey, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt. The back and forth between constitutional law, nationalism and Islamic politics have given rise to hybrid political orders where competing institutions and ideologies overlap and intertwine. Debates around secularism baffle many outsiders, but they are part of a wider story about how certain ideas help to manage people’s fears about change.

When the Islamic caliphate that had ruled over Ottoman subjects since the 14th century was dismantled by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the aftershocks jolted across Turkey’s new borders into its Muslim-majority neighbors. Since then, the unresolved legacy of the public role of Islam has electrified a tension between state and society and between religion and politics that has proven consistently volatile for Turkey.

The ruling AKP, which has been in power since 2002, was elected on the heels of three generations of banned Islamist political parties that attempted, alternatively, to challenge and accommodate the state in a game of political Darwinism. The AKP evolved through the synthesis and selective modification of basic tenets in right-of-center conservative politics, in traditional political Islam and in neoliberalism.

Even a cursory glance at Turkey’s modern history suffices to show how far the pendulum has swung from strict secularism to Islamic nationalism in recent years. But in reality, the AKP performs a delicate balancing act, weighing carefully the trenchant pro-Ataturk sentiment of a significant portion of the electorate even as it builds a moralistic case for a new, religiously mobilized generation. The conservative party blends nationalism and religion with secular reaffirmations, especially at times of national crisis when historical precedence and the towering figure of Ataturk seem to offer a remedy for reconciliation.

But for all that, whither religiosity? Based predominantly on the findings of the 2019 Arab Barometer, an annual macro-survey conducted with respondents across the Middle East and North Africa, numerous forecasts have cropped up on the declining role of religion in the worldviews of Generation-Z. According to the survey, the percentage of respondents who described themselves as “not religious” rose from eight percent to 13 percent in a single year, and the response is even more striking among under-30s, especially in Tunisia, Libya and Algeria. Similarly, a growing proportion of youth are seen to be turning away from religion in Turkey too, identifying as agnostics or deists instead.

In the Arab Middle East, secularism has been often raised as an alternative political structure to push back against the tide of sectarianism that has become a dominant political phenomenon. In Lebanon, a near consensus view agrees that the confessional system, which divides power between different religious communities, has failed. Since gaining its independence in 1943, Lebanon’s sectarian system requires that the president be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim. Despite the persistent ills of sectarian politics – such as deadlocked decision-making, chronically poor basic service delivery and fragmented communities – the alternative seems unimaginable.

In 2010, organizers of Laïque Pride, a secularist group, marched in Beirut calling for reforms, but failed to influence real political debate. Last August, the president, Michel Aoun, recognized a need to “change the system” and called for the proclamation of a secular state because “the youth of Lebanon are calling for change.” Yet, it is difficult to imagine how this will play out, if ever.

The failure of secularism to take hold has arguably led to groups falling back on primordial allegiances and divisive exclusivism. Disgruntled by the failure of Islamist parties to keep pace with their calls for reform of the status quo, Gen-Z seek an alternative political structure. And whether one calls it called a secular, civilian or liberal one, the desired outcome is the same: respect for the inviolability of human rights and dignity. The hard part is actually building such institutions that might take root. Otherwise, we’re back where we started.

Burcu Ozcelik is a research fellow and affiliated lecturer at Cambridge University.