By Gökhan Bacik
Mar 30 2020
The coronavirus will affect the entire international order. At the same time, this phenomenon is bound to strengthen some dynamics in the Islamic world while it weakens others.
The COVID-19 crisis has come about at a time when the current generation’s reaction against traditional Islamic interpretations and Islamist politics was already gaining steam. The virus will strengthen this new generation’s stance and distance it further from the old.
In the example of Turkey, this dynamic was already glaringly obvious – as we saw in the results of recent research by the respected polling company Konda, which showed that the proportion of Turks who described themselves as “modern” had risen from 29 percent to 45 percent. Konda head Bekir Agirdir calls this dynamic a “late modernisation.”
As for Iran, a similar late modernisation could be recalled from the protests rising for some time against the mandatory headscarf imposed on women.
Those protests, first kicked off by activist Masih Alinejad, have quickly become a focus of great attention, and tens of thousands have joined the campaign. Now, some 2.5 million people follow Alinejad on social media, and the videos shared by women who have removed their headscarves have rocked the Iranian regime.
A poll in 2018 found that nearly half of Iranians believed the headscarf was a personal choice in which the state should not interfere.
We must not forget that debating the mandatory headscarf means debating the spirit of the Iranian regime. From this perspective, the young generation’s resistance to the imposed headscarf symbolises the rift that has grown between it and the established politics and Islamic discourse.
For a range of economic reasons, and predominantly the problem of unemployment, the Iranian generation under 25 years old has disengaged from the Islamist regime. The Iranian journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi describes dissatisfaction with the regime as a common value that has spread across diverse segments of the country’s society.
Two points require emphasis here. Firstly, that the new perception of society and the state that will arise from the coronavirus crisis in Iran and Turkey is coming at a time when reaction against the traditional and prevailing religious discourse is already rising.
Thus, the crisis will have a profound impact on how the new, rising generation of urban youths’ views on religion, society and the political regime evolve.
You could say this is analogous with the 1999 earthquake that struck Izmit in northwest Turkey, killing some 17,000 people. That event doubled as the conjuncture at which Islamist discourse was on the rise as Turkish secularism floundered, and the dynamics that the disaster brought to the fore empowered the political and theoretical opponents of Kemalists, the elite that defined themselves by Turkish Republic founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s secularist ideology.
With the COVID-19 crisis, the tables have turned and it is a growing demand for secularism that stands against the weakening religious political actors in the Middle East.
The virus since it broke out has dealt a heavy blow to traditional religious interpretations. Mosques have been closed and religious figures have been shrouded in silence as every television channel hosts members of scientific organisations to explain the situation, bringing them a new sense of authority.
We are witnessing the first time in modern Turkish history that scientists have become the primary reference on a social level, above religious figures.
The government’s slogans on policies that are reshaping families lives are essentially telling citizens to “do what science says.” Traditional religious actors who for the past decade have presented themselves as the answer to all kinds of problems are able to do nothing but watch on from the side-lines and try to avoid attention.
The second point is that the Islamist actors in both Turkey and Iran are very weak economically. The only way they have to protect their positions is by growing more authoritarian.
Without the resources for the large public spending needed for urgent problems, the administrations in Turkey and Iran are watching helplessly as their economic crises deepen. The dominant Islamist actors have lost their ability to draw support through their discourse and their economic management has left the public cold.
But there is one more point to remember: Large phenomena that leave humanity in a state of shock may have a very different impact on religiosity. For example, in the days after the bubonic plague pandemic struck Europe in the 14th century, some religious groups became even more radicalised and said the plague was a punishment sent by God. These groups adopted an even more radical and marginal religious interpretation and began to favour extreme religious practices – such as blaming and punishing those they deemed sinners for the pandemic.
First, those whose age and education means they will never foreswear the traditionalist religious interpretation. They are likely to take a more mystical view to world events.
In Turkey’s case, this was illustrated by an individual placed under quarantine after returning from Umrah in Saudi Arabia who blamed the novel coronavirus on the ruling party’s losses in the local elections in March 2019.
This type of view is likely to grow stronger in provincial parts of countries like Turkey, Egypt and Iran that are more closed off to the world. In one sense, the gap between urban and provincial readings of Islam will grow.
We are also likely to see a similar radicalisation who remain loyal to the core structure of Islamic sects and congregations. These groups, who see the world as a group illusion, will interpret the deaths from the coronavirus as a divine punishment.
For that reason, Islamic sects and congregations are likely to become even more closed off in the world after the coronavirus. These groups already have a messianic vision of the world at their roots, but they are bound to break away even further from natural causality and to full adopt a millennialist world view, making it ever more difficult for people who believe in scientific rationalism and value individual liberty to exist in them.
Original Headline: Coronavirus pandemic strengthens secular outlook in Islamic world
Source: The Ahwal News