Issandr El Amrani writes: Free Arabs, a new Web site run by a group of Arabs — some in the Middle East, others in the West — is causing a stir. Gathered under the slogan “Democracy, Secularism, Fun,” it laments the fact that “millions of Arabs have internalized the notion that secularism is tantamount to faithlessness, and is all about demonizing Islam and promoting a dissolute way of life.
Not only can secularism coexist with religion, Free Arabs argues, but it protects the free exercise of religion and can help promote other civil liberties, like gay rights.
The group is defending a no-compromise version of secularism — one that may be too much to ask of many Arab politicians, particularly those in the fledging new liberal parties that have emerged since the Arab uprisings.
Some don’t want to be dragged into culture wars, a favorite ground for Islamists who bank on the fact that many Arab societies are still socially conservative. Others are just plain conservative themselves, even on issues far more basic than gay rights — like whether gender equality should be applied to inheritance and other questions traditionally governed by Islamic law.
Still, the controversy triggered by Free Arabs is just the kind of debate Islamists and secularists in the Arab world should be having, if only because they couldn’t have had it under the old regimes. Also, there’s plenty of room for debate: In this part of the world, the term “secular” means very different things to different people. [Continue reading…]