Kleptocracy as secularism

Among some secular people observing events in the Middle East, I run into some worries that secular dictatorships will be replaced with worse—theocracies like what the Muslim Brotherhood has envisioned throughout most of its organizational history.

Maybe. What is going to come out the present upheaval in unpredictable. In the Middle East, often the only opposition that has been allowed to exist has had an Islamic flavor. It is likely that if and when popular rule makes its inroads, cultural and hence religious conservatism will become even more visible.

But what exactly are we secularists defending as an on-the-ground alternative? Miniscule remnants of leftist political groups? Liberals who, as in Turkey, are apologists for neoliberalism and cheerleaders for grassroots Islamization? In practice, the military-linked elites that gave rise to the present authoritarian regimes are the best realistic representatives of secularism.

And secular they are: in places like Egypt, they represent the secularity of kleptocracy. After all, asset-stripping the public realm in the name of liberalizing the economy and turning the wealth of countries over to cliques of a few hundred families respects no religion. No sect of the local monotheisms explicitly endorses kleptocracy. Oh, plenty of Islamic tariqa’s and movements enthusiastically take part in the race to line their leaders’ (and select followers’) pockets. But like the inane “prosperity gospel” of our more local cultural Third World, the fakery of it all is too uncomfortably transparent. Stealing everyone blind is an eminently secular impulse, one that does not discriminate according to creed.

If that’s the sort of secularity we are defending, reluctantly or not, I want no part of it. Even the Muslim Brotherhood might be an improvement. I suspect they would not be, but that’s not so much because of their theocratic or quasi-fascist fantasies as their own tendencies toward neoliberal kleptocracy.