Many Westerners gave a negative answer, thinking Islam is just too rigid and absolutist to secularize. Many Muslims also gave a negative answer, but proudly so: Our true faith would not go down the erroneous path of the godless West.
The rise of Islamism, a highly politicized interpretation of Islam, since the 1970s only seemed to confirm the same view: that “Islam is resistant to secularization,” as Shadi Hamid, a prominent thinker on religion and politics, observed in his 2016 book, Islamic Exceptionalism.
Yet nothing in human history is set in stone. And there are now signs of a new secular wave breeding in the Muslim world.
Some of those signs are captured by Arab Barometer, a research network based at Princeton and the University of Michigan whose opinion surveys map a drift away from Islamism — and even Islam itself. The network’s pollsters recently found that in the last five years, in six pivotal Arab countries, “trust in Islamist parties” and “trust in religious leaders” have declined, as well as attendance in mosques.
Granted, the trend isn’t huge. Arabs who describe themselves as “not religious” were 8 percent of those polled in 2013, and have risen to only 13 percent in 2018. So some experts on the region, like Hisham A. Hellyer, an Egyptian‐British scholar, advises caution.
Yet others, like the Lebanese‐born popular Middle East commentator Karl Sharro, think there is really something going on. “It is true to a certain extent, and you can feel it in many places including the Gulf,” he said regarding the secular wave. “It’s the beginning of something that will take a long time.”
What is the cause? “It is mainly Islamist politics and some of the social and political manifestations of the Islamic awakening,” Mr. Sharro argued. These include, he said, “disappointment with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the shock of ISIS, fatigue with sectarian parties in Iraq and Lebanon, anger at the Islamist regime in Sudan.”
When you leave the Arab world and look at the two important powers nearby — Iran and Turkey — you can see the same trend, but on a bigger scale.