What is it about Western secularism?

by Jorgen S. Nielsen
Print
Email
Damascus - Some years ago, the Tunisian Islamist leader-in-exile, Rashid Ghannoushi, wrote a book on public rights in Islam. He pointed out that there were particular historical reasons why Europe had separated religion and state. The church had misused its powers, had stood in the way of scientific progress, and the state had made religion a tool of oppression. That's fine for Europe, he said, but in the Muslim world we don't share that history, we have to find our own ways of doing things, ways that make sense for us.

This is a pretty mild Muslim response to the concept of Western secularism. In sharper versions, secularism is one of a list of unfavourable Western inventions which include materialism, Zionism, promiscuity and imperialism, to mention but a few in no particular order. At the extreme, Osama bin Laden has his own list.

Why is it that Muslims appear to find it so difficult to see anything positive in Western secularism? Are we so different after all?

There are clearly some Islamic movements that are serious in their call for a complete integration of religion and state, with religion predominating in public life as in private. Additionally, in some Muslim languages, the discussion is made almost impossible by the fact that the word used for secularism translates into English as "no religion" or "without religion". This is the case, for example, in Urdu, whereas the original meaning of the word was simply "that which has to do with this world as opposed to the next".

Once one gets underneath the surface of the topic, though, things become more complicated. And, very importantly, they differ from country to country. Saudi Arabia is not Egypt is not Iran is not Pakistan is not Syria, and so on.

Certainly, Muslims do not like a lot of what they see as Western: the loneliness of the individual, the breakdown of the family, the destruction of drug addiction, random violence, recreational sex. Of course, they are not alone in feeling these concerns, and it is natural to conclude that they are the result of the decline of religion. But this is also an image made popular by the Western media, especially by American films which everyone can now see on their satellite TV.

But there are other perspectives. In the mid-1920s, the Egyptian scholar Ali Abd al-Raziq, a professor at the ancient Islamic university of Al-Azhar, published a book entitled Islam and the Roots of Government. In it he argued that the Prophet Muhammad had founded a religion, not a state, so religion should not determine state structures today. The book was immediately condemned and, we are told by most Islamic scholars, is no longer of interest. But it has remained continuously in print since then and can still be bought in Cairo bookshops. So someone must be reading it!

Talking with a group of Islamic scholars in Britain recently from one of the more conservative movements, we got on to the topic of an "Islamic order". Clearly, it was not enough that a government or economic system should call itself Islamic. It had to be Islamic. But what did that mean?
That led to things like social justice, a reliable legal system, personal liberty, equality, popular participation, accountable rulers and the like. One of them ventured that northern European welfare states were arguably a good deal more "Islamic" than any state in the Muslim world, whatever it called itself.

If there are such important shared values, why then such mixed feelings about the idea of secularism? Clearly the attack on secularism is encouraged by the clerics. If religion in its traditional forms is pushed to the margins of public life, what remains for them? But that on its own is unsatisfactory - the clerics have a widespread and receptive audience for their views.

On the so-called Arab street, secularism is more often than not seen as a foreign import. It was brought in by the colonialists as a way of limiting the power of the Islamic religious institutions which often provided the core of anti-colonial resistance, right back to when Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798. Many of the modern Muslim states are regarded as the heirs of the colonial powers. Secular politics is associated then with military dictatorships which were established and survived in alliance with the opposing powers of the Cold War period.

Today, the only effective challenge to this inheritance comes from the Islamist movements, and people arguing for a secular perspective run the constant danger of being accused of collaboration with the West. It is this twin-dynamic that makes it more likely for many to tilt away from modern, pluralistic secularism toward a religious political system.

###

* Jorgen S. Nielsen is director of the Danish Institute of Damascus and professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Birmingham, UK.. This article is part of a series on secularism and Muslim-Western dialogue distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service, 1 May 2007, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.
 
 
 
 
VIDEO OF THE WEEK
Women of Tunisia: Let your voices be heard!

The women of Tunisia have a decisive role to play in shaping Tunisia's future. Fatma Ben Saïdane reminds women of the power of their vote and the importance of civic engagement.
 
 
 
 
"The articles of the Common Ground News Service give hope that there are people out there who work on solutions inspired by the need to co-exist in tolerance and by the hope for a better future."

- Christopher Patten, Former Commissioner for External Relations, the European Commission
 
 
 

It takes 200+ hours a week to produce CGNews. We rely on readers like you to make it happen. If you find our stories informative or inspiring, help us share these underreported perspectives with audiences around the world.

Monthly:

Donate:

Or, support us with a one-time donation.

 
 
 
OTHER ARTICLES IN SERIES
What words can mean
Envisioning Islamic democracy
Myths about Western secularism and politics in Islam
Why do Muslims look to religion to address political issues?
False dichotomies: "Secularists" and "Islamists" in Turkey
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
200+
 
 
# of hours per week to create one edition
 
 
8
 
 
# of editors in 6 countries around the world
 
 
30,000
 
 
# of subscribers
 
 
30
 
 
Average # of reprints per article
 
 
4,800
 
 
# of media outlets that have reprinted our articles
 
 
37,307
 
 
# of republished articles since inception
 
 
6
 
 
# of languages CG articles are distributed in
 
 
2000+
 
 
# of writers since inception
 
 
'

 

Other articles in this series

What words can mean by Javed Anand
Envisioning Islamic democracy by Jocelyne Cesari
Myths about Western secularism and politics in Islam by Asma Afsaruddin
Why do Muslims look to religion to address political issues? by Dalia Mogahed
False dichotomies: "Secularists" and "Islamists" in Turkey by Nora Onar