Islam and secularism: imagining new realities

Public Islam is desirable, but state Islam is poisonous. Just saying secularism is needed is not enough.

Ali Ahmad October 22, 2010
Given the recent attacks on the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi, questions about the nature of our society, politics and religiosity are being raised again. A rallying cry for secularism is being raised-and rightly so.

Secularism and Secularisation

Secularism is often confused with multiple concepts. The term ‘secularism’, in its semantic journey, has grown in association with ideas of modernity, humanism, rationalism and democracy. It has acquired diverse meanings in this process.

Let’s make some basic distinctions. Secularism, as a political paradigm about the relation between political and religious institutions, is a valid and healthy discussion, especially in religious societies like Pakistan. The basic premise of political secularism is that there should be a division between religious and political institutions.

Secularisation, on the other hand, refers to a social process. Secularisation is distinctly a concept from the social sciences:
the seminal social thinkers of the nineteenth century– Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Karl Marx ,and Sigmund Freud – all believed that religion would gradually fade in importance and cease to be significant with the advent of industrial society’ - (Inglehart et al.)

Secularisation is a social phenomenon, with the advent of modern science, industrialisation and the “disenchantment’’ the modern world brings, where people ‘’rationally lose’’ their faith and experience a loss of purpose and spirituality. Hence, societies of highly industrialized countries have a tendency towards being non-religious.

Needless to say, the traditional ‘’secularisation thesis’’ has failed. Religion is stronger than ever and is set to grow across the world. But the political arrangement of secularism as an idea is fairly strong.

Secularisms and Islams

A psychological shift needs to occur in Pakistan. We need to realize historically there have been multiple expressions and interpretations of Islam and multiple applications of secularism. Hence, our discussion topic should change from Secularism and Islam’ towards Secularisms and Islams'. In this way we can achieve a synergy and synthesis between a novel conception of Islam and an innovative framework of secularism.

Types of Secularism

In recent years, new studies in political theory have been made into the nature of secular states. The most comprehensive study by the academic Jonathan Fox, in his book, A World Survey of Religion and the State, and the two points Fox makes in the books are ground breaking.
These findings contradict the predictions of religion’s reduced public significance found in modernization and secularization theory. The findings also demonstrate that state religious monopolies are linked to reduced religious participation.

Fox’s work is one of the most thorough statistical and empirical analyses on secularism, and his work shatters the myth of ‘’Religious states protect religious observance,’’ put forward by the proponents of those who wish to see a State enforcing religion and giving it undue privileges by having a monopoly over interpretation.

Hard and Soft Secularism

Another distinction which is equally helpful is between soft and hard secularism.

Hard secularism, which is the laicite French model, not only separates political and religious institutions but seeks to marginalize religious voices and identities from the public sphere (civil society). We must note the difference between civil society and the State. In soft secularism, however, there is still a recognition that religious and political institutions have to be divided, but that religion should have a voice in the public sphere. People can use religion as the basis for their ethical, legal and social principles and beliefs in public discussions (on the proviso that they should be prepared for criticism and robust debate). This can also be seen as “assertive’’ and “passive’’ secularism. Assertive secularism is militant and authoritarian, as it tries to stifle religious voices and opinions in public debate, but passive secularism whilst protecting the equality of all citizens, and prevents justification on religious grounds allows religious citizens to participate fully and robustly in public debate.

Radical secularism (The concept proposed by Tariq Modood, the British sociologist) tries to shun religion actively from public life and tries to impose ‘’secular’’ identities. Indeed Modood makes the point that such a secularism uses “illiberal measures’’. Authoritarianism is authoritarianism, whether secular or religious.

Modern Muslim Models of Secularism

Abdullahi An Naim’s book ‘’Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Sharia’’, is a modern classic in the current discussion. An Naim painstakingly uses his vast knowledge of the social sciences, human rights philosophy and political theory to come up with a simple formulation which is strong, short but powerful:
In order to be a Muslim by conviction and free choice, which is the only way one can be a Muslim, I need a secular state. By as secular state I mean one that is neutral regarding religious doctrine ,one that does not claim or pretend to enforce Sharia—the religious law of Islam—simply because compliance with Sharia cannot be coerced by fear of state institutions or faked to appease their officials.

Indeed, An Naim’s work though immense suffers from severe problems characteristic of the secular proponents in the Muslim World. These are aptly summarized:
What is interesting about these arguments is that they ground the case for the secular state not in the Quran, not in claims about the presence of the imago Dei in the person or in some other source of the person’s intrinsic dignity, not in natural law, some closely similar type of practical reason, or universal moral precepts, but rather in what might be called “second order” observations about the phenomenology of belief, the character of government, the lessons of history, and the like. To be sure, good reasons for the secular state lie therein. But are these arguments sufficient to ground an Islamic case for constitutionalism, human rights, and the secular state? I doubt it.

An Naim’s work is eminently logical and rational - but does it appeal to a religious constituency? No.

We need clear cut moral arguments for secularism from within the Islamic tradition.

An Naim’s work was rare in being very nuanced and thought- out, but it was not original. Other Muslim thinkers have made a case for the secular state, but these thinkers utilise materials from within the Islamic tradition, whether it be constructing a new framework for Quranic interpretation or using philosophical and legal concepts (Maqasid Al Sharia, the philosophy of Ibn Rushd are good examples).

We think of Abdelwahab El-Affendi’s “Who Needs an Islamic State’’ .The Azharite scholar and perhaps the father of Muslim secularism in its intellectual dimensions, the 20th century Al Azhar sheikh Ali Abdel Raziq. Raziq’s work is perhaps the most potent, in his book, “Islam & the Foundations of Political Power’’. Raziq deconstructs all the Quranic and hadith arguments put forward by proponents of the Islamic State by revisiting the work of classical scholars, Quranic interpretation and Islamic history.

Both Raziq and El Affendi describe the historical experience of the Prophet PBUH in Medina as one borne out of historical necessity, rather than an actual example for political theory. They cite the historical conditions of the Prophet PBUH society and how the model that is proposed by advocates of the Islamic State is woefully out of touch. The reason for the Prophet PBUH's success was the perfection of his ethics and character as a wise leader ; no other human being can hope to match this, hence for mere human beings to attempt to rule as the Prophet PBUH did is illogical.

The Prophet PBUH did not advocate the model of the ‘’nation-state’’, the Prophet PBUH simply argued for values, the values of justice, kindness and mercy when leadership is thrust upon you. We need the separation of powers, secularism and constitutionalism to keep mere fallible human beings in check. Moreover, Raziq and Affendi use the Quran and the Prophet PBUH example as the foundations for their democratic secular theory. Such potent arguments are powerful enough to challenge the monopoly conservatives have over religious interpretation. Religious reformists in Iran are also a good example, such as Abdolkarim Soroush, Mohsen Kadivar and Mojtahed Shabestari.

What model works for Pakistan?

So what type of secularism is suitable for Pakistani society and what’s the best way to justify it? It must be ‘’soft secularism’’, the secularism that religious liberals propose on moral and ethical grounds. Indeed the arguments of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the UK are attractive. The Archbishop argued that the best arrangement to have in a diverse society is “procedural secularism’’, which promises that different religious groups can have open dialogue, debate and discussion over critical questions of values and public policy in the public sphere. Procedural secularism means that religion should be public, but there should be no state religion. To be truly religious then means to live in a secular state. Public Islam is desirable, but State Islam is inevitably poisonous.

But we need to move beyond “secularisms’’, and towards deeper discussions about liberty, human rights, pluralism and other social issues, like education and gender relations. We need a broader discussion, because secularism is not a political ideology but just one question among many which we need to seriously consider.

A project of religious liberalism which endorses rationalism, pluralism and diversity, tied in with soft/passive/procedural secularism, seems to be best course for Pakistan, as it accommodates religious sensibility and basic political rights. In this way, we can stop the surrender of religious interpretation to reactionary forces and present an alternative narrative.
Ali Ahmad A medical student and freelance writer who tweets @AhmadAliKhalid
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


anisqureshi | 13 years ago | Reply @Angelos: Can you explain what is the islamic system. Islam only teaches about justice and adl to everyone in other words secularism( dont get me wrong here it means seperation of state from religion only)There is no specific mention of any system.
parvez | 13 years ago | Reply @Humanity: You are absolutely right. It's my fault I should have explained that I was in the car passing the mosque and hearing this tirade I stopped for a minute to confirm what I was hearing and then moved on. I have narrated this incident as I believe that a lot of the misconceptions that prevail originate from this platform and that it is premeditated and agenda based.
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