Mutual friends: secularism and Islam

Brian Whitaker
14 April 2009

The Middle East will only be convinced by Islamic arguments for a secular state

On the first page of his book, Islam and the Secular State, Abdullahi an-Na’im writes: “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.”

He explains that he is not advocating a secular society but a state which is neutral with regard to religion – a state whose institutions “neither favour nor disfavour any religious doctrine or principle”, a state that has no enforcing role in religious matters.

The object of state neutrality, an-Na’im says, is to facilitate “the possibility of religious piety out of honest conviction” and allow individuals in their communities the freedom “to accept, object to, or modify any view of religious doctrine or principle”. States that take sides in such matters become an obstacle to religious freedom.

To some readers, this may be little more than a statement of the obvious. But to many Muslims, especially in countries where the state poses as a “defender of Islam” and an enforcer of “Islamic values”, it is not only an unfamiliar argument but one that sounds dangerously mad, even heretical.

Last week, in an article for Cif, I discussed the shutting-down of debate about Islamic secularism in most of the Arab countries and posed the question: how can it be re-opened? I’d now like to suggest an answer.

The idea of states enforcing correct “Islamic” behaviour is based on a presumption that such behaviour can be clearly and indisputably defined. But we have only to look at an issue such as female circumcision, where scholarly opinions range from saying it is obligatory to forbidden, to see that this is anything but the case.

In practice, the “Islam” they are seeking to enforce is nothing more than the prevailing local orthodoxy – modified, where necessary, to suit the political needs of the regime. Conveniently, this allows them to invoke religion to justify all manner of abuses that cannot be defended by rational argument.

In 2000 Saudi Arabia, which is probably the world leader in institutionalised discrimination, signed up to the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) but added a reservation saying it did not consider itself bound by any part of the convention that conflicts with “the norms of Islamic law”. In effect, it was claiming the right to choose which bits of the treaty, if any, it would implement. As Denmark noted in an objection at the time, the Saudis’ references to the provisions of Islamic law were “of unlimited scope and undefined character”.

Abuses of power are often dressed in a religious gloss which helps to win acceptance from Muslims but doesn’t stand up to much serious scrutiny. Saudi Arabia, besides its achievements in the field of discrimination, also has the most comprehensive system of internet censorship in the Middle East and it cites verses from the Qur’an in support of this practice. The passage it quotes is about resisting sexual temptation and the verses (12: 33-34) imply that God will protect those who seek His help. If this has any relevance to internet use its point, surely, is that the temptations of the internet are a matter for users to sort out between themselves and God. So there is no reason for the state to become involved – unless the Saudi authorities are saying they don’t trust God to do His job properly.

The central illusion here is that states can determine the one “true” voice of Islam, regardless of the diversity of Islamic thought through the ages, and also have the right to impose it on the public.

The question “How do they know their version is correct?” is what starts to undermine this edifice. Of course, they don’t really know but they have power on their side, and might is right. The need here is not to categorically refute their religious arguments but to neutralise them by pointing out that other interpretations are possible. In that way a space is created where people can confront the underlying moral issues themselves and feel free enough to make their own choices.

To begin the process of separating states from religion, secularists have to be prepared to engage with religious arguments – something they are often reluctant to do. Human rights activists, for example (even those in Muslim countries) often fail to address the religious dimension, with the result that their arguments cut little ice among the public. Kecia Ali writes:

For the vast majority of Muslims worldwide – not only extremists or conservatives, but also those who consider themselves moderate or progressive – determining whether a particular belief or practice is acceptable largely hinges on deciding whether or not it is legitimately “Islamic”.

Increasingly, feminists and others in Muslim countries are finding that if they want to make headway they have to present their case in terms that people can perceive as compatible with Islam. That means studying the scripture and exploring its various interpretations. Once the possibility of multiple “Islamic” interpretations is acknowledged, rational debate can begin.

Official discrimination against the Baha’is in Egypt is one example of a problem that cannot be tackled though secular arguments alone, because of the claims that it is sanctioned by Islam.

“One scholar after another, one government official after another, would insist that under Islam only three religions are allowed – Islam, Christianity and Judaism,” Hossam Bahgat of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights recalled when I spoke to him about this in Cairo last summer. He continued:

When we started doing research we realised there is no basis in the Qur’an or the Sunna to support their claim that Muslims may only coexist with “people of the book” – and we started saying so.

I was once in a televised debate with the former president of al-Azhar university who was one of the chief jurists of the Islamic Religious Council and we were talking about the Baha’i faith. He started stating the usual position that Islam only allows adherents to the three Abrahamic religions. So I challenged him on this and said: “What’s your evidence?”

I think he was stunned … I cited all the evidence about how the Prophet Muhammad in Madina never discriminated between people of the Book and others who adhered to other faiths – like the Zoroastrians, for example. He couldn’t argue with my evidence because my evidence came not from fringe opinions but from major books that are selectively avoided by scholars because they don’t give them the cover they want for their bigotry.

So immediately he shifted. He said: “Yes, but they [the Baha’is] have their headquarters in Haifa in Israel and they work against the fabric of our society, their presence is against national unity,” etc.

Once the religious cover has been blown or neutralised, the way is open for a reasoned debate based on facts and logic rather than what someone in authority claims to have been told by God.

  1. #1 by good coolie on Tuesday, 3 February 2015 - 11:03 pm

    Islam ceased to develop when the doors to “ijtihad” were closed by jurists of the middle ages. Modern concepts such as universal human rights were seen as alien (Western) and could not add to ethical rules in Islamic societies.
    Incidentally, the modern laws of universal human rights could not have developed if there did not exist strict separation of state and religion in Western states, because the Church strongly opposed, or did not regard as legitimate, certain “rights” (e.g. right not to profess any religion, right to convert to another religion, right to lead a homo-sexual life-style, etc.).
    I agree with the tone of this article, in that in some countries, people are free to be Muslims; in other countries, people are forced to be Muslims or forced to belong to a certain sect of Islam.

  2. #2 by cemerlang on Wednesday, 4 February 2015 - 7:41 pm

    Forced until it becomes a norm to that group. It is a group thingy. Like if you all love cake and this particular person does not, he will be ostracized. So what if he doesn’t like cake ? Cake makes your BMI goes up. He has chosen the correct thing in life. But the correctness is incorrect in this group. Society. Group. Norms. What else ?

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