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Hussein Ibish

Why Muslims should love secularism

Though secularism is widely misunderstood as anti-religious and iconoclastic, all it means is the neutrality of the state on religious affairs

March for secularism.

Muslims should love secularism. But very few of them do, largely because they misunderstand what it stands for and would mean for them.


Secularism as an English term – in contrast to the French concept of laïcité – simply means the neutrality of the state on matters of faith. This bears almost no resemblance to the way in which most Arabs understand the term, whether translated as ‘almaniyya, ilmanniyya, or even dunyawiyya.

 

Secularism has become strongly associated in the Arab and broader Muslim worlds with atheism, iconoclasm, and anti-religious attitudes and policies. And in the process, one of the most important pillars of building tolerant, inclusive, and genuinely free Muslim-majority societies has been grotesquely misrepresented and stigmatized.

 

The first of these experiences was the overtly anti-religious attitude of the government of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, which was presented as "modernization" and "secularism."

 

The second is the objectionable and noxious French concept of laïcité, which also tends to be more anti-religious than neutral. This association has been particularly exacerbated by "secular" laïcité laws in France and elsewhere that oppressively prevent Muslim women from covering their hair in public spaces such as schools.

 

The third, and perhaps most damning of all, has been the misappropriation, abuse, and discrediting of "secularism" by regimes that placed Arab nationalism at the center of their authoritarian ideology. Socialist, communist, and fascist Arab regimes oppressed, abused, and waged wars against their own peoples and each other in the name of, among other things, "secularism."

 

None of them were properly secular, of course, but they certainly were anti-Islamist. And that has set up the present-day dichotomy in contemporary Arab politics in which not only Islamists, but also many ordinary Muslims, instinctively mistrust secular politics.

 

The Syrian dictatorship is a perfect case in point. In the name of "secularism," among other things, it is waging a brutal war of repression. But for various reasons, high among them Western and Arab government negligence, the opposition has become increasingly Islamist. The consequence has been increasing numbers of religious minorities, particularly Christians, reluctantly siding with the dictatorship, while growing numbers of Sunni Muslims are siding with various Islamist groups. Faux-secularism and Islamism mutually provoke and promote sectarianism.

 

What devout Muslims need to understand is that real secularism alone offers them something most of them seem to badly want: freedom. If there really is no compulsion in religion, only a secular society can provide that. Only in a secular system can Muslims be free to practice Islam exactly as they see fit. Any "Islamic" polity will of necessity be imposing a particular version or interpretation of Islam, which is an extremely heterodox set of traditions.

 

The claim that secularism is really just Christianity in disguise is manifestly false. The language is European, inherited from the Enlightenment. But both Western chauvinists and anti-Western demagogues badly misread the fact that although the specific language of modern human rights and freedoms is, for historical reasons, currently packaged in Western terms, this hardly means that they lack non-Western cognates, origins, or bases.

 

Since at least the 10th century, most Muslim societies have distinguished between political and religious authority, and it's absurd to claim that religious freedom originates only or even mainly as a concept from the Protestant Reformation. There are deep roots in both traditional and modern interpretations of Islam that lend themselves to political secularism.

 

The Islamist project of trying to obliterate traditional heterogeneity within Islam and establish religiously-oriented states is misguided and totally inappropriate. In many Muslim-majority states, there remains a vast range of diversity of doctrine and practice that must be accommodated for even the Muslims to be free in religion. This is to say nothing of Christians, Jews, atheists, agnostics, and others who also have a right to freedom of both religion and conscience.

 

What would be the spiritual virtue of religious dogma that is imposed by the state? It would produce, at best, a false religiosity in many, practice without belief, and mere pretense. Religious leaders generally don't care what people really believe (because they can never really know that) and instead concentrate on what people can and cannot do. But when such authority is asserted by the state, it demeans and abuses the very concept of faith by mandating the pretense of belief by force of law.

 

Secularism offers Muslims religious freedom, religious authenticity, and religious meaning. Imposing or privileging religion through state power invalidates all three. Muslims must recognize secularism as the only real path to religious freedom, rather than confusing it with an attack against religion.

 

Some Muslims can claim to have come by their suspicions about secularism honestly, through a series of unfortunate historical contingencies. But that doesn't change the fact that, for all their fears, they should not only want, but in reality need, genuinely secular societies.

Demonstrators call for a secular state in Lebanon and beyond. (AFP photo/Anwar Amro)

"Muslims must recognize secularism as the only real path to religious freedom, rather than confusing it with an attack against religion."

  • hakim.naved

    Good article. I agree fully with the ideas expressed by Ibish. I have a few comments to make. 1) The Arab dictators gave secularism a bad name. Instead of the state being neutral on the issue of religion/s, and not imposing one particular faith or school of thought on the populace, as Ibish rightly states, they were more noted for being "against Islamism." they were tinpot dictators and autocrats. Ideally, secularism ought to go hand in hand with liberal democracy, which the Arab dictators never implemented in their countries. 2) The reason why Islamists oppose secularism, is that it would rob them of the opportunity to impose their particular interpretations of Islam/religiosity/devoutness, and their idiosyncratic morals and values on the rest of society. This is the exact opposite of what they desire, which is total hegemony over the society 3) Secularism grants each denomination, as well as those who do not wish to subscribe to any faith group or ideology, the very same space in the public arena. This is also anathema to Islamists, since it would make their job harder. They will have to rely on their own powers of persuasion, etc. in order to gain supporters for their cause/ideology. They will have to compete on equal grounds with other ways of thinking, and philosophies of life. They will not enjoy the levers and resources of the state machinery to impose their will on others.

    January 16, 2014

  • drssdutt

    Islam is declared to be incompatible with secularism because in a secular state there is no place for divine laws, and secular laws are unacceptable to Islam. http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~rtavakol/engineer/secular.htm

    November 8, 2013

  • pamameen

    Prophet Muhammad’s life is really an introduction to Islam. So, when you listen to people, the perception they have — it’s all about violence, it’s all about otherness, it’s all about discrimination toward women, and I think all this is wrong,” Prophet Muhammad was especially forward thinking about the status of women. He respected and valued women, though they weren’t valued in society, and welcomed women into mosques. “And even domestic violence — they can’t just quote one part of a verse in the Quran, forgetting that the prophet himself never beat women. He was so respectful. So, if he is our example, we cannot accept domestic violence. This is not Islamic,” I am a native son India by nationality. I am an Indian Muslim by culture. I am Universalist by principle, and Muslim of course, by religion, Does it go against secularism? The problem is not a clash of cultures, but rather, a clash of perceptions that can be deconstructed to get to common ground. Many have say that France for instance has caused major problems for Muslims living in Europe. This poses very little problem for the five million Muslims already living in France. Many French Muslims are dealing with discrimination and social marginalization. All this perception that Muslims cannot live in secular society is totally wrong. Millions are already doing it, living it, experiencing it.in over 100 countries.

    October 30, 2013

  • pamameen

    Thinkers in huge non Muslim nations get confused between a multi- religion/ culture based nations and a huge Muslim majority nation. Pure western secularism may be all right for Western nations but Muslim nations can not copy paste their concepts blindly.. Polls show that 70% of Muslims do not want the Western secularism..When Muslims say that is one way democracy works, they reject it outright. As recent history has demonstrated from Iran and Turkey to Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia have demonstrated, the rise of Islamic movements and the strength of religious sentiment in the Muslim world are ignored at the peril of governments should these Govts copy paste 100% the western concept of secularism. Muslim scholars (regardless of what you call them) reject the assertion that humans simply interpret the law according to changing circumstances using over-arching principles such as charity and consultation. While they agree that there is no “divine rule” in the sense that the ruler is a human being, but they see the rulings as divine because they are based on divine sources. Well hard core secularists reject this it is their opinion, But Islam does not compromise on a certain principles( simple example incest, family laws)

    October 30, 2013

  • pamameen

    The difficulty with secularism as a doctrine of war and peace in the world is NOT that it is European and therefore alien to Asian nations But that it is closely connected with the rise of a system of capitalist nation-states — mutually suspicious and grossly unequal in power and prosperity, each possessing a collective personality that is differently mediated and therefore differently guaranteed and threatened. Take India as an example of a liberal democratic state with a secular constitution that nevertheless suffers from communal riots. Do Western countries have communal riots? A secular state does not guarantee toleration; it puts into play different structures of ambition of Indian communal politicians and the fear of religious minorities. The Indian law never seeks to eliminate violence since its object is always to regulate violence in spite of loud mouth on secularism

    October 30, 2013

  • pamameen

    India is a secular country. Within the Indian context it is impossible to separate specific religious ideologies as minorities seem to be more affected . In the social sciences, one of the commonest theses is the secularisation thesis, which runs as follows. Under conditions prevailing in industrial-scientific society, the hold of religion over society and its people diminishes. By and large this is true, but it is not completely true in India In the last hundred years the hold of Islam over Muslims has not diminished but has rather increased though some intellectuals on this forum want the other way The conventional wisdom that assumed the centrality of secularism in a modern state and viewed religion as only a private affair has been challenged in much of the Muslim world. The resurgence of Islam in Muslim politics and society has in fact signaled a redefinition of secular path, some sort of accommodation or compromise between western type of secularism and Indian version of it This is a case study

    October 30, 2013

  • Billabongbloke

    To me secularism as a State principle seems to offer people of any (peaceful) religious belief the best opportunity to practise their belief with a sense of freedom and security. Implicit in that secularism is the right of "other" religions (or none) to non-interference. It may be that some religions would have to accept the separation of religion and State.

    October 26, 2013

  • Melv

    (cont.) Thus who favour of liberty and democracy (and serious) has to fight for freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion. As long as too many Muslims believe for example that it is to punish apostates with death and cry for a state to do the bidding of clerics as well as believe every myth they are presented by demagogues using religious sensitivities for their end there cannot be freedom or real democracy or progress of any kind. For that to happen the totalitarian idea on the core of (all) religion itself has to be discredited: the idea that there is a revealed truth and that all criticism on this supposedly perfect idea ("God") can and should be stifled by the "authorities" instead of being open to debate and for everybody to find out on their own. A democracy needs at least a moderately enlightened citizenry. So if you want democracy you need enlightenment - the antithesis to religion. I do think that too many Muslims are still afraid of confronting the absurdity of their religious beliefs, thus they have to be afraid of freedom.

    October 23, 2013

  • Melv

    The dichotomy the author makes between good (American) secularism and bad (French) laicité is a false one. In both cases it is a strong institutional division between religion and the state, actually even stronger in the case of the USA, as in France there are still some institutional connections. Both systems are based on the same enlightenment ideas though: the human right of a free conscience and the equality of all citizens lead to the neutrality of the state in this questions. The difference in how this is enacted are mainly part of the political culture of both countries: the USA has a very individualistic tradition but also a strong current of political Christianity (both on the right as well as the left on the political spectrum), while the French have a strong national Republican, Ètatist tradition and rather secular political parties and movements as well as that political Catholicism is utterly discredited in France due to its antisemitic and antimodernist connotations and past closeness to fascism. The problem with totalitarian religion in politics was dealt with in the last centuries and decades in the West in several ways: 1. Disestablishment: most (in case of the USA all direct ones) privileges of the church were taken away in order to free citizens from burdens on their consciences 2. Secularisation of political values: religious arguments were discredited as being irrational and illogical and opposed to human progress, thus lowering their value for demagogues to use them to rouse the rabble 3. Social secularisation: when people have the freedom to live unmolested from religious coercion and clerical bullying and they enjoy a certain standard of living free from existential dread, they sooner or later will use this freedom and learn to decide for themselves about questions of morality, this process is very difficult to reverse.

    October 23, 2013

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Finally, a sermon by Ibish to the right crowd. A Muslim speaking to Muslims. Despite his incessant anti-western grudges and "let-us-always-blame-the-west" litanies and allusions to the "noxious" effects of Western secularism, Mr. Ibish is finally delivering the correct message to the right crowd. Islam must reform from within. Whether Muslims borrow the concepts or lease them or inherit them or invent them, the prescription for the stunted development of Arabs and Muslims remains very simple: Relegate religion to the private domain, remove it from the public domain, and never allow it again to stand in the way of the individual's private freedom to worship or not to worship. It is difficult, though, to see (at least in our lifetime) a primitive country like Saudi Arabia approaching anything closely resembling even a nudge toward secularism. Even in a place like Lebanon, with its multitude of mini-theocracies, we are very far from extracting religion from public affairs, freeing the individual from the chains of oppressive, dogmatic and antiquated beliefs, and liberating the human spirit to reach its full potential. I, for one, envy and admire the West, particularly places like France (where secularism - laicite- equals anti-clericalism, and for good reason, I might add) and Holland where liberalism is the creed above all other creeds. The United States is still backwards when it comes to religion: The separation of church and state in the US is only skin-deep, and in a lot of ways, the US remains an ideological totalitarian bastion of deep religiosity, just as it is in Turkey and other places where the claims of secularism insidiously mask a dangerous religious bend always threatening a regression back to the rule of God in public affairs.

    October 23, 2013

  • natural feminist

    100% agree. 'Secular' is relative, in France its the real deal. So his paragraph is particularly offensive to me. Muslims aren't 'oppressed' by not wearing the veil in schools, everyone is in the same boat. We wouldn't have Sikhs with turbans, buddhists with robes or catholics with big crosses. "Only in a secular system can Muslims be free to practice Islam exactly as they see fit." Actually they can't, or it depends. In France and other European countries beating your wife or kids, practising FGM or polygamy, honour killings, forced mariages, or slave maids is illegal. We don't have sharia law. And incitement to hatred by any fanatics is also forbidden. In the US, religious groups can do as they wish, fanatics and weirdos, cranks and criminals, like the Mormons, Jehovah's witnesses, Scientologists, Amish can abuse their kids, their women, practise slave labour, have crazy beliefs but that's called freedom. In other countries they wouldn't get away with it. I see that Lebanon is in debate over these things, let them debate and discover and decide. It's abhorant today that a country imposes a religion on every person right to their ID card, without even asking that person. Freedom is the right to be free FROM religion, not only free TO religion.

    October 23, 2013

  • MonkFish

    It's telling that Ibish describes laicite, a doctrine that ensured freedom of religion in the private sphere and civil peace in France until the rise of Muslim Brotherhood fueled Islamism in the 80s, as "noxious" but uses comparatively mild terms ("irresponsible", "misguided") to describe the murderous cluster of ideologies experts label "political Islam." What Ibish fails to appreciate is that US-style liberalism can do nothing to curb the influence of radical religion in the Middle East. I have the impression that he'd rather wait 100, 200 years for Islamists to be persuaded to become pro-secularism liberals than use the state apparatus to coerce them in any way. Ibish's violent hatred of the rational tough, no-nonsense anti-clericalism of laicite smacks of the irrational hatred of Islamists for Western "atheism."

    October 24, 2013

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Thank you Monkfish. Ibish is always tiptoeing around the bush, because he is as much a victim of the Islamic dogmatic oppression of his own thoughts that he dares not challenge it headfirst. You never know whether he is afraid of speaking too loud (for fear of, say, a Rushdie backlash) or if he is not quite convinced of secularism. This is precisely the problem. So-called "moderate" Muslims are more the problem than the fundamentalists because the "moderates", in their fear of the fundamentalists, provide a cover for the latter and allow them to persist and impose their irrationality on the bulk of Muslims. MELV (see above) said it well:" I do think that too many Muslims are still afraid of confronting the absurdity of their religious beliefs, thus they have to be afraid of freedom." Ibish is just like all the other "accommodating" moderates who know what the problem really is, but are too afraid of confronting their own societies. It is truly astonishing that he attacks French secularism, when in fact France has led the way toward dismantling all residual religious practices, including the recent European Union regulation of circumcision which Israel - Ibish's natural enemy -declared to be racist when in fact, i applies to any barbaric religious practice that maims the human body under the guise of "religious tradition". As Natural Feminist said, the veil issue is not anti-Islamic, it is anti-religious.

    October 24, 2013

  • Melv

    Natural Feminist, I do think you mistook American liberty for being pro-religious. But it is as much pro- as it is anti-religious, just look at the fact that it is way more difficult to censor newspapers there than in France - where religious censorship is creeping just like in Canada under the disguise of "tolerance" or "respect" before religion (meaning usually to censor criticism of Islam). Individualism is valued much higher there than in France, that's why they let Amish do what they want to do, Atheists, Hippies, Neonazis, Esoterics, Gypsies and so on have the same rights and there are much less government standards to conform to than in European nation states. Further there is much less social protection and much more ethnic and religious diversity, that's why people stay in those communities with greater enthusiasm: it gives them hold. In France on the other hand the nationalist right wing is now on the rise again as people flock to the ethnic collective in difficult times. That's not very enlightened either even though it looks "secular" from the usual perspective.

    October 24, 2013

  • Melv

    HANIBAAL-ATHEOS, I want to bring your attention to something that is often overlooked about religious freedom in the United States. There a strong defence for Freedom of conscience developed out of sectarian Christian ideas: the idea that you can be a true believer only if there is no coercion and that it is thus Gods will to separate church and state. This idea was famously formulated by the Puritan Roger Williams in 1644 in a work called „The Bloody Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience" (you can find it on wikipedia): "All Civil States with their Officers of justice in their respective constitutions and administrations are proved essentially Civil, and therefore not Judges Governors or Defenders of the Spiritual or Christian state and Worship" - "It is the will and command of God that […] a permission of the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or Antichristian consciences and worships, be granted to all men in all Nations and Countries: and they are onely to be fought against with that Sword which is only (in Soul matters) able to conquer, to wit, the Sword of Gods Spirit, the Word of God." and: "God requires not an uniformity of Religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state; which enforced uniformity (sooner or later) is the greatest occasion of civil war, ravishing of conscience, persecution [...] and of hypocrisy and destruction of millions of souls." Now I don't have problem with this kind of religious people and I've met believing Muslims that talked like that. I just don't see that there are enough of those people there or in other majority Muslim countries as Islam is still successfully evoked in the most illiberal fashions there.

    October 24, 2013

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    "It is thus God's will to separate church and state" is precisely the oxymoronic mindset of the American way of separating church from state. This statement persists at subjugating human freewill and destiny to God and his religious garbage. A true separation of church and state must bring about the absolute banishment of all religious concepts, symbols, ideas and references from the public domain. No one is challenging the freedom to practice whatever religion one chooses in one's home and one's privacy. The difference between the separation of church and state in France and the US is that in France, it is an unchallengeable principle. It is set in stone and there is no way back. In the US, on the other hand, the principle is constantly challenged in the courts, and should the Supreme Court one day, by accident or by political will, be staffed by presidential and congressional authority with ultra religious judges, the principle can be very quickly reversed. To me, this reflects the fact that the French are light years ahead of the Americans who continue to drag with them primitive rural ideas they brought from medieval Europe when they migrated as peasants and ignorant villagers to the Americas. That is why 85% of Americans continue t profess belief in God, while only 10% of the French do so.

    October 25, 2013

  • Melv

    "But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg" is a quote at least as American as that. And if you value free will you can't coerce believers to unbelief either, but have to find a way to coexist. That's was my point: where exactly to draw the line on the base on that principle. American political culture tilts towards favouring individualistic expression, French more towards republican collectivism. Both are fine with me and are imho more a reflection of different societies and political economies. If you look at the Supreme Court cases you'll find that even the most religious judges like Scalia do not propose a theocratic state but that they simply argue about the unwritten fineprint concerning the Establishment Clause when they try to fit it with the times today but do not question its validity or legitimacy. In that way the much less specific rule in the US is much more set into stone than French laicité. To pretend that the American religious right is even remotely as intolerant as the Jihadists is grotesquely false and based on arrogant stereotypes. Muslims in America have actually more religious Freedom than in every Muslim country where they oppress each other over sectarian differences. On the other hand the right-wing in France might not care too much about god but is quite irrational as well. That's why I said that religious Freedom is as much of as from religion. "Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters." That there might be a higher percentage of atheists in Iran (or the Soviet Union) than in the USA doesn't make their political system better...

    October 25, 2013

  • natural feminist

    Hanibaal The laicity used to be set in stone, but unfortunately it's being nibbled at by militant muslims. Melv - you are right, but that's what I was saying. What is considered total tolerance in the US is more limited in France. Finding the right balance is a continual effort. But in fact, there is some censorship in the US, there have been witchhunts that never happened the same in France or other EU countries, like the 'unamerican' courts during the McCarthy time. The subject is vast, and is a topic today all the time. Historically the US was based on different things, the French revolution was also inspired by the US principles. It took a long time to apply laicity - 1905 where the priests were finally thrown out of the schools. Children were given a day off to do their Catechism. Nowadays, the problem is immigration with the slowing down of the economies. Censorship is rife in many European countries, in, the form of PC (worse of all in the UK), many medias won't even mention the word 'muslim'. But because of the tensions, the PC, the security problems, many countries have realized and even said officially that multi culturalism hasn't worked. In France, the policy was always integration, and waves of immigrants managed to integrate and be absorbed. However previously they were from christian based countries, and now they aren't. Many are from very poor African countries, or the ME and don't integrate, or not easily. Many became radicalized in the 80s, and since. If the right wing FN party has become more popular as in some other EU countries, its because people are fed up that the other parties haven't addressed this problem sufficiently. Where the christian and Catholics have been perfectly content with laicity, muslims consider it as intolerance and want to be able to show off their religion. They want special food, special conditions, to live as they did in their orignal country. This creates big ghettos where there is lots of crime and po

    October 28, 2013

  • natural feminist

    (cont) poverty. Many live only on welfare so the youth are attracted to drug crime. Of course this isn't everyone, but the problem is widespread as headlines show.

    October 28, 2013

  • leo.alkhatib

    If secularism means religious freedom, I'm all for it.

    October 23, 2013

  • Applepie

    Secularism is not allowed in the quran as a replacement of GODs laws so how can it be good for muslims? God says in the quran that those who desire a law other than Gods are kuffar. In islam, it is Gods laws that come first. Man made laws that do not contradict islamic commands are allowed to exist. This is for the muslim world and NOT the non-muslim countries of course. Muslims living in non-muslim countries have no right to decide a diffirent law for the people of that country.

    October 22, 2013

  • natural feminist

    You miss the point of the article, in that not all muslim countries have a total population who have the same beliefs, so not all believe in the truth of ancient books that claim that god spoke through and angel to a prophet. So 'God's law is very relative as each religion has it's own interpretation. Your second point, I agree, in non muslim countries, muslims shouldn't try to impose their law (that many do)

    October 23, 2013

  • micheal.xender

    So called "secularism" in arab countries like syria are nothing more than fig leaves for sectarian leadership. At least 3 Quarters of the official syrian officers are from the alawite sect. This is even more true for the secret services.

    October 22, 2013

  • JamesKeane

    In many ways, the battle the Muslim world is facing now reflects the battle of thought Muslims went through in 13th century Andalusia and the years beyond. On the one hand you had enlightened Averroes with his Aristotlean philosophy and his championing of the state and justice, and what can only be described as the most secular ideas of the time. On the other, you had Al Ghazali and his regressive Ash'ari policies which quintessentially put Islamic evolution at a standstill, Islam has changed little from the 13th century while Christianity and Judaism changed with the times. In the end though, Ghazali won the hearts and minds of the Islamic populace. Averroes's literature was burned en masse and he was labeled a traitor of Islam. Later in the 16th century, his writings would form the basis of revivalist renaissance movement in Italy and beyond. Muslims stayed behind. Will secularism prevail this time? I find it hard to envisage, but we do see glimmers of hope in places like Egypt, Turkey and Iran. Who knows, the battle is long...

    October 22, 2013