Today's date:
  Summer 2003


Re-affirming Secularism for Islamic Societies

Abdullahi A. An-Naim, the Sudanese Islamic jurist, lives in exile in the United States where he is on the faculty of law at Emory University. He is author of The Second Message of Islam.

Atlanta—In the wake of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime in Iraq, a new debate has emerged, primarily among the Shiite majority, about whether a new system of government that is both Islamic and democratic can be built as some kind of model for the region.

I am totally opposed to the American occupation of Iraq, which I see as nothing short of a regression to 19th-century colonialism. As repeatedly confirmed throughout human history, colonialism is by definition incapable of establishing democracy or protecting the human rights of its subjects. Nevertheless, the constructive question now is how to make the best of a disastrous situation, to think of the way forward despite the American invasion.

As I see it, the best scenario in the aftermath of the invasion is to establish an effective "caretaker" government to provide security and essential services, and to create and protect a "public space" for Iraqis to debate the political future of their country. Realistically, this transitional period should last at least five years, before a constitutional convention is convened to establish a long-term system.

In my view, this whole process can only be legitimately achieved under United Nations sponsorship, perhaps under the UN Trusteeship Council, which is still legally possible under the UN Charter though the council has been disbanded in the years since the end of colonialism.

Certainly the central issue that must be debated among Iraqis—as among modernizing Muslims everywhere—is the relationship between Islam and secularism in any new political system. Here are some reflections on this question from an Islamic perspective.

ISLAM VS. SECULARISM | The commonly presumed incompatibility between Islam and secularism needs to be reevaluated. It should first be emphasized that the confusion is definitional and terminological as well as substantive. This does not mean that the issue is not real and serious, especially in view of the drastic practical consequences of common confusion on the matter. Rather, the point is that one needs to begin with clarifying questions of definition and terminology in order to frame the substantive side of the debate in more precise terms.

The main problem on the definition side, in my view, is the tendency to limit secularism to the experiences of west European and North American countries with Christianity since the 18th century. Whether viewed as "separation of church and state" or "disestablishment of religion," such definitions are obviously specific to certain situations and do not address the continuing social and political role of religion in public life, even in those settings. For instance, efforts to sever institutional links between religion and the state cannot apply to the role of religion in politics, since there is no way of knowing the motives of people’s political action, let alone attempting to control that.

It is also problematic to equate secularism with disregard for religion, or a diminishing role for it in public life, as some scholars have argued in relation to Western societies. Since that could not possibly mean that religion has no influence whatsoever in the public life of any society, as that is obviously false, the question becomes what sort of influence, and how is it diminishing? From this perspective, I suggest that secularism should be understood in terms of the type of relationship between religion and the state, rather than a specific way in which that relationship has evolved in one society or another.

I would also emphasize that the form that relationship should take in pluralistic societies has to be the product of organic development over time, and be accepted as legitimate by the population at large, instead of expecting it to drastically change immediately by constitutional enactment or political rhetoric.

As a matter of terminology that is relevant to this deeply contextual approach, it should be noted that the term "secularism" in its west European and North American sense has come to Africa and Asia in the suspect company of colonialism. For the Islamic societies in particular, this term is commonly associated with militantly anti-religious attitudes of the French Revolution, in relation to Christianity. Nevertheless, this term can be used in relation to experiences of African and Asian societies, provided it is understood and applied in the specific context of each society, rather than as a feature of liberal political or constitutional transplant. This view of secularism, I believe, will redress much of the apprehension about the concept as a tool of Western imperialism.

On the substantive side of the issue, the most compelling argument for an Islamic rationale for secularism is its necessity for pluralistic nation states that are able to safeguard the freedom of religion and belief of believers and non-believers alike. That is, the freedom of religion and belief of Muslims as well as non-Muslims is more likely to be violated by a state that seeks to promote a particular religious doctrine than one that is neutral on the matter.

Whether it is the Shi’a of eastern Saudi Arabia, Sunni of Iran or Shi’a of Pakistan, Muslims can suffer serious violations of their right to uphold and live by their belief in Islam, as they know and understand it. Indeed, many Muslim intellectuals and political dissidents are seeking refuge in Western countries, including leaders of Islamist movements like Rashid Qanushi of Tunisia who lives in the United Kingdom at the time of writing, rather than in other predominantly Muslim countries, because they enjoy more freedom of belief and political action in "secular" states that are more or less neutral on issues of religion.

It is commonly claimed that Islam mandates the establishment of an "Islamic state" which will implement and enforce Shari’a (the normative system of Islam) as the law of the land. But in my view, the notion of an Islamic state is a contradiction in terms because whatever principles of Shari’a are enacted by the state as positive law cease to be the normative system of Islam by the very act of enacting it as the law to be enforced by the state. Since there is so much diversity of opinion among Islamic schools of thought and scholars, any enactment of Shari’a principles as law would have to select some opinions over others, thereby denying believers their freedom of choice among equally legitimate competing opinions.

Moreover, there is neither a historical precedent of an Islamic state to be followed, nor is such a state practically viable today. As the most avowed advocate of an Islamic state today would concede, there has never been such a state throughout Muslim history, since that of the Prophet in Medina, which was so exceptional as to be useful as a model to be applied today. Recent experience has also shown that the implementation of Shari’a as the official law of the state is untenable in economic and political terms in the modern nation state in its present global economic and political context because it conflicts with international law.

In short, Muslims need the protection of human rights, and political and social space secured by secularism to live up to the ideals of their own religion. But that protection and space cannot be sustained among Muslims without an internal transformation of their own understandings and practice of Islam. Here are some illustrations of the basic points I am trying to make.

1. Women’s Rights in Egypt

The women’s movement in Egypt is multi-faceted and fractured. Although the chasm is often explained as a rift between Islamist (conservatives) and secular liberals, one survey of the so-called secular women’s movement in Egypt reveals that it is united not by an anti-religious or anti-Islamic position, but by the view that Shari’a should not be the main or sole source of legislation within Egypt.

It is also clear that the majority of women consider themselves to be very religious. Many of these women do not see religion as antithetical to feminism, and perceive religious affiliation as integral to their struggle for human rights on many different levels. According to this survey, "most secular women activists [recognize] that religion does not constitute the only source of values and axis of orientation in peoples’ lives."

On the other hand, however, some women activists do view their religious traditions as inherently mired by the patriarchal system in which they were created, and therefore reject the religious framework altogether.

In this light, the best way to conceive of religious and secular attitudes in Egypt is on a continuum rather than a strict dichotomy because dichotomous conceptions serve to sustain Islamist notions of secular as "being against religion."

The case of the Egyptian women’s movement supports the idea that religion needs human rights and secularism for several reasons. For instance, this case reflects the belief of Muslim women in the ability of human agency to promote the understanding and practice of both religion and secularism. Egyptian women are reinterpreting and renewing their religious traditions from within. Moreover, the alleged Western origin of human rights doctrine does not prevent these women from claiming these rights for themselves, and seeking to reevaluate and adapt these norms to suit their own cultural, religious and political situations.

The idea of human agency in this context is illustrated by the ability of women to initiate their struggle from within their particular religious tradition by working among a variety of understandings of Islam. The human rights norm of freedom of religion gives these women the power to choose among competing views of their religious tradition, and their choices are informed by their belief in human rights in general. Their broader religious tradition is enhanced by this internal synergy that allows them to maintain their own religious convictions, while striving to attain a higher level of human dignity through international human rights standards.

The synergy and interdependence of religion and human rights enable Muslims to observe their own understanding and practice of Islam through an assertion of human rights, while using their Islamic identity to promote their human rights within their own Muslim communities. By ensuring that minority and dissident voices within a religious tradition are able to challenge dated and regressive understandings and practices of Islam, human rights and secularism help Muslims avoid the difficult choice of either rejecting their religion entirely or abandoning their own human rights.

At the same time, the combination of the protection of human rights and observance of secularism enables people to challenge dated understandings of their own tradition without fearing drastic consequences for charges of heresy or apostasy. They can choose to either leave the tradition in safety and dignity, or stay within its parameters while contesting its dominant dogma also in safety and dignity, as some of the members of the secular women’s movement in Egypt are doing. It is critical for the moral integrity of the religious tradition itself that people are free to stay or leave the community at will, instead of being forced or intimidated into the hypocritical pretense of conformity with dominant beliefs and practices.

It is also instructive for our purposes here to note that the relative "neutrality" of the Egyptian state is critically important for maintaining the peace and stability of the country as a whole, which has a significant Christian minority, in addition to diversity of beliefs among the Muslim majority.

Unfortunately, in attempting to respond to the threat of militant Islamic fundamentalism, the present Egyptian government tends to limit freedom of religion and other human rights for all segments of its population.

One example of this is the 1992 decision to "nationalize" private mosques in order to dictate sermons to all Muslim Egyptians in the name of preventing their use to promote violent extremist activities. Ironically, such state control of Islamic discourse tends to inhibit the human rights of the majority of Muslims, without necessarily succeeding in suppressing Islamic militancy. The fact that the mosque has become a contested political arena, instead of a place for religious workshop and reflection, in a narrow or strict sense, undermines the role of the state as the guardian of human rights and secularism.

2. Negotiating Islamic Identity and Politics: The Case of Sunni Sudan

In Sudan, profound ambiguities about the relationship between Islam and the state, and Islam and politics more broadly, have been a primary factor in political instability and retarded economic and social development of the country since independence from Anglo-Egyptian colonial rule in 1956. These ambiguities are also part of the underlying causes of civil war that has raged in the southern part of the country, ?rst from 1955 to 1972, and then again since 1983.

The basic dilemma can be summarized as follows. On the one hand, the main political parties in the predominantly Muslim northern part of the country are unable to challenge the claims of the National Islamic Front that the country must be governed by an Islamic state in order to enforce Shari’a as the positive law of the land. This situation gave the National Islamic Front a grossly exaggerated influence in the country, and promoted the general belief that the regulation of the role of Islam in public life in Sudan is not an option.

On the other hand, that notion of an Islamic state is obviously untenable in view of the profound religious and cultural diversity of the country as a whole. The imposition of a particular understanding of Islam as the positive law of the whole country violates the human rights of Muslim as well as non-Muslim citizens. Since that view of Shari’a is commonly believed to be divine, any political opposition to the government of the day becomes tantamount to apostasy which is a capital crime punishable by death under section 126 of the Sudan Penal Code of 1991.

Minority religious traditions will also suffer serious violations of their fundamental human rights. In this light, the benefits of secularism and human rights are obvious, but neither is achievable in a sustainable manner without clarifying the role of Islam in the politics of the country. That is, given the wide belief in the necessity of a role for Islam in public life, human rights cannot be founded on purely secular grounds, and secularism cannot be justified in human rights terms, without relating both to an Islamic justification. Yet, this process itself depends on the protection of freedom of belief and dissent. That is how and why the case of Sudan is a clear illustration of the need for the proposed synergy and interdependence of religion and secularism.

3. Negotiating Islamic Identity and Politics: The Case of Shi’a Iran.

Another case that makes the same point is that of Iran since April, 1979, when the revolution declared an Islamic Republic that fused the state and a particular interpretation of Islam (that was exceptional even within the particular Shi’a tradition of Iran itself) under the novel notion of "guardianship by the clergy" (vilayat-i faqih).

The 1979 constitution of Iran, on which that so-called Islamic state was based, is a complex system of paradoxes and contradictions. For example, Article 2 states, "[t]he Islamic Republic is a system based on belief in...One God...His exclusive sovereignty and right to legislate, and the necessity of submission to His commands...." Article 4 states, "[a]ll civil, penal, economic, administrative, cultural, military, political and other laws and regulations must be based on Islamic criteria...." Paradoxically, Article 6 states that "[i]n the Islamic Republic of Iran, the affairs of the country must be administered on the basis of public opinion, expressed by means of elections...." Yet, the clergy retain the ultimate power to ensure that "public opinion" is consistent with "the sovereignty of God" as determined, of course, by those self-appointed guardians.

The Constitution announces Islam as the "eternally immutable" religion of Iran, but recognizes Zoroastrianism, Judaism and Christianity as the only accepted religious minorities, giving their adherents freedom to practice their religion "within the limits of the law." Moreover, an "absolute religious Leader and the Leadership of the Ummah" have ultimate authority over the executive: the Islamic Assembly is made up of 270 members, of which "[t]he Zoroastrians and Jews will elect one representative; Assyrian and Chaldean Christians will jointly elect one representative; and Armenian Christians in the north and in the south of the country will each elect one representative."

Further, the constitution ensures the equality of males and females and the equal rights of women, but only "in conformance with Islamic criteria." These contradictory clauses of the constitution, mixing notions of divine authority, as exercised by an "absolute religious Leader and the Leadership of the Ummah," who are fallible human beings, with modern ideas of popular sovereignty and democratic elections, have resulted in untold suffering for all segments of the population, including Shi’a Muslims themselves.

Political struggles among competing religious and civic authorities have locked the state in unworkable policies, and forced the country into a devastating international isolation. Reports of the United Nations’ Special Representative on Iran in 1991 as well as 1998 documented horrendous human rights violations throughout the country. Yet, the fact that the second UN report also reported some improvement in the human rights situation indicates the real possibility of recovery from the total disaster of the 1980s and early 1990s.

What is clear from the sad, yet hopeful, experience of Iran’s notion of an Islamic state is that a secular space between religion and state is critically important for political stability, social and economic development as well as general well being of Islamic societies. As clearly shown by Iran’s relations with a range of other countries, from conservative Sunni Islamic Saudi Arabia to the liberal, secular United States, carefully regulating the relationship between religion and the state is necessary for maintaining positive cooperative relations with other nations, whether so-called Islamic or not. In view of the well-documented daily human rights violations in Iran, the notion of an Islamic government undermines the validity of Islam as a religion, even among its own adherents. When the government is identified with the religion, both are blamed for the social and political problems of the state.

I do not assume or imply that religion, secularism and human rights are totally autonomous or independent concepts or paradigms, because they all exist in constant interaction with political, economic, constitutional and governmental processes and institutions, both locally and globally. Therefore, the human rights of women, or of citizens in general, whether in Egypt, Iran or any other Islamic society, cannot be protected simply by ratifying international treaties or adopting national legislation. Secularism cannot be sustained in Sudan by "proclaiming" the idea at a national constitutional conference, or even enacting it in the constitution of the country.

State policy and legislation in Islamic countries must be founded on the institutionalized practice of secularism, as an indigenous concept, rather than an externally imposed Western notion. Such practice needs to be legitimized in Islamic terms for the population to take it seriously. It also requires the development of the necessary constitutional, judicial, economic and political institutions, all from an internal perspective of each society, but with due regard to its regional and global context. In each case, the success or failure of initiatives will depend on a complex web of historical developments and context, institutionalization and consistent practice in accordance with clear principles and politics, a well-informed and an active civil society that will hold its government officials accountable for their actions.

In conclusion, the positive working of Islam, secularism and human rights, and of the relationship among all three of them, will remain dependent upon sound economic policy, stable state constitutionalism and genuine democracy, all interacting within an and active civil society. A constitution that reflects particular religious beliefs is static precisely because it is grounded in a claim of divinity. A democracy that allots political positions according to religious affiliation not only violates the fundamental rights of citizens, but is also too rigid and simplistic because believers do not necessarily act politically in accordance with their religious beliefs.

In any case, how is one to judge the relative level of piety and fidelity to the faith among citizens as the bases of state policy and practice in every day life? As civil wars throughout Muslim history clearly show, believers can be deeply divided in their political beliefs and practice. Maintaining a dynamic synergy and interdependence among human rights, religion and secularism will enable all citizens to live by their religious convictions while respecting the right of others to do the same, instead of expecting people to choose between competing religions or religious interpretations.