Secularism in Muslim States: Causes of Failure, Possibilities of Success

Secularism in Muslim States: Causes of Failure, Possibilities of Success

In presenting my thoughts on the subject of Secularism and Muslim societies, I intend to elaborate the idea and definition of secularism, its development and acceptance in the West, the challenges it faces in the Islamic world, and the possibility of its successful implementation and adoption in the Muslim states.

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor proposes that we live in a secular age. He also suggests that his view of secularism only covers the West or the North Atlantic adding that this West encompasses what was the Latin Christendom in the past. His proposition of the secular age does not cover the phenomenon of secularization elsewhere.

According to Bryan Wilson, Secularization is a concept as well as a descriptive term. It relates to the diminution of the social significance of religion. It covers, “the sequestration by political powers of property and facility of religious agencies, and the shift from religious to secular control of various erstwhile functions of the religion.” It is a long-term process and varies according to human cultures and groups.

Holyoake defined Secularism, “as that which seeks the development of the physical, moral, and intellectual nature of man to the highest possible point, as the immediate duty of life — which inculcates the practical sufficiency of natural morality apart from Atheism, Theism or the Bible — which selects as its methods of procedure the promotion of human improvement by material means, and proposes these positive agreements as the common bond of union, to all who would regulate life by reason and ennoble it by service.”

In this discussion I would focus only on secularism as a system of governance and am not concerned with atheism, communism, socialism, pluralism, secular humanism, feminism, or any such terms. It is possible that many of these concepts may have developed under the umbrella of secularism or secularism may have created the environment under which these ideas could flourish.

By ‘Secularism’, I mean a political system in which the functions of state or governance have been strictly separated from functions of religion or religious belief.

According to Oliver Roy, “Contemporary Western societies, however, are, in fact secularized, either because the separation of church and state is a constitutional principle (the United States), because civil society no longer defines itself through faith and religious practice (the United Kingdom, Germany, the Scandinavian countries), or because these two forms of secularism converge and reinforce each other, thus giving birth to what the French call laicite.”

It was in the United States where the separation of religion and state was enshrined in the constitution long before the concept was constitutionally adopted in Europe. It was even before Holyoake proposed his definition of secularism.

Separation of religion and state was included in the US constitution over a period of time through the first amendment that went through various revisions, and was adopted in 1789 with the following wordings:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” It is considered to be the most important part of the US constitution.

The amendment was the joint effort of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the 3rd and the 4th presidents of the United States. Jefferson in a letter, to some Baptists who were requesting that he declare a national day of fasting, wrote, “I contemplate with solemn reverence, that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”

Secularism in the United States allows the propagation of religions and religious belief and the state does not coerce the citizen in adopting or foregoing a religious conviction or practice. Whereas in France where the state and the Catholic Church struggled bitterly over control of religion in public domain, the concept of laicite allows the state to control religious symbols and practices.

Bryan Wilson finds that, “a variation occurs with respect to institutional associations in the Western world. In Sweden where the church is virtually a department of state, and where it is supported by taxation, the church remains financially strong, even though the attendance at services is phenomenally low. In Britain , where the association with the state persists in somewhat more attenuated form, and where the church receives no public funding, attendances are not so low, but voluntary donation are very small. In the United States, where church and state are firmly separated, attendances are high, and giving is generous.

The secularization and secularism have developed and evolved over a long period of time as a result of Enlightenment, Reformation of Religion, Scientific Thinking, Darwinian Evolution, Industrial Revolution, Historic Materialism, ideas of Freudian psychology, and Universal Education.

It has resulted in secular societies that are prosperous, more equitable, and free of sectarian anxieties and bloodshed, and where citizens enjoy higher quality of life and higher self-expression values.

As opposed to evolution of secularism in the West over a period of time, Muslim societies have historically integrated the functions of state and religion. The requirement of religion’s importance and necessity in governance and matters of state has been theorized by Ibn e Khaldoun in his Introduction to History. He also suggests the importance of tribalism or group feeling as an important factor and requirement of strong government.

He writes, “Religious propaganda gives a dynasty at its beginning, another power in addition to that of the tribalism it possessed as the result of the number of supporters.”

He suggests that it was the righteous Islamic belief of Muslim rulers and armies that obtained victory in various important wars and it was the superiority of the Islamic religion that defeated the people with false belief.

He further writes that “religious propaganda cannot materialize without tribalism”. Ibne Khaldoun quotes some sayings of the Muslim prophet but does not provide any evidence from the scripture to strengthen his proposition.

These are the ideas that have been indoctrinated into Muslim minds and create great resistance and anxiety against any separation of religion and state.

A brief review of the constitution of 46 contemporary Muslim states tells us that there are 6 Muslim states that are termed as Islamic states, where Islamic Sharia is used as form of legislation.  These include Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. 19 Muslim countries declare Islam as the religion of state, and where Sharia may be used as the source of law. 16 Muslim countries profess secularism; these include Turkey and Bangla Desh among other.  6 Muslim countries do not adopt any religion, and Indonesia the largest Muslim country is one of those.

It must be noted that Afghanistan became an Islamic state after the recent wars, and similarly Iraq moved from being a secular state to a state adopting a state religion after the US invasion.

Various actual and perceived factors that hinder the establishment of secularism in Muslim states are listed here and I will attempt to briefly elaborate these:

  • Belief in Islam as a transcendent ideology that governs both private and public spheres of Muslim society
  • Conflicting and misleading definitions of secularism
  • Secularism as an alien Christian concept
  • Colonialism
  • Elitist top down imposition
  • Problems of scholarship
  • Opportunistic collusion of US and western states with Islamic revivalists and fundamentalist in Muslim states as a strategic need
  • US support of authoritarian Muslim regimes
  • Fear of loss of Muslim identity
  • Ideas of Clash of Civilizations, propagated by Huntington and other intellectuals
  • Saudization of religion and Muslim culture
  • Control of mass media and opinion making institutions
  • Rising Fundamentalism
  • and absence of Secular Muslim organizations

As mentioned above, there is an entrenched concept in Muslim societies that Islam transcends the private and public conduct of citizens of a Muslim state. Scholars and Muslim leaders following orthodoxy propagate this idea at all times, to indoctrinate Muslim minds and as a defense against any secular ideas in a Muslim society.

Varying and misleading definitions of secularism have also been responsible for rejection of secularism in Muslim states.

According to Azzam Tamimi, “The early Arab debate on secularism, centred mainly on the relationship between religion and state, and on matching European successes in science, technology, and governance.

‘Secularism’ was translated into Arabic, either as ‘ilmaniyah’, a neologism derived from ‘ilm’ (science or knowledge) or as ‘alamaniyah, derived from alam (world or universe). It has been suggested that the use of any other translation such as ‘la- diniyah’, that implied the exclusion or marginalization of religion, would have met with outright rejection by Muslims.  It was therefore necessary to introduce it through a term that implied knowledge and success, which Islam not only encouraged but demanded. “

“Nevertheless , the meaning of ilmaniyah or alamaninyah in the Arabic literature is no less varied and confused than it is in Western literature. In his four volume encyclopedia on secularism, Elmessiri lists eighteen different definitions of secularism collected from modern Arabic literature.”

Arabic term la-diniyah could also be understood as religion-less, or as atheism, by the ordinary Muslims. It is this meaning that has been derogatorily used by Islamic revivalists to scare Muslims away from the real concepts and meaning of secularism.

Within the Muslim societies secularism is perceived as a Christian concept. Which is not far from the truth since both Charles Taylor and Bryan Wilson discuss the fact that secularist west today covers the old Latin Christendom, and secularism in reality has displaced various sectarian beliefs of Christianity and the western society. Nearly all the major scholars of secularism have come from Christian background. Islamist and other Muslim scholars opposing secularism present this fact negatively to affect Muslim minds.

European colonization of Muslim states has always been a major issue in the Muslim world. Several Arab nationalist and resistance movements struggled against it.

Colonizers tried to bring in their own civil and criminal laws on the subject states. Some of which were based on secular concepts. Some colonial powers also allowed multiple local religious family laws along with their own civil laws. This was basically against the spirit of secularism and allowed creeping of religion into the public domain. Muslim scholars used this as a tool for rejection of secularist laws. Such laws were perceived as the laws of subjugation, and Muslim religious leaders exploited this perception to alienate the society against secularism.

Elitist top down imposition of secularist ideas has been the fact in various Muslim countries. Turkey is one of the most glaring examples, where a group of young military officers led by Mustafa Kamal Pasha imposed secularist ideas on the Turkish people and banned many prevailing Islamic practices by brutal force.

The resentment that such imposition caused has resulted in ascendance of Islamist ideas and emergence of Islamist influenced government in Turkey that is now successfully trying to change many secular laws in the country.

In many other Muslim countries, ideas of secularism were brought in by the western educated elites of Muslim societies. It was thus very easy for the Muslim orthodoxy in these societies to condemn such ideas as evil thoughts of western infidels.

We should also look at the state of prevalent scholarship that impacts the Muslim minds in Muslim countries as well as in the West. We can look at this scholarship in various dimensions. These can be defined as revivalist, absolutist, and fundamentalist, scholarship seeking accommodation of Islamic ideas in the West, scholarship with anti secular bias, and progressive scholarship seeking reformation within Islam but avoiding open propagation of secularism in Muslim states.

Revivalist scholarship includes the ideas of Jamaluddin Afghani, Mohammed Abduh, Rahsid Rida, and Mohammed Iqbal.  Some of these scholars like Mohammed Abduh promoted the ideas of modernism within Islam, in the sense that they wanted to interpret Islam according to modern times, but at the same time sought to revive the past glory of Islam and establish Islamic governance within Muslim societies. None of these wanted to do anything with secularism.

Fundamentalist and Absolutist Muslim scholars include Hassan al Banna, Syed Qutb, and  Syed Abul Ala Maudoodi.  Their ideas promoted the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Arabic world, and Jamaat e Islami under various names in South Asian and East Asian countries. Their scholarship is followed by all the violent fundamentalist and absolutist movements in the contemporary Muslim world.

These movements want to establish Islamic states based on Sharia within the Muslim world and also to establish Sharia based ideas in the Western countries with significant Muslim minorities. Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other such violent movements generally follow the ideas if this scholarship.

Scholars promoting accommodation of Islamic ideas in the west include Tariq Ramadan, Abdullah An Naim, and others. These scholars are widely read and would like to seek accommodation of Islamic ideas within the public square of secular countries. They do not expressly  accept the concept of secularism as practised in the west and the strict laicite as implemented in France.

Abdulla An Naim writes in his ‘Islam and the Secular State – Negotiating the Future of Sharia’, that, “Starting from the premise that Sharia will indeed have a role in public life, where Muslims are the majority or a significant minority of the population, I am primarily concerned here with clarifying and promoting the most conducive conditions for the negotiation of future of Sharia in the public domain.” It is quite obvious that this very idea is contrary to the principles of secularism as a system of governance.

It should be a matter of concern that, with very few exceptions, most of the scholarship concerned with Islam and secularism in US academia shows anti secularism bias.  Several examples of this can be found in John Esposito’s ‘Islam and Secularism in the Middle East’.

Over the last decade several Muslim scholars have come forward declaring themselves as progressive Muslims. Several of them promote the concept of contemporary reinterpretation of Quran and Islamic injunctions. While they profess contemporary analysis, they also do not expressly support secularism.

Perception of US and western secular societies as opportunistic, hegemonic, and neo imperialists, is a major hurdle towards the acceptance of the secular democratic ideologies in the Muslim countries.

US and the west have adopted Muslim absolutist and revivalist scholarship and scholars when it suited their interests. Most of the scholars, who are invited to the corridors of powers in the West, have been overtly or covertly carrying Islamist and anti secular agendas. US support of authoritarian regimes in the Muslim countries is an established fact.

Recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been perceived in Muslim societies as unjust wars. These wars and similar aggression erode any faith in secular democracies by the Muslims globally. While promotion of democracy was one of the reasons given for these wars, Iraq has adopted Islam as the religion of the state whereas it was previously a secular state. Similarly Afghanistan has emerged as an Islamic state where laws contrary to Sharia cannot be implemented.

A perceived and ill founded fear of loss of identity also is a factor in rejection of secularism by many Muslims.

The very idea of secularism and specially the ideas of French laicite gives rise to the fears that some perceived concepts of Muslim belief and identity like wearing of Hijab will be forcibly eliminated.

Such fears on one hand create the resistance to the acceptance of secularism and on the other hands makes Muslims assert their identity by adopting rituals and customs that they may have not practised in the past. Columbia university Professor Akeel Bilgrami’s article, ‘What is a Muslim’, provides many useful insights on the concept of Muslim identity and helps moderate Muslims to resist such fears that are generally propagated by a small minority of absolutist Muslims.

The ideas of clash of civilizations propagated by Samuel Huntington  give rise to resentments in many Muslims, rightfully perceiving that their religion and their majority is being tainted, instead of a very small minority that professes fundamentalism and absolutism.

The real clash is “within the civilization” in Muslim societies.  It is the clash between the values of moderate Muslims, and those of absolutists whom the moderates greatly outnumber.

There are very few Muslim secularist scholars in the west or in Muslim countries. If there are some, their influence is minimal or at best sporadic. Muslims have no scholar of the stature of Amartya Sen, who daringly challenges Hindu fundamentalism and propagates secular philosophy.

Saudization of Islam and Muslim culture can be considered as the most serious road block towards the implementation of secularism in Muslim societies.

Since the first oil shock and increase of petroleum prices adopted by the OPEC group, Saudi Arabia has used its huge wealth in directly spreading the ultra orthodox Muslim ideology practised by a very small Salafi and Wahabist minority of world Muslims. It provides financial support to many mosques globally and even sends the copies of Quran printed in Royal Saudi publishing houses, and other orthodox Islamic literature to Islamic centres and mosque around the world.

Millions of Muslim who found employment in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries return to their own countries and even to the West, adopting various Saudi customs and attires prevalent in Saudi Arabia. These include Hijab, Niqab, and other body coverings like Burqas, and Ibayas adorned by those Muslim women who rarely wore such attires in their own countries and cultures in the past.

Various Muslim student associations in the West openly distribute Saudi inspired religious materials at their academic centers including schools, colleges, and universities.These young Muslims and other Saudi influenced Muslims vociferously resist the ideas of secularism and even pluralism in their own communities.

Saudi financing has also supported organizations like Georgetown’s Prince AlWaleed Bin Talal Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding. We have mentioned John Esposito’s book earlier. He is the founding director of this institute.

Mass media in many Muslim societies has been historically controlled by the state. Since most of Muslim states profess Islam as their state religion or have adopted Sharia as the law of land, these media actively propagate Islamic ideas and Islamic concepts.

In some of the Muslim countries, the fundamentalists and absolutists have made concerted efforts to train journalists and mass media presenters to promote Islamist and anti secular ideas. At the same time major opinion makers and polling organizations have hired known Islamists at major positions as public opinion and polling experts.

These include people like Dalia Mogahed at the Gallup in USA and Ijaz Shafi Gilani, the head of Gallup in Pakistan. It is highly likely that they are using their positions to present the findings of  poll results with an Islamist bias.

A recent book, ‘Who Speaks for Islam’, published by the Gallup organization is one example. Dalia Mogahed and John Esposito are shown as the co authors of this book, but apparently Dalia Mogahed has provided the narrative where she uses anecdotal examples to propose an Islamist bias in many Islamic countries.

The Fundamentalist Project sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences has published five massive volumes on the issues of rising fundamentalism in various religions around the world.

These rising fundamentalisms in their own domains oppose or resist secularism. Their impact in established secular societies is not as great as in Islamic societies.

Modern secularist organizations rarely exist in the Muslim states. It is mostly due to lack of freedoms of association, and also due to possibility of extreme violence against the members of such organizations.

Even in the west there is a virtual absence of such organizations. A possible exception is the Muslim Canadian Congress in Canada that was established by several like-minded secular Muslims. Its mission statement clearly stated that it believes in separation of religion and state. It successfully worked with other activist organizations in opposing the possibility of inclusion of arbitration under religious laws on the matters of family disputes. It also raised several important issues that questioned  the interpretation of Sharia or challenged the orthodox views propagated by well-known Islamist scholars.

I have listed major challenges and causes of failure of secularism in Muslim societies. However it does not mean that there is no hope or possibilities of success of secularism in the Muslim societies.

The very factors that made secularism possible in the West would also be instrumental in the establishment of secularism in the Muslim countries. These include Rationalism, Education, and Industrialization. Sustained efforts in this direction will result in Rise in Self Expression Values, and Democratization of societies.

Real democratization of Muslim states is an essential factor in progress towards establishing secularism. Akeel Bilagrami writes that, “Still, democratization will be hard to achieve – whether within Muslim minorities in democratic countries like India or in Muslim majority countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia – unless moderate Muslims are able to come out of their shells. To do so they must become critical of the fundamentalists with whom they share so little.”

Industrialization is an essential element of the secular societies. Looking at the United Nations’ Industrial Development Organization’s indices we find that nearly all the Muslim countries are far behind in industrialization. The average Manufacturing Value Added, a measurement assessing industrialization is approximately $4,000 in secular countries, whereas Pakistan for example is only at about $100. Some Muslim countries in Africa are pathetically low at $ 8 or less.

Real literacy rates of nearly all Muslim countries are very low as compared to secular countries. This requires serious attention within the Muslim countries as well as by the donor agencies and prosperous countries having any interest in promotion of secular democracy in the Muslim societies.

Inglehart and Welzel in their “Modernization, Cultural Change, and Democracy” have provided empirical evidence that prosperous and secular countries have very high Self Expression Values, versus very low such values in Muslim societies. Concerted efforts are required to improve upon these.

They propose in the book that, “Socioeconomic development has a powerful impact on what people want to do, as Karl Mark argued, but a society’s cultural heritage continues to shape its prevailing beliefs and motivations, as Max Weber argued. Moreover, socio-cultural change is not linear. Industrialization brings rationalization, secularization, and bureaucratization, but the rise of knowledge in society brings another set of changes that move in a new direction, placing increasing emphasis on individual autonomy, self-expression, and free choice.

Emerging self-expression values transform modernization into a process of human development, giving rise to a new type of humanistic society that is increasingly people centred.

I personally believe that comprehensive human evolution is continuous and irreversible. Rationalism, Dialectical and Historic Materialism, and modernization including the concept of cultural changes, combined with Secular Democracy are the ideas that are irrefutable and unstoppable. Nations and societies adopting these will keep marching on and that those resisting these will be crushed by the burden of history.

In closing I quote the following lines from Iqbal, despite his Islamic revivalist philosophy and his often contradictory ideas:

آئینِ نو سے ڈرنا، طرزِ کہن پہ اڑنا

منزل یہی کٹھن ہے قوموں کی زندگی میں

یہ کاروانِ ہستی ہے تیز گام ایسا

قومیں کچل گیئں ہیں، جس کی روا روی میں

 To insist on ancient customs, and to resist the new system, is the most difficult milestone in the life of nations. The caravan of existence is so rapid and brutal that it crushes those who could not keep pace with it.

(Presented at Family of the Heart (FOTH) Free Thinkers Lecture Series – September 11, 2011)


Note: I gratefully acknowledge the support of our friend Dr. Tahir Qazi for his, guidance, perseverance, brainstorming, and help in obtaining resources for this article.


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