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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

Hussein Ibish
Hussein Ibish

By Hussein Ibish, Now.

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 ‘almaniyyailmanniyya, 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 stigmatised.

The first of these experiences was the overtly anti-religious attitude of the government of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, which was presented as “modernisation” 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 recognise 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.

Hussein Ibish is a Senior Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine.

This article was originally published on Now.

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  • Intellectualist

    Excellent commentary.

  • Pingback: Why Muslims should love secularism – Daily News Egypt | kb1()

  • mohamed

    You are talking rubbish. Muslims will never accept secularism. If some muslims are promoting secularism, they are either munafiqiin or disbelievers.

    If those you admire ( the west) had lost their religion because it had been changed centuries ago to make a man a god, WE MUSLIMS will remain in ISLAM and follow ISLAM NO MATTER WHAT!
    I hope I made clear to you we will not accept your ways.

    • Stormbringer

      “You are talking rubbish”

      And you are talking utter crap. This is an excellent article that patiently explains to Muslims that there is a difference between Secularism and Atheism whch is why there are religious people who are secularists.

      “Muslims will never accept secularism”

      I very much doubt that you speak for all Muslims – this is just your wishful fantasing. For the same reason, I don’t think you have even the faintest idea what Secularism really is or that you actually know what it is your ranting against.

      Very many Muslims positively want Secularism which is precisely why they escaped from Muslim countries to emigrate in civilised Western democracies in the first place. They now full well that the Totalitarian Theocracy that you advocate simply means an oppressive, arbitrary autocracy of unelected, self-appointed Shahs, Sheiks, Mufti’s, Mullahs, etc, etc, etc.

      “If some muslims are promoting secularism, they are either munafiqiin or disbelievers.”

      Or simply rational, knowing that they’re far better off and that their lot in life significantly improves when religion is put firmly in its box and is left unobtrusively in the background so that it’s not in anybodies way, to be eventually forgotten.

      “”If those you admire ( the west) had lost their religion because it
      had been changed centuries ago to make a man a god,”

      And look at the result – an enlightenment; a vast explosion of knowledge and intellect throughout the Western world; massive technological advances that continues, to leave the whole of the Muslim world very far behind in the Dark Ages.

      Instead of knocking it – maybe you should ditch the self-induced infantilism, dump the fact-free fairy tales of illiterate know-nothings and throw all your backward beliefs into the dustbin of history to embrace a life of reason instead.

      “WE MUSLIMS”

      You’re not all Muslims and pretending that you are just makes you sound schizophrenic.

      “will remain in ISLAM and follow ISLAM NO MATTER WHAT!”

      I doubt that – the ever changing pace of the modern world has a multitude of ways of tempting and corrupting all your children in so many different forms that many young Muslims will simply learn to do what many Christians have learned to do in the West – to simply pay lip service to their “faith” and keep their religious beliefs (if any) strictly to themselves.

      “I hope I made clear to you we will not accept your ways”

      You made it clear that you speak with the Royal “we” but obviously speak for just yourself and your own personal feelings of impotent rage and feeble-minded frustration.

      The Muslim world has already atrophied and is sinking into terminal decline. In the end, the people living in those countries will accept our ways because there really is no other way for them to progress – modernity, democracy and secularism is so universally ubiquitous because it is so very spectacularly successful in such a multitude of different way that any nation or culture that doesn’t accept them will rot away into nothingness.

      Ataturk was the greatest thing to ever happen to Islam and the secularism that he brought about was the reason why Turkey was the only Muslim country to have any relative social economic progress.

      • Intellectualist

        Turkey is slipping under the threat of the Gulenist mafia. Their judiciary is a laughingstock. This argument should be taken in by their people as well.

      • mustafatayli

        Ataturk is the first leader in the muslim countries whose duty is to westernize and secularize Turkey with military, with brutal laws, with death penalties. Other arab leaders came later.

    • Intellectualist

      The apparent damage to your brain would be clearly evident on an MRI. Learning a new musical instrument could help you. You can reverse the degenerative atrophy or chronic encephalopathy before it becomes an uncontrollable rage that manifests itself in violence.

  • GordonHide

    @Mohamed — You will have to accept enough of “our ways” to enable you to live according to the law and according to the expected moral code of conduct. If you do not, you will not be able to fully contribute to the community nor will you gain all the considerable advantages that it can bring.

  • Intellectualist

    Google ” No Woman, No Drive” for a little fun.

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