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A Genuine Difference

A Genuine Difference

Issue 89 February 2012

We must do more to nurture debate around Islam’s relationship with the state.


The Arab Spring is creating new political discourses in Muslim circles. However, the debate is now whether Islamic thought can genuinely recognise the difference between the ‘political’ and ‘religious’?


To many people today Islam, of all the world faiths, is probably the least likely to be compatible with such a secular distinction. Yet a recent publication ( British Secularism and Religion: Islam, Society and the State, 2011), that I helped to edit, argues that Islam can be read in precisely that way. In fact, secularity is very important for Muslims in the modern world, as it is the basis for equality, democracy, freedom, human rights and the autonomy of religion itself. These values have a strong resonance with my reading of Islam even though some conservative voices may disregard these as ‘western values’.


Historically, the Muslim world had a very positive relationship between scientific and rational inquiry on the one hand and religion on the other, creating significant innovations in science. While the Enlightenment and the exciting search for emancipation of the human spirit engendered important developments in Europe, intellectual stagnation settled in around the Muslim world causing it to lose that creative relationship with rationalism. From the late 19th Century one could hear calls for renewed thinking (ijtihad) and reform (islah) in the Muslim world, a movement that only seems to be gathering momentum in modern times.


Despite the fact that some Muslims advocate a return to the ‘Caliphate’, the current tide of public opinion in the Arab world shows that Muslim masses aspire to freedom and democracy in ways that were not recognised previously. As such, this presents an argument against dismissing such values as ‘western’, for surely, these are universal aspirations.


In the early 20th Century preoccupation with the Caliphate, the ‘Islamic state’ was seen as a symbol of Muslim unity and its restoration as vital in defending Muslim interests and procuring justice in a post-colonial context. However, in reality, there has been a well-established normative distinction (albeit in pre-modern settings) between the temporal, sovereign authority and institutions of religion in the Muslim world. The latter mainly advocating autonomy and resenting their co-option by the state whenever that did happen.


Muhammad Abduh asserted more than a century ago that Islam is not a theocracy and that there is a distinction between the ‘religious’ and ‘worldly’. And while Qutb viewed democracy as incompatible with Islam, the more contemporary Ghannouchi views such ideas as the misunderstanding of both democracy and Islam.


If one adds to the mix, the immense disappointment of Muslims with the various national projects often couched (even if at times with little more than lip-service) in the name of Islam—Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, Sudan, Afghanistan, etc., there is a growing recognition that a liberal, secular democracy is a good model for ensuring accountable, open, societies that can protect the rights of all citizens of the state.


However, the story is more complex than that; an absence of religious rule (and ‘on paper’ separation of religion and state) doesn’t automatically imply genuine freedom and liberty, given the role of the military and authoritarian tendencies in many Muslim countries. Furthermore, ‘secularism’ in the Muslim world has, in the past, been associated with forced ‘westernisation’ (Turkey for example) and / or double standards (e.g. support for dictatorships). This means that Muslim publics are often very sceptical of the term ‘secularism’ (though as mentioned previously, not necessarily the notion of separation).


While advocating secularism, I am not for the disappearance of religion, nor for an anti-clerical and closed-minded laïcité. Rather, I see secularism as a good way of managing the public debate, especially where multiple religious, ideological and belief arguments may collide. So there is a conversation to be had about the extent, nature and mode of religious presence in the public sphere. Given the plural nature of that presence perhaps the Rawlsian notion of ‘public reason’ can help—especially in a culture of very low religious literacy? But it seems that we also need to reach a point where religious voices can be given consideration and not automatically disregarded as ‘superstitious’.


The nuanced conversation and reform we need to nurture, on all sides, will need time; and yet it often seems like time is running out. But the process of reform cannot be forced, or enforced. For it to be an authentic voice, it needs to be organic. We can, however, catalyse that process by fostering education and critical thinking, by encouraging open and pluralistic spaces of debate and by encouraging people to dialogue in safe spaces so they can build meaningful relationships that cut through the polarised impasse of today.


Dilwar Hussain is President of the Islamic Society of Britain.



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