An Islamic case for a secular state

by Charles Kurzman   في الأربعاء 28 مايو 2008


Book: Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of ShariŒa
by Abdullahi An-NaŒim

An Islamic case for a secular state

by Charles Kurzman

If the state is going to enforce any principle from Islamic sources,
according to Abdullahi An-NaŒim, then it should implement the principle
that
the state should not enforce Islamic principles. This is the crux of


An-NaŒim¹s new book, Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the
Future of
ShariŒa. An-NaŒim, a renowned Islamic scholar and human rights
activist, is
a leading member of the generation of Muslim intellectuals that came to
prominence in the 1980s as critics of both Islamist revolutionaries and
post-colonial dictators. According to An-NaŒim, the secular state is
not
just a good thing on public-policy grounds; it is also justified on
Islamic
grounds.

An-NaŒim recognizes that this case may seem to be a hard sell for the
Muslims who are his primary audience. He reports that a series of focus
groups that he sponsored in Indonesia to discuss these ideas were
almost
uniformly hostile to the concept of a secular state, which participants
associated with Western attempts to undermine Islam. In Indonesia and
elsewhere, many devout Muslims associate the secular state with the
promotion of irreligion.

An-NaŒim proposes that the opposite is more likely. Through a variety
of
Islamic arguments, he makes the case that a secular state is actually
good
for religion. From the standpoint of Islamic ethics (Œilm al-akhlaq),
he
argues that state enforcement of shariŒa vitiates Muslims¹ ability to
carry
out their religious duties through the exercise of human will. From the
perspective of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), An-NaŒim remarks that
Islamic
sacred sources say little about the form of government that Muslims
should
adopt, citing work by other major scholars such ŒAli ŒAbd al-Raziq
(Egypt,
1888-1966) and Nurcholish Madjid (Indonesia, 1939-2005). He argues that
the
existence of multiple interpretations of Islam undermines the claim
that
there is a single, timeless set of shariŒa regulations for the state to
enforce.

From the biographies of the earliest generations of Muslims (siyar
al-salaf), An-NaŒim argues that the first four successors to Muhammad
in the
7th century offered a precedent for the modern secular state. These
leaders,
known in the Islamic heritage as the ³Rightly Guided Caliphs,² were
particularly devout and religiously knowledgeable, An-NaŒim notes (to
note
otherwise would place him outside of the Sunni mainstream). Their
legitimacy
as rulers of the Muslim community was based not on their religious
authority, he argues, but rather on their political authority as heads
of
state. Other companions of the Prophet, who are also revered for their
piety
and Islamic learning, did not necessarily agree with the policies of
these
first caliphs, but they accepted caliphal authority in order to protect
the
new polity.

And from the standpoint of contemporary Islamic welfare (maslaha),
An-NaŒim
argues that state enforcement of shariŒa ‹ as it has been traditionally
understood ‹ undermines democracy and human rights, including the
rights of
women, non-Muslims, and the freedom to choose one¹s religion. In each
of
these areas, An-NaŒim suggests that Muslims need to engage their
religious
traditions in a spirit of self-criticism, rather than perpetuate
misguided
aspects of Islamic heritage out of understandable defensiveness about
Western colonial and post-colonial influences.

An-NaŒim weaves these Islamic discourses together with case studies of
three
secular states ‹ Turkey, India, and Indonesia ‹ where Islamic faith is,
if
anything, on the rise. An-NaŒim notes some of the drawbacks of these
secular
regimes. In Turkey, the Kemalist version of secularism inhibits the
free
expression of religiosity (most famously women¹s desire to wear
headscarves
in public institutions). In India, the post-colonial state has largely
endorsed the colonial-era Anglo-Mohammedan system of personal and
family
law, to the detriment of Islamic reformist movements. In Indonesia, the
government forces citizens to register as members of one of the five
official religions. Still, these secular governments have not
undermined
religion, as some devout Muslims fear. If anything, Muslims¹ religious
freedom may be greater under these regimes than under so-called Islamic
regimes, which favor certain sects and interpretations and impose
barriers
on others.

An-NaŒim does not engage in statistical analysis, but one could add to
his
argument the findings of the World Values Survey: among Muslims in
India,
Indonesia, and Turkey, regular attendance at religious services (weekly
or
more often) is higher than under the decidedly pro-shariŒa regimes in
Iran
and Saudi Arabia. In fact, religious attendance in Iran and Saudi
Arabia is
among the lowest quartile of 20 countries with significant Muslim
populations surveyed by the World Values Survey over the past decade.
These
figures ‹ and An-NaŒim¹s case for secularism ‹ seem to be consistent
with
competition theories in the sociology of Christianity: the less
monopolistic
the religious scene, the greater the incentives for religious
denominations
to market themselves to potential adherents, with the result that more
people are drawn into religious participation.

The World Values Survey also asked Muslims in eight countries whether
the
state should enforce only shariŒa law, and 68 percent agreed. Yet a
majority
of these pro-shariŒa respondents also agreed with the statement that
³Democracy may have problems but it¹s better than any other form of
government.² Similarly in the Pew Global Attitudes Project, a majority
of
Muslims in 10 countries who said that they wanted Islam to play ³a very
large role² in political life also said that ³democracy is not just for
the
West and can work well here.² The Gallup World Poll appears to found a
similar overlap between pro-shariŒa and pro-democracy attitudes in many
Muslim-majority countries, though the detailed findings are beyond my
budget
(the WVS and Pew data are free).

Democratic procedures are only one of An-Nai¹m¹s criteria for a truly
secular state. At other points in this book, An-NaŒim also suggests
that all
modern states count as ³secular²: ³the state is by definition a secular
political institution, especially in the present context of Islamic
societies,² since some or all of the personnel in charge of the state
are
lay rulers whose selection and policies depend on factors external to
religious interpretation ‹ even the Saudi monarchy (which came to power
through force) or the Iranian president (who came to power through
popular,
if limited, election). The very idea of the nation-state, which has
become
entrenched in post-colonial societies, is a secular notion. (Though
some
governments have tried to Islamicize the concept ‹ in Uzbekistan, for
example, the Communist-era bosses who run the post-Soviet state posted
billboards quoting a statement of the Prophet Muhammad, ³Feeling for
one¹s
homeland (vatan) is greater than all things.²)

Elsewhere, An-NaŒim offers a more restrictive definition of the secular
state that involves the substance of state policies: states that
attempt to
enforce traditional shariŒa norms are not secular, by these lights. To
count
as secular, a state must protect human rights, even when these run
counter
to the will of the majority or to traditional understandings of Islamic
piety. In an earlier project, Islamic Family Law in a Changing World,
An-NaŒim documented many of these legal limitations on a
country-by-country
basis, and his current work encourages Muslims to face up to these
human
rights failings.

An-NaŒim also offers an even more restrictive definition of the secular
state that focuses not just on the substance of policy but also on the
form
of political discourse used to make policy. To invoke religious
authority as
the basis for policy, he argues, is a breach of secularism, regardless
of
the content of the policy. In this vision of the secular state, policy
must
be grounded in civic reason: ³For example, if all I can say in support
of
the prohibition of interest on loans is that it is prohibited for me as
a
Muslim (haram), then there is nothing to discuss with other citizens,
who
must either reject or accept my proposal only on the strength of my
religious belief. ٹ It is also better for my own faith as a Muslim to
reflect on the social rationale for the dictates of ShariŒa and try to
persuade others of the general good of those commandments.²

This approach overlaps considerably with John Rawls¹s concept of
³public
reason,² An-NaŒim notes, but the authors also differ in significant
ways.
For Rawls, religion was a side issue and only permissible in political
debate under exceptional circumstances, such as the social divides that
confronted the abolitionist movement and the civil rights movement in
the
United States. Rawls¹s position was firmly allied with the
secularization
thesis in the sociology of religion, whereby religion inevitably
recedes
from the public sphere as a country modernizes. For An-NaŒim, by
contrast,
religion is a permanent and worthwhile feature of human life that
informs
many citizens¹ political priorities, just as other aspects of social
position and ideology do ‹ a position that is consistent with the work
of
Christian Smith and others in the sociology of religion who have
contested
the secularization thesis. An-NaŒim favors a secular state, but he also
favors a robust role for faith in public life.

Rawls and An-NaŒim also differ in the focus of their normative
judgments.
An-NaŒim is writing primarily for Muslims, and he urges non-Muslims to
let
Muslims take the lead in gaining their freedoms. By contrast, Rawls
wrote
primarily for the United States and other North Atlantic democracies ‹
these
countries provide the bulk of his examples and the institutional
framework
for his ideals of justice. His main consideration of the rest of the
world,
a late book entitled The Law of Peoples, focuses primarily on the
threat
that illiberal regimes pose to the North Atlantic democracies. These
other
regions must be contained or reformed, by military intervention if
necessary
‹ the same ³civilizing mission² reasoning propagated by imperialists.
An-NaŒim considers such interventions to be hypocritical and
ineffective ‹
hypocritical since altruistic discourses are almost always combined
with
exploitative practices, and ineffective because the aftermath of the
intervention is rarely liberal or democratic.

At the same time, Rawls also considers the possibility of ³decent²
non-liberal peoples, whose polities may not be fully democratic but at
least
enforce the rule of law and respect human rights. These ³decent²
nations
pose no threat to the international order and should be left alone to
live
their own way, so long as they do not become indecent. Rawls¹s example
of a
³decent² non-liberal people, tellingly, is a fictional Muslim country,
³Kazanistan² ‹ presumably a play on the capital of Tatarstan, Kazan.
An-NaŒim, writing for the citizens of the ³Kazanistans² of the world,
is not
prepared to give non-liberal Islamic states a free pass. He does not
call
for Western intervention, but rather for internal reform. Muslims
themselves
have a duty to bring about constitutionalism, human rights, and
democratic
citizenship, An-NaŒim argues. He proposes that the best path toward
these
ideals ‹ and the best path toward Islamic fulfillment ‹ is a secular
state.
 

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