Wednesday, February 06, 2008

To secularise or not secularise? That is the question

Yazan and I started having a very interesting discussion when I posted a comment about Ataturk and secularism in Turkey. I thought I would repost some parts of the discussion as a separate post to see what other people think on this matter. What we both eventually ended up discussing was how secular and non-secular (in this case Islamic) forms of government are perceived by different people with different backgrounds. Anyhow, have a look at the extracts and make your own minds up. You can read the comments here, the make quite an interesting read. Below is my last response to Yazan which I hope we can use as a start point here:


Sorry I forgot to reply to your last comment. The question you've posed to me isn't one I've set out to answer in post anyway. I'm not saying that any of those countries you mention are shining examples of non-secular governments. In fact, those governments guarantee peoples rights not because they have chosen to be secular, but, I suspect, for other reasons completely.If I understand you correctly, I think your main fear of non-secular forms of government is that the rights of minorities would be in danger. However, we both know that there are plenty of secular governments in the world which discriminate against minorities both in the present and the past. Turkey, Italy, Spain, France, China. A variety of levels of freedom yet the same problem it would seem. So, theoretically, it could be possible for a country with a non-secular government to also have similar levels of freedoms, yet rather than a materialist capitalist paradigm informing it's laws and policies, it can still be, using your example, Islamic.Now the question is, why do we view Islamic conceptions of law, justice and government as so alien, so frightening, when they are clearly a part of us and our own political and social context? At the same time, we consider albeit admirable European ideas of 'enlightenment' as "universal" and devour them greedily whilst our very own values are discarded without so much as the benefit of the doubt.All I'm asking for is some imagination, using a different starting point for our questions to solve our problems.


A:) said...

Secular VS non-Secular has never been about discriminating against minorities. The truth of the matter is that secular governments are a lot more inclined oppress a subset of its society.
However, I disagree with your statement "So, theoretically, it could be possible for a country with a non-secular government to also have similar levels of freedoms, yet rather than a materialist capitalist paradigm informing it's laws and policies."
The association of capitalism with secularism is an erroneous one. You could conceivably have a socialist secular government. And then referring to European ideas of ‘enlightenment’. What do European ideas have to do with secular VS non-secular? Our history, Islamic history, is littered with examples of secular societies. In fact the whole ‘religious tolerance concept’ has started from an Islamic context (It is referred to in the Qur’an, in Surah Kafiroon). It seems to be norm these days to view any argument from the narrow confines of east vs. west.
Now as a Muslim, it isn’t that Islamic law which is alien or frightening to me. Most people who grew up in the Arabic speaking world understand the Islamic religion and culture a lot more than academics might admit. The scary part, is having the state interpreting religion for us, and intruding on our belief system. A non-secular government is much easier to control and manipulate by the ruling body, than one which is secular. Bottom line, having lived in both, I would rather live under the Secular Government of Syria, rather than the religious Government of Saudi Arabia.

أبو عريب said...

When you say "Islamic state", what do you have in mind? What is your definition or vision of it? A state that adopts Al-Shari'a as a source of the law? And after all, what Shari'a should we choose? the Sunnite or the Shiite one, or something else?
Because when we talk about the countries of our region, we are not dealing with countries with some majority and a number of small minorities, but rather with countries made up of a mixture of many confessions and religions with no real majority (take Iraq, Lebanon and even Syria as an example). Islamic solution will be in this case a disaster, I think.

sasa said...


Can't write much because of time. But I'll quickly say I fall very firmly on the secular side.

Why? Because it offers a wider scope of possibilities. If the way you rule society is dogmatic, or at least constrained by a book, then you can't admit failure. And that dogma doesn't just apply to religion - take Bush's dogmatic neo-conservatism (as a very cheap example!).

Also, why should a Christian be ruled by a Muslim way of life?


Yazan said...

I think many valid points were mentioned in the comments above.

Secularism is not a strictly western/european concept [although I obviously dont share ur despise to everything european], matter of fact, u can see real seeds of secularism in Ibn Rushd's writings. Islamic golden age, in Andalusia and Baghdad was rapidly evolving into a form of secular society.

You've been asking too many questions and avoiding answering any, What is the Islamic vision that you have in mind? [it might turn out to be very close to what secularism means to me, with different names].

Wassim said...

Thanks for stopping by and for your comments. I think there are problems with your main points but I'll be brief.

Firstly, European ideas have everything to do with secularism as it emerged from the historical and political context of Europe. You mention that Islamic history is full of such examples, yet you don't bring up any. Would you mind giving us some?

Secondly, you seem to assume that the state would interpret the Sharia, yet since Sharia means laws, couldn't that be handled by a judicial body separate from the executive and superceding it? Why should that have to be different in a non-secular state?

Finally, I have a problem understanding your opening statement as it seems to be contradictory and also not related to the rest of your argument.
Secular VS non-Secular has never been about discriminating against minorities. The truth of the matter is that secular governments are a lot more inclined oppress a subset of its society.

Wassim said...

أبو عريب,
To be honest with you I don't have a clue what form it should take or how to begin defining it. I'm just doing this exercise to play the devils advocate (no pun intended!) for an Islamic state. We seem to have it presented as some evil bogeyman all the time, but no serious discussion of any of it's ideas seems to ever take place. It is like the concept is treated as a totality and immediately related with Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Sudan.

Your point on which interpretation to have is excellent and I don't know, but here is a thought. Surely since the fundamental starting point of all of these interpretations is exactly the same and there is no disagreement on that (the same Quran is shared by all), that might serve as some useful starting point? Yes I know people say that you can interpret the Quran different ways but if you do think so, would you mind giving me an example of how it can be interpreted in different ways and where there has been disagreement? How serious could such a disagreement be if there was a concerted effort to resolve it?

What I'm trying to do is deconstruct this mental colonialism which has affected us and leads to thinking that only political solutions devised by Europeans (and for a totally different context and reality) should be accepted without question as universal all over the world. Does it not strike you as odd that we do that?

Wassim said...

Hi Sasa,
I don't understand why you reserve dogmatic to non-secular governments since they are governed by a book. Aren't non-secular governments also governed by a book of sorts? Mao's red book? The US constitution, Das Kapital and the Communist Manifesto? What about (trying to keep a straight face) Qaddafi's Green book?

No, I don't think you've made a strong argument because your premise, that dogma and non-secular governments go hand in hand, is not true. There is no reason why a non-secular state can be non-dogmatic. There is also no reason why a non-secular state should discriminate against people of different religions. If you look at the United States, one of the biggest attacks on Obama is to question whether he really isn't a Muslim (he isn't). Can you imagine a Hindu prime minister for Britain? Would Obama be elected if he were Muslim? No, it is problematic for all these countries yet minorities are much better off there than elsewhere. I don't see why this scenario is exclusively non-secular and there is no reason why a non-secular state should interfere in peoples day to day lives or faith.

Wassim said...

Last but not least :)

As you can see, I've responded to each of those points, but apart from Abu 3rayb, I don't think they made a very strong argument for secularism.

I disagree with you on two counts, first that you think Secularism is not a Western/European concept (which it is, just look it up) and that I despire all things European (which isn't the case at all as I admire the culture and people very much). I'm against the imposition of these ideas which I think help in suppressing us and keeping the Arab and Islamic world subjugated and divided. When we are in such a state, it is easy for us to succumb to petty squabbles and bickering.

As I said earlier to Abu 3rayb, I don't have any clear definition to offer you. To be honest with you I think you're being a bit harsh with me as I'm just doing a brainstorm to get ideas and understand peoples views on the matter.

Let's say I was coming up with a definition for a form of Islamic government, then wouldn't you say it's a good idea if I were to incorporate peoples concerns and reconcile them with any future conception? Rather than swim against the tide, I see someone channelling it and making use of it.

We might just have different labels for the same thing, but we won't know unless we engage in this way with people who advocate non-secular solutions and see what they have to say rather than dismiss them.

A:) said...

Well, I agree, I should have backed my argument with an example, so here is the one which I had in mind when I first responded to your post. This occurred a short time after Hijra, when the prophet established a 'confederation' in Medina with a constitution.
"One of the constitutions more interesting aspects was the inclusion of the Jewish tribes in the Ummah, the Jewish tribes were 'one community with the believers,' but they 'have their religion and the Muslims have theirs.' "
"To this effect it instituted a number of rights and responsibilities for the Muslim, Jewish, and pagan communities of Medina bringing them within the fold of one community-the Ummah."

You also mentioned a point about my first statement
"Secular VS non-Secular has never been about discriminating against minorities. The truth of the matter is that secular governments are a lot more inclined oppress a subset of its society."
Well, this is more of a disclaimer. Although I am completely in favour of secular societies, I completely disagree with the obvious argument the many people put forward, which is that secular societies will bring "Freedom" (whatever the hell that means), and gets rid of oppression.

Just thought I clarify my original post.

Now addressing your second point about having the Judicial body interpret the Sharia. Well that would be a novelty, and I agree, in theoretical sense this might just work. However, back to reality, with law, you always get inconsistencies with the interpretation, which could lead to adverse consequences. In these circumstances the government legislative branch will react by modifying or amending the law, to make it clearer. (even sometimes changing its content completely.) The obvious problem with Sharia, is that you cannot do that. As societies change, the law adapts to these changes (sometimes badly), where different laws are revoked as others are introduced, making it all mature over an extended period of time. I don’t see how you can introduce that kind of flexibility with Sharia, unless I am missing something.

Wassim said...

I guess that the inconsistencies of interpretation are precisely why we have legal experts and legislators who study this stuff, so it's not something which is problematic only for Sharia.

I think the biggest problem is when you get someone who wants to start whipping people, cutting off hands and forcing the hejab on everyone. I think experience in Saudi Arabia and Iran shows how NOT to approach this problem so something a little bit more flexible is a must. I don't think it's insurmountable if we strip Sharia of it's old stuffy image and make it relevant for people wishing to take part in government to be creative with it and appreciative of it's importance.

Something occurred to me though, and this might be crucial. People who say they are Muslim mean it as do those of other religions, it means they see the universe and life as Muslims and accomdation with other faiths is out of practicality and not out of a genuine belief in a universality of truth. If people keep trying to push that angle, inevitably they'll find that conflict would arise, so I think we need to bear that in mind when you talk about applying al shar3 (which is really the accumulated legal system, codes and practices of the Arab and Islamic worlds, rather than some diabolical religious tyranny) I think it just needs to be picked up and moved on from where it stopped, some time around the arrival of the first "mandate" troops.

A:) said...

Wassim, didn't get what you mean there on your second paragraph. Could you expand on that please.

Wassim said...

Hi a:)
Actually I won't! I just read an article on the guardian which talks about exactly what I was trying to say and I'm posting it here because it's very topical:,,2254075,00.html

Basically the Archbishop is saying that whilst more extreme interpretations won't be realised, a lot of the laws already exist in some form and aren't really alien.