Secularism and Islam


To many people today Islam, of all the world faiths, is probably the least likely to declare itself compatible with secularism. 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, secularism 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 and mathematic. But while the Enlightenment and the exciting search for emancipation of the human spirit engendered important developments in Europe, intellectual stagnation settled in too much of 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 now seems to be gathering momentum.

With the purpose of furthering a conversation among Muslim communities, the basic argument of the above book is for a more nuanced approach to the secular; to move beyond polarised debates on the subject. It is important to distinguish between different forms of secularism: procedural and programmatic, i.e. structural pluralism, neutrality of the state and management of the public sphere ā€“vā€“ more ideological, anti-religious sentiment. The book argues that Muslims could embrace the former, while they may debate and dialogue with the latter.

As such, the British model of secularism (a pragmatic, weak form of establishment) is a good starting point for a democratic society, with a secular public culture that also has a space for faith. While there may be room for improvement of the ‘British model’, the American and French models (which are more secular in constitutional terms) show (differently) that the debate around religion in public life is not easy to resolve by mere constitutional separation.

Despite the fact that some Muslims advocate a return to the ‘Caliphate’, the current tide of public opinion in the Arab world, for example, shows that Muslim masses aspire to freedom and democracy in ways that were not recognised previously. (An argument against disregarding such values as ‘western’. Surely, these are now universal aspirations?) In the early 20th Century pre-occupation with the Caliphate, it 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 usually been a 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. 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 ā€“ 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 citizens, all citizens.

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 above, not necessarily the notion of separation).

While advocating secularism, I am not for the disappearance of religion. 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 (sensible and rationally argued) religious voices can be given consideration and not automatically disregarded as ‘superstitious’.

The nuanced conversation and reform we are trying 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, pluralistic and free 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.

Download this article