Islam and the Secular State:

Disentangling Islam and the post-colonial state

posted by Joel S. Migdal

The separation—and combination—of religion and state have created almost as many configurations as there are states in the world today. All sorts of institutional and normative orders have emerged out of the struggle and cooperation of state and religious forces. Even in the United States, with its purported strict separation of state and religion and its constitutional prohibition against the state’s establishment of any single religion, all sorts of complicated relationships have existed, from the status of Christmas as an official state holiday to the religious invocations delivered in Congress. More than half the official holidays in France, perhaps the most avowedly secular of all states, are religious (that is, Christian) in origin, including ones as unsecular sounding as the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. All this is to say that any simple categorization of states as simply secular or religious will probably miss what is most interesting in how citizens experience daily life and how the religious and political realms are intertwined.

What I enjoyed most about Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na`im’s provocative book, Islam and the Secular State, was its attempt to imagine a complex configuration that would benefit both the secular state and Islam. It is not only, as An-Na`im puts it at the outset, that “Muslims need a secular state.” Equally, the state gains from the tie between the two, in his formulation, as the debates leading to its policies and legislation come to be informed by its citizens’ Islamic beliefs and sentiments.

Can his ideal be realized in practice, or can we at least imagine a future that moves in the direction of An-Na`im’s plan? Of course, there is no easy answer to the question of whether his words will simply be lost in the wind of academic discourse or could actually have some practical effect, but it is well worth thinking about the practicality of his argument. Here, I want to explore several difficulties that An-Na`im’s blueprint will confront as it tries to disentangle and displace existing configurations of state and Islam. My thoughts draw from three outstanding dissertations written in the University of Washington’s Political Science Department in the last few years. Indeed, two of them won the American Political Science Association’s prestigious Aaron Wildavsky Award for the best dissertation on religion and politics: Ahmet Kuru’s “Dynamics of Secularism: State-Religion Relations in the United States, France, and Turkey,” in 2007,” and Yuksel Sezgin’s “The State’s Response to Legal Pluralism: The Case of Religious Law and Courts in Israel, Egypt and India,” in 2008. The third dissertation is Iza Hussin’s, “The Making of Islamic Law: Local Elites and Colonial Authority in Malaya, India and Egypt,” which I plan to nominate for the 2009 award.

Both Hussin and Sezgin pay close attention to the effects of the colonial period (both deal exclusively with British rule) in the shaping of the relations between Islam and contemporary states. The impact of colonialism is a topic with which An-Na`im deals, as well. He begins, for example, “with the reality that European colonialism and its aftermath have drastically transformed the basis and nature of political and social organization within and among territorial states where all Muslims live today.” And he acknowledges the adaptation of Islam as it encountered the powerful forces of the West.

But I wonder if he did not pass off the impact of the confrontation with colonialism too lightly, particularly in terms of the effect of colonialism on Islam itself. Hussin demonstrates how the drastic transformation initiated by colonial rule encompassed not just the states where Muslims have lived, as An-Na`im stresses, but Islam itself. The Shari`a moved, she notes, from an instance-based, judge-centered and uncodified legal system, which set out to legislate all areas of Muslim life, to become a codified, state-centered, family and personal law—a wholly different enterprise. This point is elaborated in Mohammed Bamyeh’s blog entry, as well. Islam, in short, was turned upside-down by its encounter with British colonial rulers.

The new Islam was not simply a British dictate, though. Hussin demonstrates how in Malaya, for example, the transformation came through a complicated set of negotiations between powerful local sultans and the colonialists. Key Islamic figures, then, had a strong stake in the new configuration, which cemented their power and made them staunch supporters of the new Islam. An-Na`im’s account, perhaps, pays too little attention to the changes in Islam (as opposed to the “political and social organization”) in the colonial period and to the stakeholders who now maintained the ramparts of that new configuration.

Beyond the refashioning of Shari`a itself, institutionally this system of family and personal law came to be embedded within the very structure of the state, as Sezgin describes. Each country built its own unique arrangement for the administration of religious law, involving state civil courts and/or a polyglot of state religious courts, serving the various religious communities. But, in most cases, the complex institutional arrangements involving state salaries for religious judges (or civil judges administering religious law, as in India), bureaucratic lines of command, and more all served to make the disentanglement of state and religion institutionally, as An-Na`im proposes, a formidable, if not impossible, challenge. Even in India, where there was a strong state commitment to the creation of a secular civil code, such a code was never adopted, the efforts foundering largely on issues involving the Muslim community, Sezgin shows.

Like An-Na`im, Kuru values, above all else, the kind of secular state that provides a safe public arena in which religion can be practiced. A French-style secularism, aiming to drive religion out of the public sphere and into the home and mosque (or church), is spurned by both of them. They favor, instead, a U.S.-style secularism, which lacks some of the deep French antagonism to religion, at least as a set of public practices, rules, and institutions.

What Kuru demonstrates, though, is the importance of each country’s historical trajectory in fashioning its brand of secularism and the state’s relationship to religion. His analysis shows how recurring struggles historically created victories, compromises, and failures that hardened the emerging configuration, making change a very difficult enterprise, indeed. Kuru does not despair about the possibility of change; indeed, his central normative concern is how to move Turkey away from French secularism and toward American secularism. But his analysis points to the need to imagine, not only the final ideal, but also how to get from here to there.

Finally, one can ask how ready Muslims are for An-Na`im’s “future of Shari`a.” His discussion rings with a particular understanding of politics and the state: what we might call normal or distributive politics. The famous questions here involve who gets what, when, and how; An-Na`im homes in on “legislation and policies,” the state’s means of answering these questions. What is not acknowledged in Islam and the Secular State is another dimension entirely, what I call the politics of redemption. Here, politics entails the sorts of questions raised years ago by Michael Walzer in his classic book, The Revolution of the Saints. These are not distributive questions at all; they do not fit into liberal processes. Instead, here the questions are driven by a communal journey, which is born out of group frustration. It is a politics of deliverance. For many Muslims in post-colonial states, the collective sense of having been brought low by the West impels just such a politics, geared toward redemption, toward gaining their rightful place in the world. Whether this sort of politics is compatible with An-Na`im’s vision is very doubtful, indeed.

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One Response to “Disentangling Islam and the post-colonial state”

  1. In his insightful review of Abdullahi An-Naim’s important book, Joel Migdal asks “How ready Muslims are for…normal or distributive politics?” Migdal rightly stresses the psychological aspect of the Muslim condition, which has led many to the politics of redemption, or one may call, ressentiment. At this point, Migdal asks An-Naim to go beyond rational examination of Muslims’ relations with Islamic law and bring more of their particular (post)colonial experiences in the analysis. I would also ask “how ready is secularism for making Muslims part of ‘normal’ politics’?” Particular versions of secularism that Muslims experienced in France and Turkey make it hard to give a positive answer. Therefore, we need to talk not only about Islam but also about secularism in multiple terms. There is no Islam and secularism, but there are Islams and secularisms.

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