Islam and the Secular State:

Does tolerance require struggle?

posted by Jenny White

Islam and the Secular StateAbdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im’s erudite and thought-provoking book Islam and The Secular State provides a clear-sighted argument made from within the Islamic tradition for a state formation that allows Islamic beliefs and culture to enter the public domain through politics (as one of many rationally contested visions) and thereby influence the laws of the land. The keys to An-Na’im’s vision are Islamic morality and civic reason, both of which, in his interpretation, ensure a shared respect for constitutionalism, citizenship and human rights, and a neutral, secular state that provides an even playing field for public debate and makes sure that non-democratic instincts are kept in check. An-Na’im’s utopian vision stumbles here, however, in failing to provide any mechanisms for achieving its desired outcomes beyond good will, morality, and reason.

An-Na’im argues that, theologically speaking, shari’a cannot be legislated since believers cannot delegate their religious responsibility to the state. So the state is by definition secular, always, even in Muslim societies. However, An-Na’im believes that Islamic culture and beliefs should be allowed to affect lawmaking through the political realm (by means of contestation and consensus). This, he states, simply acknowledges the fact that a nation-state is by its nature a normative system and cannot be culturally neutral. Any cultural influence, however, must be the result of free and fair contestation of competing identities (thus the need for a neutral secular state to provide the arena for such competition). Dissent must be allowed, he maintains, as well as the freedom to oppose the state. The ideal situation would be a democratic government that “depends not only on the rule of the majority view, but also on the fact that the will of the majority is subject to the rights of the minority, however small.” Part of the difficulty lies simply in the scale of An-Na’im’s vision, in which motivations of greed and power as expressed through such undemocratic means as community pressure or the indoctrination of a docile citizenry appear as petty local caveats to the grand design. I would argue that those in power generally would be unwilling to share that power and political space on the basis of moral or civic reasoning, without struggle and opposition. I would also suggest that Islamic morality, as much as civic reason, is culturally situated and cannot be relied upon in all environments to support tolerance and democratic ideals.

In An-Na’im’s vision, the state explains the reasoning behind its fiats and then presents them for public debate. My question is: what would motivate a state to do so? It is much safer for elites in control of the state to shape a docile citizenry through educational indoctrination, punishment of critical thinking and speech, the politics of fear, manipulation of the media, and so on. An-Na’im himself admits that “open and systematic nonconformity gravely threatens those in authority over society” and they try to suppress it in order to protect their interests. Indeed, in his discussion of twentieth-century Turkey, which he presents as an example of the power of Islamic morality to shape the political sphere in a democratic direction within a secular state, An-Na’im points out that Turkey’s state elites use secularism as the club with which to knock religion out of the political ballpark, giving secularism a bad name. Neither civic reason nor good will and morality, I would argue, will determine the outcome of this power struggle between the secular state and the AKP. People generally are not willing to share power, whether they are state-embedded elites who control the citizenry or patriarchs who control women. Except (perhaps) for intellectuals, reason is a weak motivator. Power over others is a force moved only through struggle.

Secularism, the author believes, is too weak a brew to appeal to the population, especially a pious one. Religion, on the other hand, provides a source of moral guidance and justification that satisfies people’s nonpolitical needs. For this reason, the author posits the need for an Islamic justification of constitutionalism, human rights and citizenship, rather than one based on secular reason. I would disagree with that premise. I believe that citizenship and human rights discourses on their own have enough moral caliber and emotional appeal to guarantee their legitimacy as frames for people’s civic lives. Reason may be a weak brew (except for intellectuals, who thrive on it), but the strength of a non-religious identity does not derive from reason. Like any well-rooted identity, it relies on indoctrination and education and a depth of emotive symbolism that adorns its principles and enshrines them in people’s hearts. American citizens are not willing to die for their country because they intellectually agree with the principles of the nation-state (or out of religious motivation), but because they have been taught to identify deeply with the community and ideals their “country” (nation-state) represents. Citizenship and a belief in rights are emotional states, not just acts of civic reason.

However, national feeling, like religion, does not guarantee respect for human rights. That depends on whether nation and religion are tapped as sources for a morality that is in sync with notions of human rights, or for a morality that is intolerant. I differ from An-Na’im in seeing religious (Islamic) morality as necessarily providing support for human rights. Indeed, introducing religion into the political arena does not necessarily make a society more tolerant, but rather may have the opposite effect. It is the rare majority that of its own accord will bow to the needs of a minority. Religion, like national feeling, has the paradoxical effect of uniting people, but at the same time providing the ammunition for ranking some as more or less worthy.

How then is a citizenship based on principles of equality and fairness to be brought about? An’Naim would argue for a combination of civic reason and Islamic morality within a secular state. The example of Turkey is illustrative here. An-Na’im points to the fact that it was the ruling AKP, a party with Islamist roots, that in recent years has pushed for reforms that strengthened civic rights, broadened the notion of citizenship, and supported freedom of speech and open contestation of identities, in line with the AKP’s government’s attempt to join the European Union. The secularist state elites, on the other hand, have thrown over democratic thinking seemingly altogether in their attempt to remove what they see as the cancer of religion from the political and civic realm. Both Turkey’s military and judiciary have actively worked to overthrow the regime. I would add to this, though, that the AKP also shares a strain of intolerance. After a particularly big electoral triumph in 2007, it began to falter in the reform process and to put its weight behind freedoms welcomed by the pious majority, while neglecting the freedoms of non-pious groups. For instance, severe strictures were put on alcohol and pork consumption under the guise of civic rationality (public health and public order concerns).

In other words, I would suggest that even in the case of Turkey’s AKP government, arguably the most positive manifestation of democracy inspired by Islamic morality (despite the opposition of a non-neutral secular state), one finds intolerance of non-pious lifestyles—disrespect for the habits and beliefs of secular Muslims, non-conforming Muslims (e.g. Alevi), and non-Muslims—as well as an instinctive unwillingness to fight for the rights of other groups with which one has little in common. An-Na’im acknowledges some of these problems, pointing out that family and community pressure, as well as state pressure, are serious obstacles to tolerance and to sharing public space with different norms and voices, but he places his hope in the effectiveness of the Islamic Golden Rule to overcome such intransigence. An-Na’im defines the Golden Rule as the reciprocity of affirming equality for others in order to be entitled to the same. I suggest that the Golden Rule is difficult to instantiate at the local level and seems to break down in practice altogether in the larger political arena. Good will and an Islamic moral compass don’t seem to scale up to the national level without an additional hard incentive (like power, wealth, or fear) to force the sharing of public space.

Likewise, An-Na’im’s reliance on civic reason presupposes a citizenry versed in reason, while in Turkey as in much of the Muslim world, people are taught to obey, not question authority. If the basis for An-Na’im’s model is critical thinking, then one must begin with education, not theological argument. These days, Islamic jurisprudence has been hijacked by people unversed in its rules who use the Quran and Sunna in an a la carte way. Theology is (always?) hostage to the carrier of power. That is, one must change power relations (and break the bonds of indoctrination) first in order to release discussion of Islam into An’Na’im’s ideal neutral space, and to allow the participation of more than just intellectuals and the enforcers of culture in that debate.

This is not at all to say that An-Na’im’s contribution is not important and path-breaking. It supports similarly intentioned interventions elsewhere, for instance, the Turkish Religious Affairs Ministry’s (Diyanet) rethinking of the hadith to bring them into line with human rights and modern life. What I cannot find is the mechanism to get from where we are today to the tantalizing model An-Na’im lays out.

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