Islam and the Secular State:

“Call it X”

posted by Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na`im

Islam and the Secular StateI am grateful for the kind and thoughtful comments posted at The Immanent Frame about Islam and the Secular State. It is fascinating and instructive to see a text grow to have a life of its own, with some readers adding clarification and more effective communication of what one is attempting to say. Even misunderstanding is helpful in alerting an author to the risks of miscommunication, instead of assuming that people do understand what we say as we mean it. Indeed, it is the combination of the author’s purpose and the reader’s comprehension that determines what is actually communicated. It is that complex outcome unfolding over time, and not an author’s unilateral theorizing, that can make “a good theory,” for according to Kurt Lewin’s helpful insight, “there is nothing so practical as a good theory.” In this light, I offer the following reflections in the spirit of contributing to a process of collaborative theory-making, and not by way of response or rejoinder. Failure to refer to some comments or aspects thereof simply means that I don’t have something useful to add at this time, and should not be understood as a lack of appreciation of those postings.

Robert Hefner and John Bowen are correct in emphasizing that I am advocating a religiously neutral state in order to facilitate a vigorous engagement of Islam in the public life of Muslims and their communities, and not for the purpose of rendering Sharia into a system of purely personal ethics. Since I claim to make an Islamic argument for the theory I am advocating, that theory must be consistent with what Sharia prescribes on the subject. Hefner is also right that I approach this subject from the perspective of what I call an “interpretative framework,” simply because every representation of what Sharia says on any issue is necessarily determined by the situational contingency of someone’s interpretation of Islamic sources. This is as true about an interpretation that I am personally inclined to accept as it is of those interpretations I oppose or reject.

Since this is my position, I am unable to assert in good faith the sort of “substantive grounding” Daniel Philpott is calling for. He finds that my arguments “ground the secular state not in the Quran, not in claims about the presence of the imago Dei in the person or in some other source of the person’s intrinsic dignity, not in natural law, some closely similar type of practical reason, or universal moral precepts, but rather in what might be called ‘second order’ observations about the phenomenology of belief, the character of government, the lessons of history, and the like.” Philpott encourages me to follow the example of Michael Perry who argues that “human rights are ‘ineliminably religious,’ meaning that only the sort of transcendent foundation that religions provide can support the universal claims that a defense of human rights requires.”

The reason I don’t make that sort of argument is that it requires or presupposes a shared “interpretative framework” that cannot be assumed even among Muslims regarding the Qur’an, let alone more broadly among all the people I need to persuade to share my commitment to a secular state. Consider the counter view of Jenny White, who disagrees with my call for an Islamic justification of constitutionalism, human rights and citizenship and asserts 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.”

Instead of such mutually exclusive claims and counter-claims of competing “substantive grounds,” I am calling for multiple foundations on the basis of an overlapping consensus that must be constructed and cultivated over time through internal dialogue within cultures and cross-cultural dialogue among them. I would rather have more inclusive consensus on the secular state, constitutionalism, human rights and citizenship, on whatever foundations people choose to hold, than share a commitment only with those who accept my interpretative framework, to the exclusion of all others. The relevant question I am concerned with in Islam and the Secular State is how to create and sustain the most conducive environment for that overlapping consensus to evolve and be sustained among people of different cultural, religious and ideological orientations.

The sort of substantive grounding Philpott is calling for can and should be attempted, but only on the basis of a prior argument for a shared “interpretative framework.” I have tried to do that in Toward an Islamic Reformation, and remain committed to that endeavor on its own terms. But regarding the different project of a secular state and its institutions, I need to make a more inclusive argument that does not presuppose a prior commitment to a particular interpretative framework. At this level, the case for a secular state resonates with the notion of civic reason. It is true that the legitimacy of the secular state can also benefit from “substantive grounding” among co-adherents of the necessary interpretative framework, but I need the secular state and its safeguards to be established in order to have the freedom and facility to make that “internal” sort of argument.

In his comment on Philpott’s summary of my arguments for a secular state, Christopher Eberle wonders: “how central is An-Na`im’s commitment to public reason (or secularism if he cashes secularism out in terms of public reason)? …. It seems that it might be an unnecessary add-on: he provides four reasons to affirm liberalism (understood as a political system that effectively protects certain basic human rights), but he doesn’t need to associate liberalism with either secularism or public reason.”

I don’t mean to offend theorists in this field, but I wish I could communicate what I mean without ever using terms like secularism and liberalism because they tend to distract rather than facilitate understanding. As I briefly explained in Islam and the Secular State, I hesitated in using the term secularism because of its negative associations among Muslims in particular. Robert Crane holds that my “major failing is my use of the term ‘secular’ in the sense of neutrality toward ‘religion.’ In American parlance … secularism means hostility toward all religion.” I disagree and expect many of the readers of this blog to disagree with Crane’s view, but my point here is the distraction caused by arguing about the meaning of this term, regardless of what I or others think it means.

Since the use of this term is usually the only point of contention whenever I present my proposal to Muslims, I often suggest: “let us call it X, and focus on what I mean.” The same is true about liberalism, though it is not as notorious among Muslims as secularism. What I mean is that a secular state is necessary for safeguarding my ability to be a Muslim on my own terms, protecting my human rights, and exercising my citizenship, rather than advocating secularism as such as a theoretical ideal or philosophical project. I do not subscribe to secularism as a personal philosophy or socio-political order, but fully respect and will do my best to protect the right of others to hold and live by such views because that is the moral justification and political basis of my own demand regarding my choice to be religious.

Similarly, I see civic reason (not public reason) as the means for mediating the paradox of the separation of Islam and the state, on the one hand, and the connectedness of Islam and politics, on the other. I don’t have an independent commitment to civic reason other than as a necessary means to that end, and would not mind using another term to make the point. I mention “public reason” and refer to Rawls and Habermas only to distinguish what I mean from their views on the subject, and not to endorse their arguments or align myself with such proposals in western political philosophy. I am therefore concerned that Philpott apparently drew the opposite conclusion from what I said.

On the political side, I agree with Hefner’s reading of my position with respect to the paradoxes of current Muslim politics he identifies, and wish to add the following point. In my view, assertions of “neo-conservative accommodation of ulama and state” by some Muslims are incoherent in the modern context of the drastic demographic and sociological transformations of the post-colonial Muslim world. Traditional patterns of interpersonal relations that formed the basis of the religious authority of the ulama in the past are simply untenable in the increasingly urbanized social environment in which Muslims live today. This is perhaps part of what Jon Anderson means by citing Dale Eickelman on the consequences of mass education, and the application of alternative intellectual techniques for interpreting Islam.

These realities weaken the legitimate basis of the idealized relationship between the ulama and their followers, though some may succeed in conjuring that illusion through elaborate “public relations” schemes. Recent drastic demographic and sociological transformations also diminish the accountability of the ulama to their followers. At the same time, these realities render those who may qualify as ulama in the traditional sense more vulnerable to intimidating coercion and corrupting inducement by the massive powers and resources of the modern state. The mutual accommodation of ulama and state is an unholy alliance that is counterproductive to its alleged benefits.

The second paradox of Muslim politics identified by Hefner relates to calls for the “positive role of the state in promoting Islamic learning and piety” through such activities as religious education in public schools, calls to prayer on radio and television and state-coordinated alms collection. Bowen also raises the challenge that Sharia “constitute a set of norms and values that appropriately shape the nature of social institutions, from banks to pious trusts to the operation of mosques and religious judges” and many Muslims consider it proper for the state to provide and supervise some of these institutions.

Bowen also wonders whether reformulations of Sharia around ideas of its objectives (maqasid)—presumably as opposed to the literal letter of classical jurisprudence (fiqh)—might produce social outcomes that are similar to what I am seeking through the secular state model. Mohammed Bamyeh notes that Sharia was meant more as a guide to everyday pious life rather than as a set of rules to be deposited unto a uniform state law, and calls for maintaining the old flexibility of Sharia by highlighting its intentions (objectives- maqasid) rather than its formal rules.

It seems to me that such paradoxes and challenges of Muslim politics are matters of mediation and contestation within the realm of what I call “negotiating the future of Shari’a.” As I mentioned above, the model presented in Islam and the Secular State is simply a framework for mediating the paradox of the separation of Islam and the state, on the one hand, and the connectedness of Islam and politics, on the other. The best this model can do is to secure the space for and facilitate theological debates and political contestations that must continue indefinitely. As can be observed in any country, whether we characterize its state as secular—or “call it X”—or not, the relationship between religion and the state is a constant negotiation. The same is true about countries where Muslims constitute the majority of the population, regardless of claims of ruling elites that their state is Islamic. The state cannot be religious, though some are more “secular” than others in the sense I mean. The question for me is how to improve the terms and conditions under which such negotiations can continue and evolve. This is the realm of the struggle that Jenny White is calling for.

I find support for this model of constant negotiation in Mohammed Bamyeh’s view that no religion can survive if approached strictly or primarily as a set of “laws” that are external to the human interpreter, and that it is the believers who make sense of their religion. While Muslims know this, he reasons, they tend to tie the need for Sharia-based life to its application to state policies because of the failure of the post-colonial secular state to demonstrate effective sovereignty, deliver public goods, and so forth. In his view, the problem has less to do with arguments about how we should understand Islam, and more with the nature of social and political developments befuddling Muslim societies. The question to Bamyeh is not which Islam is “pure,” because, sociologically speaking, Islam is what Muslims make of it, how they assert the status of Islam as a living and rich repertoire of ideas, which can include the secular state if it proves its virtues.

Bamyeh’s view of Islam as a living, interactive human enterprise is helpful for me in accepting the point made by Joel Migdal about “the effect of colonialism on Islam itself.” The point is well-taken in terms of the effect of colonialism on Muslims’ understanding and practice of Islam and its relationship to social and political institutions, or its legal implications. But I am unable to see how this point can be true of “Islam itself” simply because it is not coherent to speak of Islam as an “entity” that can change as such. In terms of my analysis, the three dissertations Migdal highlights are about the deeply historical and contextual nature of the secular state and its relationship to religion, which is as true of European and North American states as it is true of post-colonial countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Consequently, it seems to me, the question is always about particular conceptions and experiences with religion and the secular state. If what Migdal calls the “politics of deliverance” is experienced by China and Russia, who are also “geared toward redemption, toward gaining their rightful place in the world,” it is not peculiar to Muslims in post-colonial states. This is not to say that Islam is irrelevant to whether or not “Muslims are ready for” what I am proposing, but only to emphasize that the question has to be framed for each people and their state, on their own terms, and not indiscriminately for all Muslims. This framing should be different for Senegalese in contrast to Egyptian society, as each is “Islamic” on its own terms, and to each state, which is secular in its own deeply historical and contextual way.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Printer-Friendly Version


One Response to ““Call it X””

  1. avatar Shahbaz Cheema says:

    CIVIC REASON AND COERCION

    These comments may be based on my misunderstanding of the An-Naim’s book, but as per the author`s own assertion that misunderstandings might also provide opportunity for further clarification.

    An-Naim has basically emphasised on the voluntary nature of religion and this is his main contention—to reject the idea of Islamic state propounded by Islamists. Without going into the debate regarding the coerciveness of the Islamic state, which is almost comprehensible to everybody, I would like to point out some coercive elements ingrained in An-Naim’s idea of civic reason. These points are two, as per my appreciation, and they are as under:

    Firstly, the notion of civic reason is based on dividing the practice of reason into two categories; one is civic and other is not civic. When we divide reason into these categories we by necessary implication require to draw a line between these categories. This line is itself a product of some sort of coercion, because whenever we draw this line between reason, we are excluding certain category of people from debate or at least forcing them to conform to so-called civic reason.

    Secondly, all issues are required to be based on civic reason before they attain any sort of sanction and enforcement from the secular state. As a matter of fact, it is almost impossible to evolve civic reason on the basis of consensus. There might be a number of those people whose civic reason has not been regarded as worthy of state sanction. If the state takes action on that civic reason which has the support of a majority, then it means that it would at least be coercive against those who hold civic reason but due to the fact that it has been supported by minority, hence excluded even though temporarily. This minority has to follow the majority’s civic reason despite the fact that they do not agree with it. This is second layer of coercion inherent in the idea of civic reason.

    Although I do not intend to give any judgment regarding the difference of coercive elements in Islamic or secular state, at least what is apparent is that evolving any idea of the state without coercive mechanisms is difficult. There might be different levels of coercion but coercion can not be excluded from any theory of statehood.

Leave a Reply

Please note: All comments will be approved by an administrator before they appear on this page.