Conventional wisdom has it that religious liberty is a universally valid principle, enshrined in national constitutions and international charters and treaties, whose proper implementation continues to be thwarted by intransigent forces in society such as illiberal governments, religious fundamentalists, and traditional norms. Insomuch as the Middle East, and the Muslim world in general, are supposed to be afflicted with the ills of fundamentalism and illiberal governments, then the salvific promise of religious liberty looms large. In this brief post I would like to question this way of thinking through a consideration of the career of religious liberty in the modern Middle East.
Posts Tagged ‘post-colonialism’
In the newest issue of Theory, Culture & Society, British sociologist Gregor McLennan takes a closer look at the “postsecular turn” in contemporary social theory. He argues that this “turn”—if indeed it amounts to one—finds expression in three broad trends: genealogical critique, neo-vitalism, and postcolonial antihistoricism. He mainly discusses these trends with regard to the work of three scholars, each representing one of the trends: Talal Asad, William Connolly, and Dipesh Chakrabarty (though Rosi Braidotti and Judith Butler are also mentioned, as representatives of neo-vitalism and antihistoricism, respectively). While these theoretical developments go some way in critiquing the problematic linkages between secular epistemology and political arrangements, McLennan argues that they are each riddled with inconsistencies. Rather than staking out an antisecular position, these perspectives remain within secularism, contributing to the “secularization of secularism.”
Abdullahi An-Na‘im’s Islam and the Secular State has rightfully received a great deal of attention and commentary. A prominent Muslim scholar and human rights activist, he brings to bear an impressive scholarship and candor in addressing a pivotal and hotly contested issue in contemporary Islam. Although An-Na‘im wishes to present his views from within the Islamic tradition, he also states early on that his arguments are not exegetical in nature and therefore do not aim to interpret traditional Islamic sources such as Qur’an, hadith, tafsir, or legal theory (usul al-fiqh). Rather, An-Na‘im desires to provide an “interpretative framework” upon which more substantive arguments and analysis can be built in the future. This reliance on theory rather than on textual sources or theology is flawed if one expects to foster broad-based reform rather than be read and celebrated by a small elite Muslim and non-Muslim readership. [...]
Islam and The Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari`a is avowedly didactic, aiming to persuade Muslims in public debate that constitutional rule of law, human rights and democratic citizenship in a secular state represent the only form of political regime consistent with Islam in the modern world. Despite lengthy and repetitious exposition of the notions of democratic constitutionalism, “civic reason,” citizenship and human rights, An-Na`im fails in his explicit purpose of justifying and legitimizing them in Islamic terms, which appear somewhat incidentally and do not carry the primary charge of justification. In this regard, his preaching can only have an effect on those already converted.
What is interesting about An-Na`im’s arguments is that they ground the case for 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. To be sure, good reasons for the secular state lie therein. But are these arguments sufficient to ground an Islamic case for constitutionalism, human rights, and the secular state? I doubt it.
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. … 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. [...]
Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im’s expressed goal in Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari’a is to convince Muslims on religious grounds that, in order for Islam to flourish, they need to establish secular states based on the protection of human rights. I would say in response that convincing Muslims of this would inflect Islamic politics progressively in a world where most of the forces that shape Islamic politics are not indigenously Islamic. [...]
It is hard to disagree with the main arguments of Abdullahi an-Na’im’s impeccable book: a healthy religious life requires a secular state, even as political life may remain infused with the religious values of the population. And the historical examples provide added credence to the point. An Islamic state as such never existed historically, even though pre-modern states cannot be regarded as secular in the contemporary sense of the word. But there has never been a state in Islamic history that fused entirely religious and political authority after Muhammad, and it is far from obvious that Muhammad’s own Medina community constituted a state or was meant as a model for any state. [...]
Few books in Islamic studies have been as eagerly awaited or intensely debated prior to publication as Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na`im’s Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari`a. Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory University, An-Na`im has for more than twenty years been a tireless proponent of a deeply religious but liberal-modernist reformation of Islamic politics and ethics. [...]