While addressing the future of the situation in the Middle East, United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the US Yousef Al Otaiba used the term “secular” when talking about the regimes of some of the region’s countries. His statement stirred controversy and what he meant was distorted by ideological and extremist figures. The word “secular” is a translation of the word “laïcité” which real significance according to the theological dictionary means people and institutions that do not belong to the religious institution. It’s thus translated as “worldly” or “civil.” It’s strange for this statement to stir controversy when the matter is about a Muslim country where there are no priestly institutions and no significance for the theocratic religious rule. All Sunni scholars have agreed that the imamate affair is a worldly and administrative matter that has nothing to do with the religious doctrine and the religion’s pillars. What Otaiba meant is that the region’s countries are adopting a modernizing civil approach versus religious extremism and ideologies. He never said these countries have secular regimes that eliminate or fight religion. Therefore, using the term “secularism” distorts what he meant although he did not use the word within its social or legal context.
We must differentiate between two concepts of secularism that often intertwine in Arabic writings: Secularism in its sociological concept which means decreasing the status of religion in society in terms of belief, faith and the individual and collective religious paths and secularism in its legal concept which is the “laïcité” system that eliminates religion from public affairs and fortifies the state’s neutrality towards all religions to protect freedom of conscience.
We must differentiate between two concepts of secularism that often intertwine in Arabic writingsSeyid Ould Abah