The concept of secularism has been linked to the Christian tradition itself, not only on the fundamental ideological plane but even at the academic and intellectual levels.
The benefits of secularism
Analyzing secularism has thus not taken into account the development of the concept as seen in several countries in the east and the west. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s,” has often been cited. If it had not been for secularism, massacres and bloodshed would have been rampant across the world.
Many intellectuals, including Mohammed Abed al-Jabri, a prominent critic and thinker, made the mistake of equating “secularism” with ‘religion’. This was evident in Jabri’s book ‘The religion, state and application of Shariah.’ Georges Tarabichi criticized Jabri in his book ‘Heresies.’ His criticism is in fact justified as Jabri had proposed “democracy” as an alternative to “secularism.”
Secularism is not an ideology but is a collective understanding. It does not create a new reality but tempers differences and helps make piety more disciplinedFahad Suleiman Shoqiran
Jabri said: “I think it’s a must to exclude the slogan ‘secularism’ from the dictionary of Arab national thought and it must be replaced with the slogans of ‘democracy’ and ‘rationality’ as they express the needs of the Arab society. ‘Secularism’ in the Arab world is fake, meaning it expresses needs via content that does not really match these needs.”
Jabri also made a strange statement on “political rationality” and said: “Democracy means protecting rights; the rights of individuals and groups. Rationality means basing political practice on logic and its rational and moral standards and not on intolerance or mood swings.”
Jabri’s ‘political rationality’
What Jabri said about the task of “political rationality” is actually the same as the task of “secularism.” However, he is elusive about secularism for two reasons. First of all, he wants to convince societies of “political rationality,” which has the same job as secularism, to reassure Muslims that secularism is unnecessary because he simply thinks that those who spread it in Arab societies are “Christians of the Levant”.
Thus Muslims do not need a concept that is promoted by Christian intellectuals. As for the second reason, Jabri summed it up as such: “The phrase ‘separation of religion and state’ is not at all acceptable in Muslim societies because in Islam there is no point of establishing contradictions between the state and religion.”
Thus, Jabri radically rejects the concept of secularism and adopts a shallow understanding of it. He fears “the separation of religion and state” because he thinks it harms the political Islamist concept and the tools that “implement sharia.”
However, Jabri’s approach to repeal the concept of secularism is actually insufficient as the concept’s uses have developed and it gradually broke free from the religious Christian legacy and it is no longer a shallow “separation” between the religion and the state.
Secularism not opposed to religion
Secularism has developed, thanks to political philosophical theories that go beyond the classics on social contract. It has evolved since the days of Rousseau and Kant, thanks to the huge leap which John Rawls made through his research on ‘justice as fairness’, which was groundbreaking in terms of the concept of the social contract and in terms of developing ideas pertaining to the tasks of the state.
His theory of ‘justice as fairness’ is one of the most convincing realistic theories that try to find political balance (the moral dimension is not substantial) to control inequality and define the concept of fairness between the individual, the state and others. Jabri however analyzed secularism on the basis of how people understand it and then he criticized what people comprehend about it.
Many people, including thinkers, ideologically confused the concept of secularism and forgot that the latter is a practical concept whose uses and applications vary. Experience proved that the secularization of a state does not destroy its cultural basis, nor is it hostile to religion itself. Actually, religions only thrive in secular polity, mainly for two reasons.
First of all, secularism lays the foundation for controlling different religions so they’re all treated fairly according to the country’s approved laws, as is the case with secularism in the Indian context. Secularism in India where there is religious, lingual and racial diversity contributed to protecting Muslims, and if it hadn’t been so, Muslims would have been crushed by Hindus extremists.
Secondly, secularism is not an ideology but it’s a collective understanding. It does not create a new reality but it tempers differences between groups and helps make piety more disciplined.
In the end, the hysteria and fuss regarding secularism reflects ignorance in how it developed and changed as well as in how many obstacles it faced in the process. It’s impossible to establish a civil state without secularism. This is a simple formula for every man who analyzes people’s history, political theories and nations’ experiences. “If daylight needs proof, then there’s nothing to be understood.”
This article is also available in Arabic.
Fahad Shoqiran is a Saudi writer and researcher who also founded the Riyadh philosophers group. His writings have appeared in pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, Alarabiya.net, among others. He also blogs on philosophies, cultures and arts. He tweets @shoqiran.