Late thinker Mohammed Arkoun often complained of the vagueness of the concept of secularism when translated into Arabic. He said using the French term “laïcité” conveys the concept better than the Arabic word.
Arkoun noted that the concept in Arabic is ideologically misinterpreted as a notion that crushes religion, adding that the Arabic word does not clarify all of the concept’s characteristics.
The concept’s tasks are many and there’s more to it than interpreting how it separates between religion and worldly matters. It organizes the public space to liberate it from historical chains and make life fuller of man’s presence and prosperity.
Secularism’s task is not to interfere in religious interpretations or correct doctrinal concepts but it works on arranging a reality that’s less disastrous and proof to that is how it spouted after years of war, civil strife and bloodshed.
It is within this context that ideologists rejected the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba’s statements. Otaiba referred to the concept of secularism while answering a question about boycotting Qatar as he said that countries which head to the future tend to reinforce secularism while Qatar wants the world to remain in the chains of the past and of terrorism.
Secularism is a concept that has its radiance within its implementation in each state that has its unique culture, heritage and historyFahad Suleiman Shoqiran
Model of progress
It’s a felicitous and significant statement since secularism is like any model of progress and it is impossible to build a modern state according to developmental bases, cultural formulas and economic strength without arranging the general situation and building efficient institutions that have a vital role in distributing the city’s affairs and organizing sectors so they don’t overlap.
Otaiba’s statements were viewed by some as a slip of the tongue or as a statement that convicts him. However, the statement is in harmony with the future which countries aspire. Secularism is not an insult and does not bring shame but it’s rather a condition for complete cultural renaissance and for creating a multiple reality.
Secularism is more accurate and comprehensive than the common understanding of it. It cannot be explained by people such as Sheikh Muhammad Metwali Alsharawi or Yusuf al-Qaradawi or Mohammed al-Ghazali as they have their own partisan stance towards seculars. Researcher al-Zawawi Beghoura wrote a research about the concept of secularism as defined by Arkoun and thoroughly clarified secularism’s features.
Relation between religion and politics
He wrote: “The first feature is that secularism is linked to modernity and rationality and to breaking the chains which restrain the world as well as to the decline of the religious vision or perspective of the world. This was discussed by Max Weber and Marcel Gauchet. The second feature is the importance of distinguishing between the American and European traditions in the concept of secularism especially in terms of specifying the relation between religion and politics. In the 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that what distinguishes the American system is the presence of religion in society. We can even say that religion is considered an important factor in the American political experience. However what must be noted is that religion in America knows its limits – or that they put limits for religion’s relation with politics and state matters. The religious spirit does not contradict with the spirit of freedom. The third feature is that secularism have taken two forms in Europe: Secularization via the state and the best model is France and most countries with a Catholic majority and secularization via the civil society and this distinguished countries with a Protestant majority like Germany.”
At the end, secularism is a concept that has its radiance within its implementation in each state that has its unique culture, heritage and history. It does not have a single set definition and it’s more general than the orally-memorized definitions. It’s defined according to its application and according to the reality in which it operates.
The Emirati envoy’s statements came within the context of a real desire for moderate countries to head towards the bright future instead of implementing murderous plans that Qatar, Iran, the Revolutionary Guards, ISIS, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda sponsor. Otaiba’s statement was radiant and very significant.
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.