What does the UAE envoy to Washington mean by ‘secularism?’

Seyid Ould Abah
Seyid Ould Abah
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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.

Secularism according to the first concept is a historical and social phenomenon which all studies prove it is exclusive to European western societies where traditional religions collapsed.

We must differentiate between two concepts of secularism that often intertwine in Arabic writings

Seyid Ould Abah

Secularism according to the second concept is a legal system that has many formulas such as France which adopts the idea to the maximum by separating religion from the state via the centrality of the republic’s values and Greece and Denmark which constitutions stipulate the religion of the state.

What these countries have in common is the system that separates between the religious institution and the public field. They do not fight religion and cancel religious freedoms but some of them even sponsor religion and recognize its national role within the pluralistic standards of democracy.

In brief, what Otaiba wanted to say is that the region’s countries decided to establish national, civil, modern and successful governments. It’s obvious that he did not mean secularism according to the concept of “laïcité” or according to the social context of the term. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other countries in the region are keen on sponsoring religion, maintaining its role in the public field and protecting it from ideological exploitation which is a hidden manifestation of the manifestations of secularization.

This article is also available in Arabic.

Dr. Adballah Seyid Ould Abah is a University Professor in Mauritania. He has a PhD in philosophy and is a professor at the University of Nouakchott since 1988. He teaches the history of philosophy, general philosophy, ethics, politics, as well as modern and contemporary philosophy. He is also a visiting professor at several Arab universities. He has valuable books and articles on a variety of ethical topics, ranging from political to historical to philosophical. He participated in specialized seminars and he is a member of the Arabic Philosophical Society, a member of the Arab Sociological Association, a member of the Board of Trustees of the Arab Organization for Translation, and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Center for Arab Unity Studies. He was also in charge of the Arab cultural programs in ALECSO (2001 – 2006). He tweets @seyidbah

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