Understanding secularism

Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran
Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran
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The concept of secularism among Arabs and Muslims has been the subject of much debate since the emergence of Sunni and Shiite Islamic “sahwa” (awakening). The Muslim Brotherhood has played a detrimental role in distorting the concept with its pathetic attempts at misrepresenting scientific ideas.

The group continues to understand the concept in the same warped manner in which it had learnt it from its peers and has never tried to study or analyze it objectively. Many of its so-called luminaries, particularly Muhammad Qutb and Safar Al-Hawali, have presented half-baked theories about secularism. Their books on secularism have been inane and shallow in the manner they have approached the subject.

The Encyclopedia of Contemporary Religions and Sects published by the World Assembly of Muslim Youth follows the same path. In fact, the Encyclopedia is so replete with such conceptual errors that it is not even possible to describe it as an ‘encyclopedia’. The problem does not solely lie here though, but in the movement’s rigid adherence to its own distorted view.

Other works by members of Muslim Brotherhood on the subject are rife with errors, such as Abdel-Wahab Elmessiri’s book Partial Secularism and Comprehensive Secularism. Hamad al-Rashed has written a very important book in response to all the misconceptions in Elmessiri’s book, titled In Defense of Secularism against Messiri. This is a sharp and precise philosophical critique.

Secularism does not contradict but respects the existing structures, identities and history and performs a very important task

Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran

Secularism is not an ideology

On August 19, my colleague Jamal Khashoggi wrote an article in Al-Hayat newspaper titled ‘The shop of secularism’. In the article, Khashoggi asserts that the concept of secularism contradicts with the identity of the state and he posits that secularism is like a shop which either has to be bought in its entirety or left out completely.

However, secularism is not such a concept. According to Alain Touraine’s definition, secularism is a system of permanent mediation between the state and socially active members. One can take a look at his book What is Democracy for greater insight in this regard. In fact, secularism is a developed system that does not trivialize people’s beliefs nor does it interfere in the interpretation of these beliefs. Its task is to make reality immune from the domination of any party and provides ample space for individual activity.

Secularism is not an ideology as Khashoggi suggests. It appears as an ideology only when viewed or understood as an ideological approach. The concept is about a system that protects reality from being sullied by the contradictory views of various individuals.

Secularism is able to organize societies better, improve human behavior and make cities more disciplined and habitation more comfortable by enhancing usefulness between man and the general surroundings in order to enhance levels of happiness.

Defining secularism

Khashoggi has discussed Baath parties and their experience with secularism. This makes for an incomplete analysis as he could have found a better example in the Turkish secular experience. It is the first clear and accurate example of secularism in Muslim history.

Moreover, it is a model that has a theoretical basis. In this context, there are two important studies by Mohammed Arkoun published by the Diogenes magazine which the UNESCO issues.

In his book Islamic Thought: Critique and Diligence, Arkoun discusses Ataturk’s secular experience and says that although it’s worth studying and has its role in the development of a Western society, it is in itself impaired by a “naïve awareness” of the West. This awareness relates to those mesmerized by the West as well as to those afraid of it.

At the end of it, the common explanation of secularism is accompanied with realizing the great difference between two different worlds. Kamal’s experience continued to live on. Even the Islamist party – the Justice and Development Party - has adhered to it and it will not be able to breach the secular values as established by Ataturk.

The Islamic party could not remove Ataturk’s foundations, knowing that his interpretation of secularism is his own. Bourguiba’s explanation of secularism is also Bourguiba’s alone and the same applies to Rifa’a al-Tahtawi.

Therefore, it is not a concept with one definition. Even in European countries, secularism is different based on the experimental implementations of the concept and according to state institutions’ hierarchy and the attitude of the public that expresses its opinions in elections.

Civil strife

Khashoggi writes: “In brief, Islam has enough tolerance, flexibility, modernity and capability for renewal and there’s therefore no need to look for another ideology.” This statement presupposes that secularism is an ideology and that it is antithetical to religion for it is an ideology that mobilizes, programs and establishes itself.

However, secularism does not contradict but respects the existing structures, identities and history and performs a very important task, which the conservative society cannot give up on. It regulates the will of a few individuals from clashing and creating fissures and inoculates society from a civil war.

The Indian secular model is what has protected Muslims from persecution, extermination and abandonment. It has accorded freedom of identity and saved the country from conflict and bloodshed.

If it weren’t for secularism in India and for the protection of minorities and ethnicities from being dragged into conflicts, Muslims would have suffered. An example of such a conflict is the present strife between Sunnis and Shiites in Muslim countries where hatred between the two sects towards each other has been on the ascendant – from Indonesia to Morocco.

This description is close and accurate to French philosopher Marcel Gauchet’s views as stated in his book Religion in Democracy, where he defines this reality as one based on “coordinating wills.” Herein lies the crux of the matter, in brief.

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.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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