Understanding secularism without the controversy that shrouds it

Hassan Al Mustafa
Hassan Al Mustafa
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Secularism in speeches by Arab figures of authority is often controversial among Islamic and liberal movements. “Secularism” has thus become a subject for political and partisan arguments rather than a concept to be discussed to gain knowledge and modernize.

Addressing secularism from this perspective became common. However the discussion entails a shallow definition of the concept and does not accurately and properly understand it or comprehend its meanings, representations and historical and philosophical context.

One can do a simple experiment and ask members of any random council about the meaning of secularism, what it means to them and whether they have a positive or a negative interpretation of it. They will respond with plenty of nonsense that’s irrelevant to the philosophical term which contributed to build the civil modern state in Europe via laws and legislations.

The word “secularization” has been ideologically used to serve certain aims and it was either presented as the antithesis of religion to intimidate people or marketed as an easy approach that lessens the burden of piousness. Both reflect a populist and ignorant mentality.

Secularism is not a solid concept that has remained the same ever since it was established; it has developed a lot due to practical experiences when structuring states and societies. Discussions between philosophers and scholars, especially in the fields of political sciences and theology, have also contributed to developing the concept.

Unlike the Arab stereotype, secularism protects the freedom of religion by the power of law

Hassan Al Mustafa

Secularism has many facets, such as one related to liberal modernization which organizes the presence of religion in the public field and its limits. In other words, it prevents ideologization from dominating the scene in order to preserve two basic values, the civil state and a person’s individuality. It does so without being the antithesis of religion and without cancelling it out.

Unlike the Arab stereotype, secularism protects the freedom of religion by the power of law and guarantees freedom of belief and expression and grants the faithful their right to practice it.

Secularism does not prevent one from believing in a certain faith because it’s based on individual choices and complete individual freedoms. It rather organizes intertwining between religion and the public space in a way where religion has the right to exist and appear but without overpowering others or denying plurality.

Therefore, there are no conflicts between secularism and a man’s religion or between secularism and the collective religious identity. There is conflict between secularism and political Islam and religious fundamentalism because the latter are two ideologies which have their own political and social projects that do not believe in liberal values on which secularism was built.

One of secularism’s major features is that it grants the state its civil character. The state is about managing affairs and it’s not linked to religion. Religion is the business of individuals and believers. The state is for everyone, regardless of their different ideas, beliefs and doctrines.

This article is also available in Arabic.

Hassan AlMustafa is Saudi journalist with an interest in Middle East and Gulf politics. His writing focuses on social media, Arab youth affairs and Middle Eastern societal matters. His twitter handle is @halmustafa.

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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