Democracy and secularism between Jabri and Tarabichi

Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran
Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran
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The concept of secularism with all its details and how it was translated into Arabic remained a controversy on the ideological level in terms of the necessity of linking any political measure to “Islamic governance.” It was also controversial among modern Arab intellectual movements.

There have been long discussions among thinkers regarding the relationship of secularism with the concept of democracy. The debate began in the end of the 1980’s between prominent thinkers Hassan Hanafi and Mohammed Abed al-Jabri via the magazine Youm7 (The Seventh Day) and it lasted for ten weeks between March and November 1989.

In their book “East-West Dialogue,” Hanafi rejected secularism because “we do not need and it comes from the West,” while Jabri rejected it because “there are no churches in Islam” to call for separating religion from governance but as the Muslim Brotherhood put it “Islam is a religion and it’s governance.”

Democracy was proposed as an alternative to secularism by Jabri in a series of articles which he later published in a book entitled “Religion, the state and implementation of sharia.”

Without an environment that includes secularism, democratic process cannot have any civil efficiency. Democracy is a tool, and this tool requires secularism

Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran

Rationality and secularism

In the article entitled “Democracy and rationality instead of secularism,” he wrote: “I think it’s a duty to distance the slogan of secularism from the dictionary of Arab intellect and replace it with the slogans of democracy and rationality. Secularism in the Arab world is fake, meaning it reflects needs with contents that do not match the former needs.”

Jabri said secularism is propaganda by the “Christians in Sham” who submitted to Ottomans’ control, noting that secularism was not proposed in Maghreb countries or the Arabian Peninsula; therefore, democracy does not need the secular formula.

His opinions provoked Georges Tarabichi who understood him well and often responded to his opinions. In the first part of his book “Heretical Thoughts, on Democracy, Secularism and Modernity,” Tarabichi analyzes Jabri’s random opinion about secularism.

It’s a long critique but in brief he says: “When Jabri needs more logical ideas to support his belief that secularism is not needed, he resorts to the logic of fundamentalists but all he takes from their reasoning is what he needs for his small introduction, specifically the weak one. He says he is completely convinced that Islam is religion and governance. However he keeps silent over many things… such as the fact that the man who said this statement on Islam is the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood Hassan al-Banna.”

Tarabichi further criticizes Jabri’s ideas and says: “As for the major introduction, it’s actually built on a formal trick as it’s not true that the definition of secularism is the separation of the church from the state. The church is a part of something whole which is religion. Secularism may not carry harm to Islam as a religion as much as it prepares an atmosphere to be free of the captivity of political authority and to develop as a religion. This is what happened to Christianity which after years of resistance realized that secularism benefitted it in restoring its spiritual dimension after it was confiscated for centuries. In the end, secularism does not look forward to liberate the society from religion. However when the state stays out of the social and religious fields, it guarantees more religious freedom to individuals and groups. It’s only through secularism that religious freedom reaches its maximum and only through secularism that religion restores its efficiency in society.”

Intruder to the society

Jabri’s rejection of the concept of secularism is due to the fact that the concept is an intruder to the Arab society and is one of the Christian results that Islam does not need. Jabri’s aforementioned book reminds of Abdel Wahab El-Messiri’s books that oppose secularism and their basis.

In his book “Identity and Islamic movement, Messiri wrote: “I must note that the term ‘reforming religious rhetoric’ is sometimes used to mean reformulating it in a way that pleases the West, i.e. turn religion into a spiritual self-experience so religion is separated from politics and life and the jihadist tendency and the desire to achieve justice turn into terrorist tendencies, i.e. reform here means cancelling what I call the resisting Islam and basically establishing a practical, pragmatic, peaceful and compromising Islam that pleases foreigners. This is what I satirically call touristic Islam.”

In brief, democracy cannot be an alternative to secularism as each concept has its task. Without an environment that includes secularism, the democratic process cannot have any civil efficiency. Democracy is a tool, and this tool requires secularism.

All the fuss caused by leftist thinkers, radical fighters and Islamists like Messiri and Garaudy did not take into consideration the possibility of dealing with the concept as an idea “that is fair to the presence of religion” instead of viewing it as a western product that stirs panic.

Proposing instrumental democracy as an alternative to secularism inaugurates a fundamentalist phase.

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,, 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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