Secularism and Islamism


“We believe in a civic state, based on equality between all citizens, regardless of faith, gender or race. We believe that the right to political and social association and organisation should be guaranteed for every citizen. We believe in the independence of civil society from the state, within a free and fair democratic system based on the principle of protecting personal and public liberties and guaranteeing a balance between the state and society” – Rachid Ghannouchi

Rachid Ghannouchi, the once exiled leader of the Tunisia’s “Islamist” Nahda party (Renaissance Party), recently at CSID-Tunisia held a lecture on the topic of secularism and Islam where he explored the question of whether or not Islam and secularism are compatible. In the following I shall comment on his lecture, and identify the points of agreement and contention between us. The lecture is particularly important in the wake of the Arab Spring, where the situation is still open and its future still uncertain. What political models are the post-revolutionary Arab states going to adopt? Are they going to create religious or secular states?

The question of secularism was, and still remains, a vexing issue in Muslims societies, partly because it is perceived as an imported solution to a number of problems which, so the story goes, were substantially dissimilar to the problems which had necessitated the rise and development of secularism in the west. Islam never witnessed or experienced the conflicts that had plagued the old continent since the spread of Christianity there; the politics of Muslim “states” were far more benign and neutral towards religion and religious denominations than the politics of the European states where Christianity until the Lutheran Reformation and even until the rise modernity had assumed an almost absolute ideological hegemony over the state. The discourse of liberating the state from the mosque thus appeared as deeply incongruent with the history of the “state” in Islam: a solution to a nonexistent problem, if there ever was one. In Islam there was no priesthood, no religious control of the state and the scholars who specialized in matters of law were not state employees. The Muslim clergy had never dominated the state, they were at times employed as advisors to the affairs of the state but never had they imposed their rulings as absolute. It is not, therefore, surprising that Muslim reaction fluctuated between a total rejection and an uncritical acceptance of secularism as a principle of the separation of religion and the state. [For a more detailed exposition of this debate see: Fauzi M. Najjar, “The debate on Islam and secularism in Egypt,” Arab Studies Quarterly 18 (1996)].

Historically the problem did not exist, but Muslim societies had also set themselves the goal of achieving modernization and modernization entailed problems not that dissimilar to the ones experienced in the modern west. Modernity imposed its uniformity on the Muslims societies too: they accepted the modern state and built it on the ruins of the old dynasties and empires. With the creation of the modern state and all that such a state entailed in its aftermath of the complexities of regulating the intersubjective, civic and economic relations secularism became a pressing issue. The very form of the modern state brought with it problems that had not existed earlier and the usual response that secularism is an imported solution to a non-existent problem lost its rationale and justification. Secularism is imported, no doubt, but this carries no longer any real weight, for the fact is that the modern state no less is an imported structure which radically challenges the old conceptions and as a consequence gives rise to new and novel political and social problems. The rejectionist response as a result cannot but be viewed as disingenuous. Those who still cling to that response seek to Islamize the state, to confer upon it the old solution, but that is not going to work, not only because no such solution exists so that it has to be invented – the concept of the Islamic state is a modern invention with no bases in tradition- but that it does not register in its response the fact that with the creation of the modern state a new form of consciousness has also been created, a consciousness that is conditioned by the existence of the state. It was, finally, the emergence of this consciousness that accepted the modern state as a historical fact that proved impossible to eradicate and thus made the rejectionist camp appear as an outdated fundamentalist response in absolute dissonance with the lived historical realities. It is in this context that we should read Ghannouchi’s lecture, which is a clear indication that modern consciousness is gaining a strong foothold even in the so-called Islamist movements.

One of the great merits of this lecture is that it unambiguously adopted a positive position vis-à-vis secularism. Considering that Islamists, even the moderate Islamists, view secularism with deep suspicion if not outright hostility as a threat to the Islamic Law and castigate those who promote it as renegades from Islam, Ghannouchi stands out of this trend and provides an interpretation which seeks to contextualize it in the intellectual history of Muslim civilization. Moreover, he showed that he is familiar with the debates that have been taking place in the west and that secularism is not a singular concept with a singular encompassing horizon. He argued that there are multiplicities of secularisms, and made it clear that some forms that secularism has taken in the west, namely, the French laicite, are not applicable in an Islamic space. Moreover, Ghannouchi explained that in Muslim countries the problem is not how to save the state from religion, but how to save religion from the state interference. This, I think, is quite an apt observation and helps to shed some light on the lingering confusions, uncertainties and ambiguities that Muslim scholars and also ordinary Muslim people have with the concept of secularism. He also convincingly showed, if not originally, that a form of secularism has always been present in Muslim societies. The well known case of the great Muslim jurist Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 885 in Bagdad) – known as mihna (the inquisition) which lasted some 15 years – who was imprisoned and persecuted for resisting the imposition of a dogma (the dogma of the createdness of the Koran) on society by the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’mun demonstrates that Muslim scholars deeply resented, heroically challenged and courageously opposed the state when it interfered in religious affairs for political or other personal gains. The state simply had no business in defining what religion is or how it ought to be understood.

Muslim scholars sought eagerly and jealously to guard the public space of the civil society from any state interference. It is an acknowledged historical fact about the Islamic Law that it was developed in near complete independence from the state interference, in fact the jurists developed it in conscious opposition to the state: Islamic Law was a product of independent intellectual labour, of a monumental effort to find out the Will of God in order to create a society -not a state- that was going to live up to the expectations of the Will of God. (These intellectual efforts to ascertain the Will of God can be easily rendered and translated into an emancipatory principle: finding normative rules that are universally binding). It was a question of, first, determining what the Will of God is and, secondly, of creating regulations and laws that approximated the Will of God. The efforts spent in this adventure had not as their primary aim the canonization of these endeavours (ijtihadat) into a Law, which then should be enforced by the state, irrespective of the will of the masses. The law will be applied and enforced by an organ of the state but only with the consent of the people. Not surprisingly, Islamic law exhibited a flexibility manifested in a multitude of legal school (literally hundreds of them) unseen in other legal traditions. The courts that applied the law were so arranged that they followed different schools of law, for no unified school of law existed. This, by definition, assumed and took into consideration people’s assent and consent. A follower of a Hanafi school could not be tried on a Shafi’i court, for the simple reason that in many instances the rules and legal judgement were different and they entailed different outcomes. This acute awareness made possible the free exercise of reason in matters of law, and individuals were, in principle, free to choose any legal school they thought best represented their interest. Complications would always arise, of course, when the problem involved adherents of different legal schools and such matters were not always easy to solve. This was a challenge from early on in the history of the Islamic Law schools, and in modernity a solution was sought in the codification of the multiplicity of Islamic laws under one Law. This solution, necessary as it was, proved detrimental to the development of the independent reasoning in legal matters. For now, what came under the focus and what was required of Muslim scholars, who de facto if not de jure forfeited their monopoly of the interpretation of Islamic Law, was not the pursuit of independent scholarship to find the Will of God, but the pursuit of unanimity to serve the will of the state. Later on, the Muslims scholars were almost totally marginalized and reduced to mouthpieces and spokespersons for the legitimation of the state practices. Muslim legal scholars and with them the discipline of legal scholarship became nearly extinct. Formulation and interpretation of the law became the sole preserve and monopoly of the national state and as a result the diversity of legal doctrines was muted. It is not surprising at all that Ghannouchi should, therefore, speak of the liberation of religion from state interference. And it is at this juncture that the complex question of secularism becomes highly relevant. Secularism is relevant as a procedure not as a philosophy of life precisely because it will create the much-needed space to liberate religion from the shackles of the State. Secularism is no longer simply a matter of discourse analysis but of political and religious necessity; it is not an imported solution but arises from within the conditions set by the modern state and its ideological apparatuses. It is a response to the challenges that the state structures have imposed on the civic society. It is also immediately clear why Ghannouchi thinks that the French model of laicite won’t work in Muslim societies.

Much as I like what Ghannouchi said on this lecture, I find several problems. I recognize the need at this juncture to take a clear and unambiguous stance on secularism. Nevertheless, I have a problem with the way Ghannouchi creates a gulf between secularism as a philosophical outlook and secularism as a set of procedural solutions. Such a distinction strikes me as completely artificial. How does one come to the realization of seeing things in a different light if not for the awareness that the current situation has reached a deadlock beyond which it cannot progress? Philosophical outlook means something like a rational elaboration of reasons why a certain state of affairs cannot be maintained indefinitely or that a certain concept has a value in and of itself, the inner and outer determination of certain boundaries that define such a concept, and the possible applications of the concept. Philosophical determination of a worldview means precisely a rational delimitation of such boundaries taking into consideration all possible objections directed at it, without thereby relinquishing the right to judge the critiques from its own immanent position. This is exactly what Ghannouchi is doing: he is subjecting to a hermeneutic critique both the uses of secularism and religion.

My real point of contention and critique, however, is not so much about what he said as about what he failed to say, about what he omitted from the discourse on secularism. It might immediately be objected, at this indeterminate level of our discourse, that it is pointless, an exercise in futility, to criticize someone or a discourse for what it does not say. Several philosophical problems are raised here: what he didn’t say, the content of what he omitted is unknowable. If this were a practice of critique it would mean that it is possible to determine the epistemic status of such non-claims and we would have to provide some criteria if the critique is to be of any value whatsoever. No such criteria are forthcoming, however. There exist no such criteria, for the relation of critique and the object of critique is one of unknowability, of ignorance. We basically do not know what we are talking about when we criticize a discourse for what it does not say. But suppose that we have a way to know what he didn’t say, and we can form a relation of knowledge to it. Suppose further that such claims can be verified empirically by referring the discourse to the one who speaks it. Still the question remains: what is the point of engaging in a debate which is not made explicit in discourse? I admit that there is no direct relation of knowledge to claims not stated. But, I claim that there are traces of the things omitted everywhere. It is the traces that we track, not the unknowable claims themselves.

So let me rephrase the original intent of the critique. My critique is not so much about what he said as about what he failed to say but should have said it. In other words, my critique is about that which is all too present to be ignored in a topic like this. Its traces are everywhere, enough evidence is there to indict the “absent” perpetrator, and yet strangely, no mention is made of them. Such an omission is too big not to be noticed and not to have an effect on the topic, and thus not to be of the greatest importance for the right understanding of the current predicament. Valid philosophical objections can be raise here as well, namely that one can treat analytically a certain subject independently of other interrelated issues and traces therein. The whole is not, and cannot be a subject of any serious discussion, so again the critique becomes an exercise in vain. But perhaps, here we should not be too quick to accept this philosophical objection. The whole does not exist, but it is a presuposition which is indispensable to any inquiry. Some form of mapping of the whole must preexist every articulation of something as part of the whole. So although the whole does not exist, it must be presupposed for the reasons of intelligibility of a discourse, any discourse. But, even if some topics can be treated in semi-complete isolation from a certain whole, it does not follow that all somethings can be treated in such a fashion. And certainly no topic, which has the state as its subject, can be treated in isolation.

So what did Ghannouchi fail to bring explicitly to his discourse? The name for these all too visible traces is capitalism. It is capitalism that Ghannouchi should have said something about, without thereby making it the main topic of his discussion. My claim is that the state and its various antagonistic relations cannot, under current conditions, be discussed without explicit reference to capitalism and the problems that it engenders, problems which have to be defined anew in every new situation. From this lecture we do not get any concrete understanding of the relation of state to its immediate surroundings. All we get is an abstract explanation of abstract concepts and their abstract relations. At this level interesting things can be said but nothing concrete can be learned.

In fact, I find the omission quite problematic in that it constitutes a kind of a diversion from the real social and political problems and antagonisms generated by no other than capitalism. Even in a “post-secular” state secularism is a political necessity, but today pronouncing positively on secularism is not enough. It is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of freedom: capitalism uses the state as such regardless of whether it is secular or religious to promote itself at the huge cost of the ordinary people. Today, it is not the church, it is not the mosque nor religion in general which constitutes a threat to the liberties and rights of common people. It is capitalism. I do not see any profound reason for blaming religion for the evils of the modern societies. In and of itself, religion is not a determining factor of how a society organizes its political actuality. Secularism guarantees the autonomy of religion from the state and vice versa, but it does not guarantee its autonomy from capitalism and its mode of production where the fate of the people and the nations is ultimately decided. This seems to me to be far more decisive for the real autonomy of religion and the state and, certainly, has consequences beyond those, at this stage, anticipated by the practice of secularism. Capitalism creates all the tensions, which then are projected onto the symbolic space of religion and are misperceived as religious problems of intolerance or bigotry. Ghannouchi’s failure, intended or not, to even once mention capitalism as the global, if not the absolute encompassing form of modern life shows that he has not grasped what is at stakes in the current predicament. His approach thus remains, despite its appearances and intentions, abstract which reflects neither the reality of the global world order nor the immediate reality of the Arab revolutions. One cannot understand these revolutions without capitalism as its background which had relegated them, with the indispensable help of the corrupt Arab secular regimes doing the dirty work of the supercilious neoliberal principles, outside of history. Ghannouchi has made decisive progress, but unless capitalism is brought in the equation all such talk about secularism remains abstract and empty. Secularism cannot be properly and judiciously thought without acknowledging and incorporating into an analytical matrix the forces of the capitalism. Because of this omission he all too quickly dismisses the emancipatory potential of Marxism, despite of its dismal twentieth century experience. The Arab uprising began not because religion was under some existential threat, but because the living conditions under neoliberal policies which had led to a total deregulation of working conditions, the firing of workers, and the escalations of violence as a result of worsening human and living conditions and tightening of the state security apparatuses in its pursuit of policies which cared little or nothing for human dignity, all these combined together with the lack of freedoms and rights created the conditions for the revolution. Nowhere did religion or the abstract demand for secularism play any significant role in igniting the revolutionary spark.

It is the intricate constellation of power between state (secular or not) and capitalism which is causing havoc. Probably the greatest battles ahead of us are not going to be about secularism, but about the relations of state with capitalism. Secularism was a solution to a mode of religious authoritarian existence which clearly was generating all kinds of social problems. And the principle is relevant today, though less so. The post-revolutionary Arab state must thus widen the project of emancipation if it is to create a state that will be capable of creating conditions for a good life! The insistence on secularism alone gives religion its space, but in the process it also and falsely elevates religion into the position of its main contender and the main organizer of consensus and dissensus in society. The least one can say about this is that it does not hold universally as true. Secularism remains at best a partial response to the problems generated by an exclusivist religious ideology with a reactionary theocratic model, intent on taking power by any means necessary, or imposing its program and ideology on a state without the consent of the people over whom it is going to rule.

There are other problematic aspects in this lecture such as the coupling democracy with the principle of the Shura (consultation of the scholar and experts on the matters of the state), but they are less pressing at this moment when we try to theorize secularism.

About albphilosopher

Sead Zimeri has studied Philosophy, Islamic Philosophy and Religion, International Politics and Psychoanalysis. He is currently the project coordinator of "Islam and the Liberal Society" at the Liberalt Laboratorium (LibLab) thin tank in Oslo, Norway. http://www.liblab.no
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One Response to Secularism and Islamism

  1. Jorg Meurkes says:

    Good piece.

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