Four views on Islam and the state
Can Islam support a secular, democratic government?
(Page 2 of 3)
In fact, recent polls show that Muslims praise democracy as the best political system. At the same time, they acknowledge the importance that sharia, or Islamic law, plays in their lives. This is where misunderstanding often occurs. Sharia does not refer to actual laws but to a set of moral principles and norms that guide Muslims in their personal and social choices.Skip to next paragraph
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In the same vein, most Muslims living in Europe and the US appreciate the democratic and secular nature of the states where they reside. With minor exceptions, there is no real attempt by Muslims in the West to change Western political regimes and to establish Islamic states.
This does not mean, however, that all tensions disappear. In other words, even if the caliphate (Islamic government comprising Muslims worldwide) is not really a priority for Muslims in the West, conflicts of interest on values have emerged as illustrated by the Salman Rushdie affair and the head-scarf and cartoon crises. Areas of conflict between interpretations of Islamic tradition and the social norms of secular democracies include the family, the status of women in marriage and divorce, and the education of children.
Thus, Muslims want to be democratic on their own terms. This means that they want religious norms to be visible in their personal, daily lives – even if they live in the West. Moreover, this means that members of democratic, Muslim-majority societies would want religious norms to be acknowledged in public social life.
This raises legitimate concerns about the recognition and freedom of other religious minorities within a social system dominated by Islamic references. Western politicians and intellectuals must acknowledge processes of modernization and democratization that include Islamic references, while striving to protect religious and cultural minorities and guarantee freedom of expression. Without these safeguards, it is impossible to envision any democracy, Islamic or otherwise.
• Jocelyne Cesari is a professor of Islamic studies at Harvard. Her essayappears courtesy of the Common Ground News Service.
The leery Arab street
By Jorgen S. Nielsen
DAMASCUS, SYRIA – Why is it that Muslims appear to find it so difficult to see anything positive in Western secularism?
In some Muslim languages, the discussion is made almost impossible by the fact that the word used for secularism translates into English as "no religion" or "without religion."
Certainly, Muslims do not like a lot of what they see as Western: the loneliness of the individual, the breakdown of the family, the destruction of drug addiction, random violence, recreational sex. Of course, they are not alone in feeling these concerns, and many conclude that the cause is the decline of religion.
In the mid-1920s, the Egyptian scholar Ali Abd al-Raziq's book "Islam and the Roots of Government" argued that the prophet Muhammad had founded a religion, not a state, so religion should not determine state structures today. The book was immediately condemned and, we are told by most Islamic scholars, is no longer of interest. But it has remained continuously in print since then and can still be bought in Cairo bookshops. So someone must be reading it!
I talked recently with a group of Islamic scholars from one of the more conservative movements in Britain. We got on to the topic of an "Islamic order." Clearly, it was not enough that a government or economic system should call itself Islamic. It had to be Islamic. But what did that mean? That led to things such as social justice, a reliable legal system, personal liberty, equality, popular participation, accountable rulers, etc. One scholar ventured that northern European welfare states were arguably a good deal more "Islamic" than any state in the Muslim world.
If there are such important shared values, why then such mixed feelings about the idea of secularism? Clearly, the attack on secularism is encouraged by the clerics. If religion in its traditional forms is pushed to the margins of public life, what remains for them?