Four views on Islam and the state

Can Islam support a secular, democratic government?

I need a secular state

By Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na`im

ALTANTA – To be a Muslim by conviction and free choice – which is the only way one can be a Muslim – I need to live in a secular state. By a secular state, I mean one that is neutral regarding religious doctrine to facilitate genuine piety. The state should not enforce sharia (the religious law of Islam) because compliance should never be coerced by fear or faked to appease state officials. When observed voluntarily, sharia-based values can help shape laws and public policy through the democratic process. But if sharia principles are enacted as state law, the outcome will simply be the political will of the state.

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Many Muslims equate secularism with antireligious attitudes. Yet I believe that a secular state can promote genuine religious experience among believers and affirm the role of Islam in public life.

The so-called Islamic state is conceptually incoherent and historically unprecedented. There simply is no scriptural basis for an "Islamic state" to enforce sharia.

The leadership of the prophet Muhammad in Medina is an inspiring model of the values Muslims should strive for in self-governance, transparency, and accountability. But since Muslims believe that there is no prophet after Muhammad, the Medina model cannot be replicated.

There's no precedent for an Islamic state in practice. Historically, rulers sought the support of Islamic scholars and religious leaders to legitimize their authority, but religious authorities needed to maintain their autonomy. This was always a negotiated relationship, not a marriage.

The experience of the vast majority of Muslims across the world today is about struggles for constitutionalism and human rights, economic development and social justice – not about the quest for Islamic states to enforce sharia. The world community must support Muslims in these struggles instead of punishing them for the sins of the extremist fringe of political Islamists.

Muslims and others often blame sharia and Islam for the backwardness and underdevelopment of Islamic societies. This view is inaccurate and unproductive. Such blame shifts responsibility and the ability to change away from Muslims as human agents to abstract forces or causes.

Historical interpretations of sharia that discriminate against women and non-Muslims can and should be reinterpreted and reformed. Without such transformation, state officials cannot be expected or trusted to uphold principles of constitutionalism and human rights. Yet those principles are prerequisites for advocating the necessary transformation. The secular state provides the space for and facilitates both aspects of this dialectic process.

Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na`im is the author of the forthcoming book "Islam and Secular State: Negotiating the future of Sharia." Burqas and ballots

By Jocelyne Cesari

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. – Islam is often perceived as a potential threat to democratization. Justifications for this view are grounded in the common view that for Islam there's no separation between politics and religion.

In the West, politics based on individual rights and religion as independent of the state have marked the triumph of a liberal vision of the self within a secularized public arena. It may be argued that no similar movement has taken place in the Muslim world. It may be tempting, then, to infer that the Muslim mind is resistant to secularization. However, the reasons for such resistance are political and contextual and have very little to do with the Koran.

Within the Muslim world, Islam either is a state religion or is under state control. Therefore, the state is almost always the primary agent responsible for the authoritative interpretation of tradition.

As a result, Islamic thought has lost a certain vitality, not only in questions of government, but also on issues of culture and society. Thus it is not that the so-called Muslim mind is naturally resistant to critical thinking, but rather that analysis and judgment have too often been the exclusive prerogative of political authorities.

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.

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?

On the Arab street, secularism is often seen as a foreign import, brought in by the colonialists as a way of limiting the power of the Islamic religious institutions that often provided the core of anticolonial resistance. Secular politics is also associated with the military dictatorships that survived in alliance with the opposing powers of the cold-war period.

Today, the only effective challenge to this inheritance comes from the Islamist movements, and people arguing for a secular perspective run the constant danger of being accused of collaboration with the West. It is this twin dynamic that makes it more likely for many to tilt away from modern, pluralistic secularism toward a religious political system.

Jorgen S. Nielsen is director of the Danish Institute in Damascus. His essay is from the Common Ground News Service.

Political Islam's ethics

By Bill Warner

FRANKLIN, TENN. – Arguing about religion is fruitless, but we can and should talk about politics. Discussion about the relationship between Islam and secularism must be based on an understanding of political Islam and its dualism. What is Islam? Answers from Muslims and Westerners are contradictory and confusing. But the scientific method gives clarity.

Scientific analysis shows that there are two Korans, one written in Mecca (the early part) and the second written in Medina (the later part). The two Korans include contradictions. "You have your religion and I have mine" (109:6) is a far cry from "I shall cast terror in the hearts of the kafirs [non-Muslims]. Strike off their heads…" (8:12). The Koran gives an answer to these contradictions – the later verse is "better" than the earlier verse (2:106). The Koran defines an Islamic logic that is dualistic. In a unitary, scientific logic, if two things contradict each other, then one of them is false. Not so in dualistic logic – both can be true!

Islam divides humanity into two groups: Muslims and kafirs (unbelievers). The doctrine that applies to Muslims is cultural, legal, and religious. The doctrine that applies to kafirs is political. Sixty-seven percent of the Meccan Koran and 51 percent of the Medinan Koran is political. Even the concept of hell is political, not religious. Of the 146 parts of the Koran that refer to hell, only 4 percent deal with morality – such as murder or theft. But 96 percent refer to people who are hellbound if they do not agree with Islam's prophet Muhammad – an intellectual and political position.

Muhammad preached the religion of Islam for 13 years and garnered 150 followers. Then, in Medina, Islam became political, and through jihad, he became the first ruler of all Arabia. Islam succeeded in spreading across the globe largely because it became a form of politics.

The Koran says in 14 verses that a Muslim is not the friend of the kafir. This is pure dualism. The entire world is divided between Islam and the kafirs. The dualism of the Koran has no universal statements about humanity except that every person must submit to political Islam.

Ethics is the membrane between religion and politics. Islam has two sets of ethics. One set is for Muslims and the other set is for kafirs; this is dualistic ethics. A Muslim should not harm another Muslim, but the kafir can be robbed, killed, or cheated to advance Islam. Islamic political dualism is hidden by religion. The "good" verses of the Meccan Koran cover the verses of jihad in the Medinan Koran. Thus religious Islam shields political Islam from examination.

Some Muslims point to Turkey and claim that Islam can have a modern secular government. But authentic Islam and authentic secularism are contradictions. Secularism is made possible only on a foundation of a separation of religion and the state, freedom of conscience, and a universal ethical and legal system. But Muhammad integrated government and religion. Islam by definition means total submission to the will of Allah. And the dualistic logic of the Koran designates one set of ethics and laws for kafirs and another set for believers. Therefore, political Islam precludes secularism.

Bill Warner is director of the Center for the Study of Political Islam.

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